Minsk expects Brussels to suspend sanctions unconditionally
The fact that the EU has removed some businesses and state officials from the sanctions list could be interpreted as a result of more intense political contact between Belarus and the EU.. In addition, the Belarusian authorities hope the EU will continue to make concessions. Amid rising threats to regional security, sanctions might be suspended in relation to some Belarusian public officials due to their neutral stance over the crisis in Ukraine. Also, headway could be made in Belarusian-European negotiations on non-political issues, such as visa liberalisation and economic cooperation. However, the Belarusian authorities are not showing any willingness to take reciprocal steps towards Brussels, primarily, to release political prisoners.
On October 30th, the EU extended sanctions against Belarusian government officials and businesses for a year, removing 24 officials and 7 businesses from the sanctions list.
Brussels’ decision to reduce the sanctions list by removing some Belarusian businesses and individuals was long anticipated by Belarus. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry called the decision “a step in the right direction” and underscored that the extension of “restrictions against a number of Belarusian citizens and companies is another lost opportunity to remove the main hindrance on the way towards normalising our relations and to start substantive work for the sake of building mutually beneficial cooperation in the interests of our citizens”.
It is worth noting that Belarus has made it clear that further development of Belarusian-European cooperation will only be possible if the EU lifts sanctions against Belarusian officials and companies. For example, according to Belarusian officials, Brussels has delayed the visa liberalisation negotiations between Belarus and the EU, which started after the summit in Vilnius in 2013. Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchina cited sanctions as the main reason for delaying the visa policy negotiations between Belarus and the EU: "We understand that they - these sanctions - are the main obstacle in our relations with the European Union. I am sure, that if they were removed, our cooperation with the EU and some Member States could very quickly reach a qualitative new level.”
Meanwhile, Belarus is not planning any reciprocal political measures towards the EU, for instance, to release political prisoners. Belarus seeks to improve her relations with the EU by increasing her importance in ensuring regional security in Europe and by staking on the priority of geopolitical factors in the EU’s foreign policy.
To some extent, Belarus has succeeded in imposing her agenda in negotiations with the EU and can further count on enhancing Belarusian-European relations and gradually excluding political conditions from the Belarus-EU negotiations. For example, when asked about the visa sanctions, DFM Kupchina said, “I see that this understanding is growing in European societies and in political circles".
The Belarusian opposition remains split over conditions for normalisation of Belarus-EU relations. Some opposition parties, such as the pro-European movement "For Freedom" and the Belarusian Popular Front, welcomed greater cooperation between the Belarusian leadership and business and their European partners, thus hoping to weaken the Kremlin’s influence in Belarus. Other opposition leaders and political emigres are hoping that Western capitals will retain the conditionality of a political dialogue with Belarus and that Brussels will keep the focus on human rights, regardless of the geopolitical context.
Incidentally, the EU’s decision to extend the sanctions until October 31st, 2015 was specifically motivated by the fact that “not all political prisoners have been released and rehabilitated, and the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles has not significantly improved in Belarus”. However, amid such a public rhetoric, one cannot but note the enhancement of Belarus-EU relations, which, in turn could result in the sanctions list being trimmed.
Belarus will continue negotiating with Brussels and insisting on removing political conditions by referring to the growing threats to regional security in Europe and emphasising her neutral position in relation to the crisis in Ukraine.
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.