Belarus wants to improve Belarus-EU dialogue

April 22, 2016 18:41

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said on November 19th that Belarus “is interested in its involvement in the Eastern Partnership because we believe that this will help normalize our relations with the European Union. The decision on the level of our participation is currently being discussed and will be announced in the coming days”.

As economic benefits offered by Russia to Belarus shrink, Western policy gains importance for Belarus. The Belarusian government wants more attention to be paid to Belarus at the Eastern Partnership Summit and to enhance the dialogue between Belarus and EU. Meanwhile, Belarus has no plans to increase its participation at the Summit, which, in its view, will not bring short-term economic benefits.

Unlike during the thaw in Belarusian-European relations in 2008-2010, Belarus today has much less interest in the EU Eastern Partnership Programme. Foreign Minister Makey said on November 19th, that the results of the Summit would hardly be very significant for Belarus.

The Belarusian government is not ready to accept EU support for economic and political modernization. The way President Lukashenko sees modernization is completely at odds with the mechanisms proposed by the EU. For instance, he said, “What is modernization? Production lines need to be repaired and new equipment installed”. Alternatively, the EU offers its assistance in carrying out structural economic reforms, which could jeopardize the system built on Lukashenko’s personal authority.

Belarus shapes its foreign policy depending on short-term economic benefits and incentives which it receives from international cooperation. Funds available within the Eastern Partnership Programme for implementing joint projects are not appealing for the Belarusian authorities. In addition, EU assistance is conditioned and requires significant concessions from Belarus. And Belarus believes that losses will outweigh the potential benefits. Until now, Belarus’ participation in various Kremlin-led integration projects has guaranteed many more short-term benefits at a lower cost.

In addition, the lack of cooperation at the highest political level affects the development of economic relations between Belarus and the EU. It also hinders the implementation of some joint projects, such as cooperation on border management and environmental issues.

In late 2010 Belarus signed a package of agreements on Eurasian integration which had a crucial impact on the development of Belarus-EU relations, including Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership Programme. President Lukashenko has never ‘appreciated’ Western values, and has never regarded integration with the EU as a real option. However, flirting with the West has allowed him to strengthen his positions vis-à-vis Russia. He has managed to receive the Kremlin’s support in the short-term, but in the long-term, signing the agreement with Russia to create the Eurasian Union has considerably weakened Lukashenko’s geopolitical maneuverability. Previously President Lukashenko used the “geopolitical pendulum” tactic quite successfully (he threatened the Kremlin with shifting ‘Westwards’ and vice-versa to enhance his positions). But this tactic’s potential has been exhausted.

Belarus’ authorities will attempt to use the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius to facilitate Belarus-EU relations being restored. They will make a last-minute decision about the level of representation during the Summit, which will depend on Ukraine-Russia-EU relations. The Belarusian government will be more willing to seek ‘Western’ support if the Kremlin redistributes its support in Ukraine’s favour. However, in Lukashenko’s mind, Belarus-EU relations will always play a secondary role, which help him to build his relations with Russia.

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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.