Decreased popularity of Lukashenko did not result in increased popularity of the opposition
The freeze of the westward leaning foreign policy resulted in increased repressions against domestic political opponents of Lukashenko. Following the elections 7 candidates and about 700 demonstrators were arrested on 19 December in Minsk, which marked the beginning of a large-scale clean-up campaign against the Belarusian opposition forces.
In spring ex-candidates and activists were convicted, and President Alexander Lukashenko showed a willingness to comply with the EU and U.S. demands regarding the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners, and indeed pardoned a number of politicians and activists. However, after the conclusion of a number of lucrative deals and credit agreements with the Russian government and businesses in November (including the sale of shares of the company Beltransgas for USD 2.5 billion) the urgent need to establish relations with the West was dismissed.
Agreements signed in Moscow in November allow Belarus to alleviate the consequences of the currency crisis that hit Belarus from March to September and allow the government to continue cleaning up the opposition. The harsh sentence handed out to human rights defender Ales Bialiatski (4.5 years in prison), was announced on the 24 November, on the eve of the signing of the Agreements in Moscow, speaks in favour of the continuation of such a rigid domestic policy. Apart from Bialiatski, two former Presidential candidates Mr. Andrey Sannikov and Mr. Mikalaj Statkevich, are still in prison (sentenced to 5 and 6 years of imprisonment respectively). The improved economic situation in Belarus by the end of 2011 implies that their imminent release is not on the agenda.
The tough repressions by Belarusian authorities against their political opponents last winter, the acute foreign exchange crisis in the spring and summer, and, in particular, violent and illegal actions of the authorities against “silent” protesters in June and July (urban protests and flash mobs were dispersed by Interior Ministry soldiers in civilian clothes) have resulted in a predictable decline in the popularity of President Lukashenko and the general decline in citizen trust in governmental and public institutions. By September, Lukashenko’s popularity reached a historic low 20.5%, while the trust in state and public institutions remained at 30%. It is important to mention, that the loss of confidence in government did not result, for instance, in increased confidence in opposition political parties, independent trade unions or the media. Therefore the autumn campaign organized by the opposition was not successful, despite the favourable attitude among the population (in November the inflation reached 100%) actions organized by the opposition could not gather more than a thousand participants.
Confidence crisis, which engulfed the Belarusian society, has also affected the work of the opposition forces. Opposition parties and movements were unable to coordinate their strategic positions and human resources to act together during the economic crisis. Therefore, all the events organized by the opposition in November were poorly managed, moreover, the opposition failed to agree on a unified position regarding participation or the boycotting of the Parliamentary elections in 2012. The opposition has failed to take advantage of the economic recession in the country in order to exert pressure on President Lukashenko, and it continues to move by inertia, criticizing the actions of the authorities while not offering their own pro-active political agenda.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.