Belarus – China: strategic uncertainty

April 22, 2016 18:34

On July 15th – 17th, President Lukashenko made an official visit to China.

President Lukashenko’s official visit to China aimed at strengthening his political weight and potential future Sino-Belarusian relations. However, the Belarusian delegation was unable to resolve the cornerstone issue: to agree on an untied loan to help maintaining Belarus’ financial stability.

The main outcome of the Belarusian delegation’s visit was a joint Declaration on comprehensive strategic partnership, which implies development of bilateral relations, intensification of contacts at the highest level, investment and economic cooperation, and mutual support in the international sphere, including human rights and sovereign development issues.

The signed Declaration is more consistent with China’s political interests, rather than Belarusian. In particular, it clearly states that Belarus will recognize Taiwan a part of China. In turn, China promises Belarus some vague “support in protecting core interests” and “to support Belarus’ efforts in protecting state’s independence”. Evasive diplomatic language implies that China reckons that Belarus is in Russia’s sphere of influence and is not eager to actively interfere with the Kremlin’s policies in the Eastern European region.

In the Declaration, economic cooperation is named ‘the cornerstone of the Sino-Belarusian partnership’, but Belarus was unable to reach a new level and to secure an untied Chinese loan, which President Lukashenko mentioned in an interview with the “Xinhua” Agency prior to his visit. Official reports say that as a result of the visit, more than 30 investment agreements were aigned, including loan agreements worth circa USD 1.5 billion. But these are tied loans, mandated to be spent on goods and services produced in China.

All in all, Chinese position looks more advantageous, because China not only provides its equipment and engineering services under the Belarusian government guarantees (eg, USD 80 million tied loan for the supply of 18 electric locomotives and Gomel-Zhlobin railway electrification), but also is engaged in strategically important regional energy projects (eg USD 323 million consumer loan to construct power lines for the Belarusian NPP).

For Belarus, the visit’s outcomes are modest and do not correspond to a ‘strategic breakthrough’ in the relationship. Effects from the joint Declaration are postponed until the future. It is assumed that before the year-end, the parties will develop a cooperation ‘road map’, including Prime Ministers’ discussions about an untied loan for Belarus to replenish her gold reserves, National Bank Chairman Ermakova said on July 19th.

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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.