Minsk will not change approach to organising parliamentary elections in order to normalise relations with Washington
Minsk aspires to consolidate the positive trend for a gradual normalization of relations with Washington that would eventually lead to the lifting of sanctions by the latter. The Belarusian authorities hope that the White House would reduce claims in respect of democracy and human rights in exchange for neutrality in the confrontation between the West and the Kremlin. The Belarusian authorities are ready to demonstrate to Washington some relaxation of repression against the opposition and some progress in the elections’ organisation, but without significant changes and effects on the election results.
Last week, President Lukashenka met with outgoing US Charge d’Affaires in Belarus Scott Roland.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has approved the US Embassy staff increase to 9 persons. Two new staff members will arrive in Minsk in September this year. In addition, the United States hopes to receive permanent accreditation of its military attaché from the Belarusian authorities.
Since 2008, there is no full-fledged diplomatic mission of the United States to Belarus. In 2008, following the request of the Belarusian authorities, the US Embassy staff was reduced to five from 35. Later, the Belarusian Ambassador to the United States was recalled for consultations to Minsk and the Belarusian authorities insisted that US Ambassador Karen Stewart left Belarus.
Unlike contacts with the European capitals, relations between Minsk and Washington are not developing by inertia. In early June 2016, the White House extended the sanctions against President Lukashenka and nine members of the Belarusian government for undermining the democratic process and institutions. Nevertheless, Minsk’s reaction to the extension of US sanctions against the Belarusian leadership was quite constructive.
The negotiations on Belarusian-American normalisation began amid increasingly aggressive Kremlin’s foreign policy and the invasion of Ukraine. In 2014, Minsk authorized staff increase for the US embassy from five to six diplomats. In addition, media often speculated that full-scale US diplomatic representation in Minsk could be restored. Outgoing head of the US Embassy Scott Rowland said that talks about the exchange of ambassadors between Minsk and Washington could resume after the parliamentary campaign in Belarus and the US presidential elections this year.
While meeting with the outgoing US Embassy head, President Lukashenka talked about Belarus’ independence and sovereignty, "The independence and sovereignty for me as the president and for the Belarusian people is sacred. It is an icon. We will never agree to be a non-sovereign state, to be dependent on someone else”.
Apparently, the Belarusian government hopes for the unconditional normalisation of relations with the United States, following the example of relations with European countries. In contacts with Washington, Minsk anticipates to emphasise growing geopolitical conflicts in the region, strengthening Belarus’ independence and attempts to remain neutral in the confrontation between the Kremlin and the West, including the denial to deploy Russian military facilities in Belarus. However, the Belarusian authorities do not plan to change approaches to the domestic opposition.
Despite high level rhetoric about the need to restore relations between the US and Belarus, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry sharply criticised the US Department of State report ‘Trafficking in Persons 2016’, "The following opus of the US State Department on human trafficking, where it concerns Belarus, is far from objectivity". The report criticised Minsk for not doing enough to combat forced labour within the country, which was why the drafters placed Belarus at the bottom of the list.
That said, the US recently introduced sanctions against Belarusian Belvneshpromservice company, together with some Russian enterprises.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities will seek to demonstrate some progress in the human rights field and may relax repression against the opposition in order to create a positive background for the normalization of relations with the United States.
President Lukashenka continues to rotate staff and rejuvenate heads of departments and universities following new appointments in regional administrations. Apparently, new Information Minister Karliukevich could somewhat relax the state policy towards the independent media and introduce technological solutions for retaining control over Belarus’ information space. New rectors could strengthen the trend for soft Belarusization in the regions and tighten the disciplinary and ideological control over the student movement in the capital.
President Lukashenka has appointed new ministers of culture and information, the new rector of the Belarusian State University and heads of three universities, assistants in the Minsk and Vitebsk regions.
The new Information Minister Karliukevich is likely to avoid controversial initiatives similar to those former Minister Ananich was famous for, however, certainly within his capacities. Nevertheless, the appointment of Belarusian-speaking writer Karliukevich could be regarded as the state’s cautious attempt to relax environment in the media field and ensure the sovereignty of national media.
The Belarusian leadership has consolidated the trend for mild Belarusization by appointing a young historian and a ‘reasonable nationalist’, Duk as the rector at the Kuleshov State University in Mogilev. Meanwhile, while choosing the head of the Belarusian State University, the president apparently had in mind the strengthening of the ideological loyalty among the teaching staff and students at the main university in order to keep the youth movement at bay. Previously, Korol was the rector of the Kupala State University in Grodno, where he held purges among the disloyal teaching staff.
The trend for the renewal of mid-ranking executives and their rejuvenation has confirmed. The age of the Culture Minister and three new rectors varies from 39 to 44 years old.