Assisted by Kremlin, Minsk upholds its role in ensuring regional security
Official Minsk continues to strengthen its international position in ensuring regional security by providing a platform for negotiations. The Kremlin has de facto supported Belarus by insisting on holding the Normandy Four talks in Belarus’ capital whereas the Belarusian leadership was still subject to Western sanctions. Official Minsk is likely to increase pressure on the West to lift the sanctions against the Belarusian authorities and to obtain assistance from international financial institutions.
On February 11th – 12th, Minsk hosted 16-hour talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The Normandy Four talks resulted in a declaration in support of a package of measures to implement the Minsk agreements. On the same day the declaration was signed by the participants of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine (Ukraine – Russia – OSCE) and Donbas separatists. The parties have agreed on ceasefire as of 12 am (Kyiv time) on February15th, withdrawal of foreign troops from the Ukrainian territory, withdrawal of heavy weapons within 14 days and release of hostages in five days, as well as unconditional access by Ukraine and her international partners to the affected areas in order to provide humanitarian assistance. Neither these talks, nor the previous ones had led to a peace agreement over eastern Ukraine albeit had somewhat relieved tension for a while.
Analysts have differently assessed the results of the Normandy Four talks in Minsk. Most however agreed that official Minsk, which provided a platform for negotiations, was the ultimate beneficiary of the meeting. The meeting of such a level with the participation of EU leaders was held in Minsk for the first time in Belarus’ modern history. In addition, amid the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian leadership has de facto managed to get around the European sanctions. The initiative to hold talks in Minsk belonged to President Putin, who asked his Belarusian counterpart to provide a platform for the high-level peace talks.
In addition, the Russian media and Russian audiences have praised the President Lukashenko’s peacekeeping role. The leading Russian TV channels underscored the positive role of President Lukashenko in the conflict resolution in Eastern Ukraine in their reports.
The president also gave a 15-minute interview to the Russian channels NTV and Russia 1. In the interview, the Belarusian leader reaffirmed his commitment to the Eurasian integration, and commented on his ‘rapprochement’ with the EU: “I would not say that we have somehow improved the relations with them. I do not cherish any hopes there. Frankly and honestly speaking, I would like to say that I am no longer in the age when people rush or make sharp turns and so on. I have seen enough of this. So that, you know, one feels dizzy ... In fact, why should I feel dizzy? Is it because I was asked to organise this event? Get real! I do not overestimate Belarus’ role or my own role in this, as usual. I am not exaggerating. So if you think that I would use this as an excuse to turn toward somewhere else, forget about it".
Prior to the Normandy Four talks, leaders of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donbass People’s Republics issued a statement in which they proposed to send CSTO peacekeeping forces in the region. Previously, President Lukashenko talked about the Belarusian peacekeeping troops’ participation in stabilising the situation in Eastern Ukraine. However, official Minsk is unlikely to go as far as putting this idea into action due to its extreme unpopularity among the population and a deep divide in Belarusian society over the conflict in Ukraine.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry is likely to step up its activity in order to lift Western sanctions against the Belarusian leadership completely.
The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.
In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.
The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.
There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.
That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.