After the release of Sannikov and Bondarenko, Lukashenko is waiting for EU’s next steps
As anticipated, Belarus is not intending to comply with the EU requirements immediately and entirely and offers a step by step approach, gradually fulfilling the EU conditions in exchange for some concessions by Belarus. The main reason behind it is the desire of Belarus to revert to the traditional foreign policy of balancing between Russia and the West.
President Lukashenko eased his attitude on negotiations with the West considerably. The main sign is that he has postponed for an indefinite period his annual address to the Parliament and the nation. Lukashenko ordered to revise his address, including the foreign policy section, to make it more moderate.
Thus, the President’s Administration received a carte blanche to resume relations with the EU. Head of Lukashenko Administration, Mr. Makey, speaking on the national television on April 17 confirmed, that Belarus was ready to engage in a dialogue with the EU at all levels. His statement about the unacceptability of putting pressure on Minsk was apparently addressed to the domestic audience and meant to compensate for the President’s “weakness”, i.e. the release of two political prisoners the day before.
On April 20, Minsk city authorities granted a petition of the organizers of Chernobyl Way to stage an annual march and a rally in central Minsk on April 26. The application was granted regardless of being filed by the non-registered “Belarusian Christian Democracy” party, which supports the expansion of EU sanctions and plans to boycott the parliamentary elections.
All these positive signals Minsk addressed to the participants of the EU Foreign Ministers meeting on April 23, where Belarusian issue would be discussed. Statements made by the Belarusian leaders imply that they expect the Ministerial Council decision to refrain from further expansion of sanctions and come up with some kind of conciliatory resolution. This would give a reason for European ambassadors to return in Minsk.
The most likely explanation of the drastic mitigation in the attitude is the Minsk’s desire to secure an alibi in the foreign relations with Russia. The authorities came out as losers in the air carriers’ conflict and now seek for opportunities to resume the old policy of balancing between Russia and the West, which would allow for selective approach to fulfilling the requirements of both sides.
However, after 2011 the space for maneuvering has significantly narrowed. Therefore it should be anticipated that Minsk will not comply entirely with all the requirements put forward by the EU and will restrict to the minimum acceptable status quo. For instance, Belarus will restore relations on the diplomatic level and will resume a symbolic dialogue on “safe” issues (migration, construction of nuclear power plants, and moratorium on the death penalty).
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.