Minsk hopes to enhance Lukashenka’s international recognition
The Belarusian authorities hope not so much for the lifting of the EU sanctions, but for international recognition and legitimisation of President Lukashenka. By improving relations with the EU and the US, they seek to create an additional advantage in order to counterbalance the Kremlin’s aggressive policy. Despite the declaratory intention to develop a dialogue with the Western institutions on problematic issues of democratic values, Minsk officials are unlikely to change the political agenda.
The EU Council has agreed to suspend sanctions against Belarus for four months, but may re-impose them if necessary.
In anticipation of the lifting of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities have declared their readiness to engage in a dialogue with Western institutions in order to improve the situation in areas of concern. For instance, Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Dmitry Mironchik said the ministry was ready to discuss elections with the OSCE and the Council of Europe: “Belarus is open to further cooperation with the OSCE and the Council of Europe on election issues. In particular, such cooperation was discussed during the meeting with OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link, held by Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey on October 12th”.
It is worth noting that many Belarusian officials, who were subjected to sanctions, are rather indifferent with regard to the possibility of the visa ban being lifted. Some of them have had the opportunity to visit the European as part of official delegations. Other officials have regarded the restrictive measures by the EU as an additional proof of their loyalty to the president and, hence, as a career promotion factor.
The Belarusian authorities have positively assessed the report of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, even though international observers marked only slight improvement in the presidential campaign and the lack of progress in the electoral process. CEC head Yarmoshina emphasised that she was satisfied with the report: "I may say that the Central [Election] Commission is satisfied with the conclusion which has been presented as a result of the OSCE election observation mission”.
However, the ODIHR’s final report is unlikely to praise the Minsk officials, and the Belarusian authorities are likely to be aware of that. The authorities, nevertheless, hope that improving relations is also in the interest of the West, mainly thanks to Belarus’ role in dealing with the conflict in Ukraine.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are counting on fatigue of Brussels bureaucrats from ineffective attempts to force Minsk to make concessions through isolation and support for the opposition.
So far, the Kremlin has not attempted to derail the EU-Belarus settlement. Belarus is deeply rooted in a variety of Russian integration projects to raise any serious concern over a drift towards the EU. Quite the opposite, the Kremlin’s frank attempt to put pressure on Belarus could have an adverse effect, since the Belarusian officials are wary of Moscow strengthening its aggressive foreign policy. Simultaneously, the Russian leadership has significantly fewer resources to continue buying the loyalty of its closest ally.
While declaring their willingness to cooperate with the Western institutions, the Belarusian officials will continue to sabotage the recommendations to improve the electoral standards and enhance opportunities for participation of the opposition in the political process.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.