Authorities close the eastern border to the opposition

April 22, 2016 18:07

On March 27, the leaders of the United Civil Party Anatol Lebedko and the Belarusian Party of the left-wing party \"Just World\" Sergei Kalyakin, as well as the spokesman for the campaign \"European Belarus\" Alyaksandr Otroshchenkov, were taken off the Minsk-Moscow train in the town of Orsha, on the Belarusian-Russian border.

They had intended to take a flight from Moscow to Brussels, were detained by police in the Belarusian town of Orsha on March 27. All three charged with disorderly conduct and fined by the court.

Comment 

Blocking the path to the EU via Moscow is the know-how of the Belarusian authorities. Despite the illegality of such actions, they have a short-term didactic and demonstrative effect. These tactics, - selected by the government, - confirmed that they still do not have a long-term strategy for dialogue or isolation.

The detention and trial of three opposition representatives were an apparent attempt by the authorities to demonstrate their ability to restrict the rights of the opposition, preventing their planned meeting with European Commissioner Štefan Füle in Brussels. Earlier, the authorities tested the selective closure of Belarus’ western border for politicians and NGO representatives, introducing the so-called \"travel ban list.\" A peculiarity of this recent operation in Orsha was the illegal withdrawal of all three detainees’ passports, which has further complicated their free movement after the trial.

This (illegal) measure allows the authorities to demonstrate their understanding of a balanced response to visa sanctions, imposed by the EU against Belarusian officials. It is possible that the authorities might think that such measures could hinder the process of negotiation and decision-making between the EU and Belarusian partners in the program \"European Dialogue on Modernization\" (a set of measures to promote cooperation between the EU and Belarusian democratic forces). This program was approved by the EU Council of Foreign Ministers on March 23 and was officially launched at the meeting with Štefan Füle in Brussels on March 29.

However, the selective actions of the authorities (leader of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party Vitaly Rymashevsky (who was also on the train with Lebedko, Kalyakin and Otroshchenkov, but was not arrested), and the lack of a clear rationale for the introduction of the \"travel ban list\" suggest that Minsk has not yet made ​​a final decision on the freezing of political dialogue with Europe. 

For now, the government’s measures are limited to a passive point response to EU actions. An attempt to close the ‘eastern corridor’ to the opposition involves a much greater effort for the authorities due to the lack of border controls with Russia. In this situation, the authorities will either have to increase the number of people involved in the detention operation (for example, traffic police), or confiscate people’s passports on a long-term basis. Both tactics are extremely resource-intensive and illegal, and therefore will not be used widely, but primarily for demonstrative purposes.

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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.