Execution of terrorists makes Lukashenko more dependent on power forces
On March 13, the Commission on Presidential Pardon, considered the clemency appeal of Mr. Kovalev, one of the two sentenced to death for committing a terrorist attack in the Minsk metro. In the evening of March 14, media reported President Lukashenko had rejected the pardon appeal of Vladislav Kovalev. On March 17, the world learned about the execution of Vladislav Kovalev and Dmitry Konovalov.
The refusal of Lukashenko to pardon one of the sentenced to death terrorists implies the growing influence of the power elite on the President. The increased dependence of the country’s leader on the security forces reduces the means of governance and is likely to result in repressions being used more frequently.
It also means that Lukashenko made his choice in favour of the interests of the power elite, primarily the KGB and the Investigation Committee. These two agencies have significantly strengthened their authority in the course of the investigation of the attack, and reinforced it after the execution of convicts.
Pardon of the convicted Kovalev, who has appealed with appropriate request, could be interpreted as doubt of the results of the investigation and of the verdict by the president, particularly, against the backdrop of domestic and international criticism of the course of investigation and trial, which received wide public response. Thus, the final word of the president was extremely important for the investigating officers of the Prosecutor’s Office, the MIA and the KGB.
Moreover, life-saving of Kovalev could potentially increase the probability of revision of the case, in particular, since Kovalev demonstrated during the trial his willingness to defend his interests actively, when he denied his earlier testimony and talked about the pressure by the investigation team. Finally, Mr. Kovalev is an important witness of the investigative practices used by the law enforcement of Belarus, which could be regarded as a threat to the security forces, if he disclosed that information. For example, previously a number of Belarusian political prisoners and refugees talked about the use of torture by the KGB.
Therefore, those representatives of the power elite, who received promotions and new titles, were interested in the death sentence: it allowed for the case to be completed in full and with minimal risks for the elite. Such outcome was particularly important for the management of the Investigative Committee, which owes its origin to the investigation of the terrorist attack.
At the same time, by upholding the execution, President Lukashenko lost the opportunity to meet the interests of a significant part of the population, who distrust the official outcomes of the trial: in December 2011 independent polls referred to 43.4%. As a result, the president has limited his own domestic political space for maneuver, and increased his dependence on the power of elite, which since late 2010 consistently had been increasing its influence in the government.
It should be mentioned that the President’s decision was made public one day after the meeting of the Commission on Pardons took place. We assume that the negotiations within the elite continued right to the very end and have been extremely tough.
As a result of the terrorist attack on 11 April 2011 in the Minsk metro station “Oktiabrskaya”, 15 people were killed, 32 seriously injured, 72 suffered less severe injuries and 283 received minor injuries. In a previous explosion in Minsk on July 4, 2008, 59 people were injured; on September 22, 2005 in Vitebsk – 55; on September 14, 2005 in Vitebsk - 2.
Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.
The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.
According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.
The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.
Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.
Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.