Minsk prompts Vaticans participation in Belarusian-European settlement
The Belarusian authorities do not leave attempts to prompt the Vatican’s engagement in the normalisation of Belarusian-European relations. In recent months, the authorities have undertaken some measures, which hampered the Catholic Church’s development in the country – most likely due to the Vatican’s passive stance on the Belarus-EU settlement. However, regardless of the Vatican’s involvement in the Belarusian-European relations, the Belarusian authorities do not intend to develop relations with the Catholic Church on equal terms with the Russian Orthodox Church.
At a briefing in Gomel, Polish Ambassador to Belarus Leszek Sherepka told reporters that he knew nothing about the crimes allegedly committed by Catholic priests, Polish citizens, in Belarus.
Recent statements by the Belarusian officials regarding violations committed by Catholic Church representatives in Belarus have caused tension in the Catholic environment. Following numerous meetings between the Catholic Church representatives and the Belarusian authorities at different levels, the Catholic bishops of Belarus were prompted to make a strong statement. They expressed concern over claims by the Belarusian authorities to the Catholic Church representatives, and said such claims were unjustified, offensive and provoking ethnic and religious hatred. In addition, in 2014, the Catholic Church made two unsuccessful attempts to register the Theological Academy of St. John Paul II.
The authorities’ actions are contrary to the declared commitment to develop the Catholic Church in Belarus. Since the late 2000s, Belarusian officials made repeated statements about the possibility of deepening cooperation with the Vatican. Back in 1998, during the visit of Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to Belarus, President Lukashenko invited the Pope to visit Belarus and promised to sign a concordat between Belarus and the Vatican, similar to the agreement with the Belarusian Orthodox Church (took effect in 2003).
High Commissioner for Religion and Nationality Leonid Huliako made his statement that "some foreign priests attempt to engage in politics in Belarus” immediately after Belarus’ Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta Sergei Aleinik wrapped up his visit to the Vatican. During his visit, Aleinik had a protocol meeting with Pope Francis and met with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti. After the visit, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry tersely reported that the parties “discussed the ongoing issues of the Belarusian-Vatican cooperation”.
Meanwhile, in early 2013, Pope Francis expressed hope that with the help of the Holy See the relations between Western capitals and Minsk would improve through "respect, dialogue and mutual understanding”. However, the Vatican has not become a driving force to improve the Belarus-EU relations, despite the Belarusian authorities’ hopes.
It is worth mentioning that during the previous ‘thaw’ in the Belarus-EU relations (2008-2010) the Vatican played an important role in breaking Belarus’ isolation - blacklisted president Lukashenko visited Vatican, which became his first EU visit. The president’s meeting with the Pope in 2009 sent a positive signal to European politicians, and laid the foundation for improved relations between Minsk and Brussels.
Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities were able to improve the Belarus-EU relations without fulfilling the basic conditions, the Vatican’s assistance could significantly speed up this process. The Belarusian authorities are unlikely to be interested in deepening cooperation with the Catholic Church and strengthening its positions in the Belarusian society.
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.