Minsk is trying to take advantage of Russo-Ukrainian conflict

April 22, 2016 18:48

The Belarusian government is attempting to benefit from the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in the political, economic and military spheres by acting as a mediator between the Kremlin and Kiev. As mediator, President Lukashenko is gaining political weight in the region. Using their balanced position regarding Ukraine, the authorities aspire to unblock their relations with the EU and the U.S. and to alleviate pressure from Moscow.

While visiting the Baranovichi Aircraft Repair Plant, President Lukashenko said that he considered the necessity to expand Belarus’ cooperation with Ukraine in the technical and military sphere.

The Belarusian authorities are interested in the region developing sustainably and in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict de-escalation. The Belarusian economy is highly vulnerable and depends on the trade relations with the neighbouring countries. In 2013, Belarus’ trade turnover with Ukraine was the second largest after Russia, and exports to these countries were double the size of imports.

Also, Belarus’ officials fear of the Kremlin changing its approaches in relations with its allies, i.e. that the pressure, rather than the economic preferences and financial subsidies, will become the dominating way of buying loyalty. So far, Minsk has failed to finalize the abolishment of oil export duties’ return to Moscow. Meanwhile, the Belarusian leadership was prompted to cede to the Kremlin’s severe pressure regarding several important issues, inter alia, the UN vote on the Crimean resolution.

With the Kremlin’s approval, Minsk is attempting to play a mediating role in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. President Lukashenko said, “I have not made a single step without the Russian leadership’s consent, when issues concerned Russia”. Minsk is scheduled to host talks between Russia and Ukraine (Deputy Foreign Ministers’ level), and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry has emphasised that “[we] will do everything to ensure the conditions for such a meeting.”

Meanwhile, tensions between Moscow and Kiev have opened new opportunities for Belarus, for instance, re-exporting Ukrainian military-industrial production goods to the Russian market if Russo-Ukrainian military-industrial cooperation stops. Kiev has already announced plans to halt cooperation with Russia on military production, while the latter is highly dependent on supplies from the Ukrainian defence industry. For example, the Ukrainian company “Motor Sich” is a monopolist in supplying engines for Russian military and civil aviation.

Furthermore, despite Belarus’ increased dependence on the Kremlin since the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008, the authorities hope to return to the pendulum policy by increasing their importance in the region and mitigating the EU and the USA positions vis-à-vis the Belarusian leadership.

People in Kiev are sympathetic of President Lukashenko’s restrained position regarding the events in Ukraine. Eventually, he hopes that the new Ukrainian leadership will help him to advance his interests in Brussels, if rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU continues. It is worth noting that President Lukashenko managed to form much better relationships with Ukrainian President Yushchenko, who came to power on the wave of the “orange revolution”, than with “pro-Russian” President Yanukovych.

Belarus’ officials will contribute to de-escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict by mediating and taking a balanced position in assessing the conflict. If the Kremlin introduces a commercial blockade on Ukrainian goods, Minsk will benefit from not having borders with Russia and playing the role of an intermediary for Ukrainian companies to penetrate the Russian market.

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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.