Minsk steps up Eurasian integration rhetoric

April 17, 2017 13:06

At a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, President Lukashenka proposed to implement a set of effective measures for a more rapid establishment of the EEU. Before his visit to Bishkek, Lukashenka signed the EEU Customs Code and attempted to disavow the delay with intense pro-integration rhetoric. After explicitly boycotting the previous EEU Summit in St. Petersburg, the Belarusian president is attempting to strengthen his positions and form a coalition to defend his economic interest vis-à-vis the Kremlin. That said, some EEU states also expressed discontent with the course of integration within the EEU framework. For example, according to media reports, the Kyrgyzstan president also initially refused to sign the EEU Customs Code at the meeting in St. Petersburg in December 2016, but later he had changed his mind. Minsk aims to use the multilateral integration platform within the EEU to ensure a more favourable environment for Belarusian produces on the Eurasian market and improve energy cooperation with Russia.

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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.