Belarus closes the border for the domestic opposition
On March 7, Belarusian border guards did not allow the Chairman of the United Civil Party Anatoly Liabedzka to leave Belarus en route to Lithuania. On the same day, the wife of Liabedzka became a subject to extended examination at the same border while traveling from Lithuania to Belarus. Also, Mr. Dobrovolski, Deputy Chairman of the UCP, was taken off the train en route to Lithuania.
The ban on leaving Belarus for the Head of the UCP Mr. Liabedzka without any explanation implies the Belarusian authorities had to improvise and had no clear action plan against the politician. Otherwise, the authorities would have referred to a formal pretext, for instance, a “criminal” case initiated against him.
Actions against Messrs Liabedzka and Dobrovolsky could represent a “symmetrical response” to the visa restrictions, imposed by the EU against Belarusian officials. However, unlike the ban on entry to the EU of foreign nationals, a ban on leaving the country for the citizens of the country is a more complicated task: it contradicts the Belarusian legislation in the first place.
These recent developments at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border confirm that the Belarusian authorities have not yet decided on the tactics in response to the demands and actions of the EU. They adhere to the tactics of passive retention of the status quo: political prisoners are not released, the CEC threatens not to invite OSCE observers to the parliamentary elections in the autumn, and in response to the visa sanctions against Belarusian officials the authorities introduced vague travel bans on opposition politicians.
These passive measures only meant to restrict the leadership of opposition parties (the UCP in this particular case) from maintaining their international contacts. It is worth mentioning that some governmental officials advocated for a “pro-active” response, i.e. to introduce penalties against those who call for sanctions against Belarus (it has been recently discussed in the Prosecutor’s Office). However, such pro-active response fits in badly with the existing trend towards “passive response” and therefore unlikely to be implemented.
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.