Belarus attempts breakthrough in western policy

April 22, 2016 18:52

Belarus seeks to use the opportunity arising from the Russo-Ukrainian confrontation to mitigate the EU’s policy towards the Belarusian leadership and to start a new period in normalising Belarusian-European relations. The Belarusian government counts on its increased role in the region and aspires to strengthen its international positions and dictate the agenda to Brussels without releasing political prisoners, i.e. the main condition for normalising relations with the EU.

During his official visit to Serbia, President Lukashenko held talks with President Tomislav Nikolic.

With his visit to Serbia, President Lukashenko attempted a breakthrough in the EU’s sanctions policy against the Belarusian leadership. This was Lukashenko’s first visit to a European capital outside the former Soviet Union since 2009. The Belarusian government seeks to strengthen its position in the international arena in order to reduce unilateral dependence on the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The Belarusian government is increasing its level of international contacts and connections to neutralise possible threats from Russia to Belarus’ sovereignty.

Currently, economic cooperation between Belarus and Serbia is low: total turnover is USD 200 million. However, Minsk and Belgrade have had stable political relations ever since Milosevic’s era. As Lukashenko underscored, “we have always been with Serbia in difficult times. So it has been before, so it will always be”.

During the visit, Serbian Patriarch Irenaeus decorated Lukashenko with the highest award of the Serbian Orthodox Church - the 1st Class Order of St. Sava. Despite the fact that Serbia joined other EU countries in 2012 in extending visa and economic sanctions against certain Belarusian officials, in 2013 President Lukashenko was awarded with the Order of the Republic of Serbia, the highest state award in Serbia.

Lukashenko attempts to prove his importance to Moscow as a partner who promotes the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests. He said “it will not be bad if you build a normal relationship with them without harming us, Russia, Ukraine and other states. Because there is nothing wrong with that. There is no need to paint life in black and white, it is necessary to behave normally in order not to disappoint either East, or West”.

It is worth noting that official Minsk has interpreted signals from European capitals as an opportunity to unlock the EU’s sanctions policy towards the Belarusian leadership. For example, the Polish minority organisation in Belarus has not faced any recent pressure from the authorities, although in the past they repeatedly used the Union of Poles to put pressure on Warsaw. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities have welcomed the fact that this issue has been removed from the agenda of Belarusian-Polish relations and that references to the issue have disappeared from the Polish media.

The Belarusian authorities will continue to build their contacts in western policy and will attempt to unfreeze Belarusian-European relations before the 2015 presidential campaign. However, the Belarusian leadership is not ready to take reciprocal steps and make concessions such as easing the domestic political situation.

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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.