Authorities close the eastern border to the opposition
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.
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.
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.