Minsk sends a reciprocal goodwill gesture to the West
Belarusian authorities have used a relatively mild assessment of the parliamentary campaign by the OSCE observers to demonstrate their willingness to continue exchanging reciprocal concessions. But the major political prisoners remain in prison.
On September 26th and 27th political prisoners Sergei Kovalenko and Paul Syromolotov were released.
The release of two political prisoners is definitely a reaction to the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission’s assessment of the parliamentary elections. This assessment was less harsh than the previous, and the authorities made a reciprocal good will gesture. Most likely, the new Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey coordinated this initiative - he personally met on September 24th with the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission Mr. Milososki.
Clearly the authorities were waiting for the West’s reaction to the elections, as both Kovalenko and Syromolotov had written pardon requests in June 2012 and as a rule such requests are considered within one month. Both former prisoners were not involved in the most resonant political case, i.e. the mass demonstrations on December 19th, 2010. Major political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich, remain in prison.
As noted earlier, Minsk is not going to fulfill the conditions set by the West for the release (and rehabilitation) of political prisoners, but the authorities are considering the opportunities for a thaw in relations. The Belarusian authorities are pleased with the positive signal sent through the OSCE observation mission and they are prepared to respond, but they will continue fulfilling the conditions only in return for further concessions.
Most likely, the authorities’ next move will be an attempt to resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, in particular, against the backdrop of the deteriorating financial situation in the country. Previously the National Bank Chairman Mrs. Ermakova talked about it. Further releases of political prisoners will imply that the authorities have received a positive signal in terms of cooperation with the IMF.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.