Minsk uses loyal EU Member States to normalise relations with Brussels

April 22, 2016 19:12

The Belarusian authorities have enhanced contacts with the most loyal European capitals, Vienna and Budapest. In addition, the authorities have used international fora to send conflicting messages – at the UN they said that there were no human rights issues which deserved special attention to the situation in Belarus, and while meeting with EU representatives, that they were willing to meet Brussels’ requirements. The Belarusian authorities are convinced they would make the EU to play by their rules and normalise relations without fulfilling political conditions and releasing political prisoners. 

On May 4th, President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makey met with Austria’s Federal Minister for European Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz. After the meeting, the Foreign Minister said that Belarus and the European Union should think about a new strategy for their relations and make concrete steps towards each other. 

Belarus has reiterated some ideas, which were used during the previous thaw in Belarus-EU relations in 2008-2010. For example, Foreign Minister Makey underscored that there were some problems with the existing system of power and that Belarus was ready to learn about democracy: “we do not think we are an ideal country and we are willing to learn from our more advanced partners. But we believe that this should be done in an open, frank, direct and sincere dialogue”. 

The Belarusian authorities anticipate that the EU Member States where foreign policy officials have changed since 2010 will accept the new ‘old strategy’. However, this time, the Belarusian authorities are not ready for decorative changes in domestic policy and for relaxing the grip on the opposition. Despite official statements of Belarus’s readiness to learn democracy and striving to become a ‘European nation’ the authorities have stiffen penalty for former presidential candidate, political prisoner Mikola Statkevich. 

The Belarusian authorities are stepping up contacts with the most loyal EU capitals in order to strengthen their position and role in the regional context. For example, at the meeting between Belarusian Foreign Minister Makey and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Siyyarto, Makey underscored Belarus’ role as a mediator in Russo-European relations: “We see Belarus as a bridge between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union”. In addition, Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchina in an interview with the Hungarian Magyar Hirlap talked about Belarus’ desire to move closer to the EU but on Belarus’ terms: “we would like to establish as a ‘European nation’ without blood, social unrest and economic collapse”. 

Meanwhile, at the UN, the Belarusian delegation declared that there were no human rights issues in Belarus, that the electoral legislation had improved, and that amid conflict in Ukraine, Belarusian society required stability and a strong state. While speaking at the UN Human Rights Council, Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister Rybakov said, that “thanks to strong government and effective public policy” Belarus “is an island of peace, tranquillity and order” in a difficult geopolitical environment. 

In addition, the Belarusian authorities have attempted to pre-empt criticism of the presidential elections by the international community with introducing cosmetic changes in the election legislation, which would not affect the usual electoral practices.

In turn, the opposition is attempting to use their connections in the EU in order not to allow unconditional normalisation of relations between Minsk and Brussels. For instance, Ostgruppen, Swedish human rights organization called upon resignation of Head of EU Delegation to Belarus Maira Mora. In the past, the Belarusian opposition had repeatedly accused Myra Mora of not taking a strong stance on the release of political prisoners. 

In the near future, Belarus is hoping to increase pressure on Brussels via loyal EU Member States, such as Austria, and via other post-Soviet countries. 

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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.