Political prisoners and sanctions
Usually pardon or lessening of the fate of the persecuted political opponents by the regime takes place when the threat of economic sanctions becomes the most acute. Precedents include pardon of Alexander Kozulin and change of the preventive measure for some detained in the case of the post-elections protests on 19 December.
For instance, on 31st January Belarusian issue was discussed at a meeting of the Council of EU Foreign Ministers and it was very likely that the EU would adhere to the US sanctions against “Poltsk-Steklovokno” and “Lakokraska” (the USA announced the resumption of sanctions in advance). The authorities have changed the detention measure to six persons involved in the case of 19 December, and the EU introduced visa sanctions only.
Pardon of the 9 convicted in the case of 19 December on 11 August fits into this algorithm. Those who have been pardoned say, the KGB stepped up the pressure demanding to apply for pardon on 4 August (the day Bialiatski was arrested), on 5 August the documents were sent to Minsk and on 11 August pardon was announced. On the same day, the U.S. imposed sanctions against four daughter companies of the Belneftekhim (“Grodno-Azot”, “Belshina”, “Naftan”, “Grodno Khimvolokno”). On 13 August names of 8 out of 9 pardoned were known (it is possible that they are still looking for the 9th): Dmitry Drozd, Artem Gribkov, Sergey Kazakov, Yevgeny Secret, Vladimir Yaromenok, Vasily Parfenkov, Vitaly Matsukevich, Alexander Kvyatkevich.
The logic of the Belarusian authorities is that the release of 9 out of 41 convicts is an adequate compensation for the arrest of Bialiatski, which should bring down a wave of outrage in the European institutions and de-motivate them to apply further sanctions. Perhaps they were right: the office of Ashton said that nine pardoned was not enough to resume talks however nothing about the probability of adherence of the EU to the US sanctions. The authorities certainly hoped to manage pardon before the US made a decision on sanctions, however they have miscalculated. Nevertheless, today Bialiatski is of greater value to the regime than already convicted post-elections protesters, as the legal protection of prisoners and accused, families of the repressed and financial support to them is one of the key elements securing independent political activity.
At the same time, pardon of the 9 should be considered as an invitation by the authorities to start bargaining about the fate of other political prisoners. The Belarusian authorities believe that the invitation will be perceived correctly and that secret messengers would bring a proposal soon. For instance, in the form of support during the IMF Board of Directors meeting on 29 August, given the authorities are incapable of fulfilling their economic conditions due to the lack of funds on the one hand, and to the unwillingness to change the basic principles of their economic policy, on the other. In fact, the only reason the authorities need a new loan is to support their currency policy, rather than to conduct painful reforms.
Therefore in the near future the Belarusian authorities will monitor the external reaction to the pardon of the 9 prisoners, waiting for reciprocal steps. The authorities believe that the pardon gave them a “carte blanche” to investigate the schemes used by the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” [Spring] by keeping Bialiatski in custody and, if there would be no harsh reaction, they will continue stripping the human rights sector of the civil society.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.