Belarusian authorities and party opposition count on positive dynamics in Belarus-US relations

April 22, 2016 19:35

Minsk officials are demonstrating willingness to engage in a dialogue on normalization of Belarus-US relations and have mitigated their rhetoric regarding the US requirements on human rights and democracy. Party opposition hopes that the ongoing process of settlement in the Belarusian-American relations would at very least allow to preserve the political atmosphere in the country as is in order to prepare for the parliamentary elections in 2016. In addition, the Belarusian authorities are counting on the development of Belarus-US relations in order to soften the Kremlin’s pressure regarding the deployment of Russian military air base.

Last week, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Bridget Brink and Robert Bershinski met with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey and a presidential administration representative.

The official visit of high guests from the US to Minsk took place after the suspension of sanctions against some Belarusian companies. According to the official statement of the US State Department, the sanctions were temporarily lifted in response to the release of six political prisoners before the presidential elections in Belarus.

It is worth noting that shortly after the US State Department visit, the IMF will be on a mission to Belarus on November 9th – 19th, 2015. It goes without saying that the Belarusian authorities are counting on a new loan from the IMF.

In his inauguration speech in Minsk, President Lukashenka emphasised the positive trend in relations with Western capitals: "There are no obstacles to turning the page and starting a new story of our relationship from scratch. We are ready for this and looking forward to similar willingness of our Western partners. Fortunately, recently there have been good prospects for this”.

That said, before meeting the Belarusian officials, US diplomats met with leaders of the Belarusian opposition parties, who had tried to influence the Belarusian-American talks’ agenda. The opposition is trying hard not to fall out from the process of normalization in relations between Minsk and Washington, including using the United States as a bargaining tool on the Belarusian authorities in order to mitigate the political environment in the country.

Opposition leaders continue to insist on that economic cooperation between Minsk and Western countries should be tied to the requirements to change the electoral legislation and the registration of political parties. Most opposition parties hope that there will be no harsh repressions during the preparation for the 2016 parliamentary elections.

The Belarusian authorities attempted to create a trusting atmosphere during the talks with the State Department representatives despite the fact that the agenda included "complex issues and ways to solve them”. According to the US delegation, the meeting was "positive, constructive and fruitful”.

The Belarusian authorities recognise that the issue of the Russian military air base deployment is a stumbling point in relations with Washington. Before the US delegation visit, while speaking at the operational meeting of the Armed Forces commanders, the president once again emphasised that there was no need for a new Russian military facility in the country.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are trying to avoid tensions with the Kremlin. After the joint session of the Foreign Ministries of Belarus and Russia in Moscow, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makey expressed Belarus’ support for the Kremlin and its actions in the Middle East: "We support Russia’s actions in Syria provided they are in compliance with the international law”.

Minsk is ready for a dialogue with Washington on problems of democracy and respect for human rights, however, without systemic changes and concessions, as well without deterioration of repressions against the opposition.

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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.