Minsk is ready to deepen cooperation with Brussels on ’soft terms’
The Belarusian authorities are counting on bolstered financial cooperation with the West without making political concessions, but through softening domestic policies. Most opposition leaders were sharply critical of the EU lifting sanctions and had not yet adjusted their strategies to the new political environment. The Kremlin, in turn, appears to be loyal to the ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations as it probably counts on the consideration of Russia’s interests within the Belarusian-European agenda.
The EU Ministerial Council decision has lifted the sanctions against 170 Belarusian senior government officials, including President Lukashenka, and 10 companies. Sanctions have been extended in respect of four persons, who were allegedly involved in forced disappearances of opposition politicians in 1999-2000: former Interior Ministers Vladimir Naumov and Yuri Sivakov, Head of the Presidential Administration Viktor Sheiman and Interior Troops Brigade Head Dmitri Pavlichenko.
The EU emphasised some positive trends in cooperation with the Belarusian authorities and praised the release of political prisoners. Nevertheless, the decision contained critical remarks regarding Belarus’ non-respect for human rights.
The Belarusian authorities expressed full satisfaction with the EU decision, despite the fact that some sanctions were still in place. The president emphasised the Foreign Ministry’s role in the warming of the Belarusian-European relations and the need to strengthen financial cooperation, "Well done, EU-policy makers, they realized this was the moment and they should depart from the bloc mentality and confrontation with Belarus. They took a completely satisfying decision for us”.
Most politicians from the ‘old opposition’ were sharply critical of the EU decision to lift sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. In their viewpoint, a dialogue between Minsk and Brussels would weaken the pro-European wing in the Belarusian opposition and, consequently, it would lose the support among the pro-European part of society. Most opposition leaders believe that Brussels has softened its policy towards Belarus for geopolitical reasons. In addition, they particularly emphasised that the Belarusian authorities could treat the lifting of the EU sanctions before the Parliamentary Elections as the EU’s final agreement to the lack of political reform. Nevertheless, the leaders of the United Civil Party and the Belarusian Christian Democracy who condemned the lifting of sanctions; and ‘Tell the Truth!’ leaders who supported the EU, are planning to participate in the 2016 Parliamentary Elections.
Some civil society representatives and analysts anticipate that amid the ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations, the Belarusian authorities may refrain from repression against the opposition and protest movements. In addition, human rights activists and opposition parties have hopes for some improvements in holding the parliamentary elections.
However, the civil society’s main concern is about preserving the ability to influence the agenda of the Belarusian-European relations. They fear that the EU may pay less attention to the civil society organisations and the media, which make the authorities unhappy. For instance, Poland-based Radio Racyja and Chanter97 expressed their concern about possible threats to their broadcasting due to Minsk’s pressure on Warsaw.
Unlike the Belarusian opposition, the Kremlin welcomed the EU’s decision to lift the sanctions against the Belarusian authorities. In addition, Russian commentators have not raised ‘concern’ about yet another Belarus’ ‘geopolitical shift’ towards the West.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities do not intend to meet the EU requirements, but are ready to make some minor concessions in order to mitigate tension in relations.
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.