Two tracks for a dialogue with West
In relations between the Belarusian authorities and the Western countries there are attempts either to mitigate the conflict and to bring together negotiating positions at the top level, or to increase technical cooperation, i.e. at the level of professionals and experts, if obstacles to a political dialogue are not removed.
On January 21st, President Lukashenko met with a group of American political scientists in Minsk, including two Jamestown Foundation representatives.
President Lukashenko met with American political scientists behind closed doors. One of the meeting participants - Professor H. Joffe from Redford University – spoke to the media about raised issues. According to what he said, Lukashenko said nothing new during the meeting, but listened to the American political scientists’ advice to ‘improve’ image.
Developments of the past 1.5 months allow some experts to talk about rapprochement negotiations between the Belarusian government and its Western partners from the EU and the U.S. The most noticeable were the following factors: 1. Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s increased activity after Makey’s appointment. 2. Lukashenko makes public statements about the necessity and even inevitability of relations’ normalization, while he himself takes an uncompromising stand. 3. Discussions resumed about the restoration of relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe.
On 22nd January, CoE Secretary General Mr. Jagland said that CoE was essentially ready for a constructive dialogue and anticipated Belarus’ moratorium on the death penalty, and the decision about the fate of political prisoners. Undoubtedly his statement was a public response to the visit of the CoE delegation, headed by the CoE Secretary General’s office head Mr. Berge to Minsk on January 14th – 15th, 2013.
It will be noted that on January 24th, former vice president of the European Commission Mr. Verheugen spoke in Minsk. He presented an educational programme for young government officials and community leaders from the Eastern European countries of the Carl Friedrich Goerdeler College, which he leads.
In the broad information space Belarusian authorities adhere to the hard anti-Western stance. In late 2012 the national television showed a documentary about European dialogue on modernisation with Belarusian society, which aimed at experts and government executives. The documentary was highly critical and revealed a conspiracy by the West aiming to ‘conquer’ Belarusian elites via partnership and dialogue programmes.
President Lukashenko perceives such expert-level dialogue with mid-ranking officials extremely negatively – he sees a threat to his own power and regards it as an attempt to solve important issues by-passing him. Odds-on, de facto participation in this dialogue will be furnished with many bureaucratic procedures, hampering the participation of Belarusian participants.
Clearly, the potential resumption of a dialogue and resolution of the political conflict with the West are actually discussed at the highest level, but the principled decision is still pending with the president. A careful probing of the soil for potential gains and losses is ongoing on both sides. In the meanwhile, the state ideology and propaganda media machine operates by inertia, following the previous instructions about Belarus’ tough position in the conflict.
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.