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 have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.
In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.
The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.
There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.
That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.