Minsk steps back to international and public pressure over White Legion case
The Belarusian authorities are de-escalating the "patriots' case" aka the White Legion case to stop criticism from the west over human rights violations in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities have demonstrated greater adaptability and reduced the repression-liberalisation cycle in the domestic policy in order to retain positive trend in relations with the EU. Nevertheless, the White Legion case has not been closed yet. The president could make concessions to the power block with verdicts against some activists, which would not envisage imprisonment.
Last week, the Belarusian authorities released Miroslav Lozovsky, the last defendant in the White Legion case, from the pre-trial detention centre in Minsk.
The release of the defendants in the White Legion case just a few days before the OSCE PA session has brought some confusion with regard to the tough resolution on democracy, human rights and the Belarusian NPP prepared by Western diplomats. Apparently, the Belarusian authorities have reduced the ‘repressive’ period, taking into account the peculiarities of bureaucratic processes in the EU, which would prevent European capitals from coordinating their positions on the Belarusian issue and preserve the Belarusian-European normalization. In addition, Minsk is likely to focus on strengthening its positions regarding the Nuclear Power Plant construction, in anticipation of harsh criticism from Lithuania.
Following the suppression of protests in February and March 2017, the Belarusian authorities have gradually abandoned arrests, preventive detentions, the use of force against their opponents and returned to milder form of persecution of the opposition, such as fines. Apparently, the authorities fear that public pressure over the White Legion case and public actions in support of the defendants could trigger unnecessary attention of broader population after a high-profile propaganda effect during the protest period. This, in turn, could have undermined the confidence in the state media and security agencies (which have already been involved in some high-profile incidents recently), and could also lower the ratings of other state institutions.
Meanwhile, the president would not disregard the interests of the power block either, in particular, amid economic decline and scant wage growth. The White Legion case has not been closed and some defendants still have open charges of creating an illegal armed group against them. After the OSCE PA session closes in Minsk, the authorities could get back on the track in this regard. However, most likely, even if trials take place, the defendants are likely to receive a milder punishment and would be released in the courtroom.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities may further stretch and shorten the repression/liberalisation cycle to accommodate their needs and to prevent undesirable reactions from the West. In addition, the White Legion case could remain frozen for several months until the autumn-winter political campaign.
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.