No plans to deepen cooperation with EU until end of presidential elections in Belarus

April 22, 2016 19:11

Belarus favours pragmatic cooperation with the EU on economic projects, cross-border cooperation, visa liberalisation and facilitation in obtaining external financing. The Belarusian government is satisfied with the pace the relations with Western capitals develop and demonstrates no desire to cooperate with the EU on political level. The Belarusian authorities are hoping to reach a new stage in cooperation with the EU after the presidential campaign and unlikely to release political prisoner and ex-presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich anytime soon.

At a meeting with EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and EU Enlargement Johannes Hahn, President Lukashenka suggested to readjust Belarus-EU relations.

According to the Belarusian authorities, Minsk and Brussels have similar views about the need to reformat the EU Eastern Partnership initiative and make it more pragmatic, introduce a differentiated approach, remove political conditionality and increase cooperation in the framework of joint economic projects.

Ahead of the presidential campaign and amid the lack of progress in socio-economic development, the president feels it is important to demonstrate to the population that Belarus–EU relations have been unblocked. And the authorities are quite satisfied with the current pace of development in Belarus-EU relations. For instance, should the president decide to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, he will not gain any visible bonuses and may inspire negative reports by the Russian media detrimental to his image inside the country ahead of the presidential elections.

The Belarusian authorities are attempting to pre-empt pressure from the Kremlin for Belarus’ potential participation in the ‘anti-Russian initiative’ (quoting Kremlin ideologists), by adhering to their general foreign policy line as an international mediator. In particular, the president once again reiterated the need to encourage cooperation between the EEU and EU: “I think that the European Union would have to know about the main trends that are taking place in the Eurasian Economic Union, and possibly start building a relationship with this global market today”.

Securing external funding from international creditors in order to preserve social and economic stability in Q2 2015 is the ultimate task for the Belarusian authorities. Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities say they are ready to implement structural economic reforms, many experts believe that they might abandon such plans after obtaining the loan. Likewise, in 2009-2010, the IMF loan has not led to the socio-economic reforms. According to the opposition, back then loans played an important role in helping the Belarusian state to ensure social protection and purchasing the loyalty of the population before the 2010 presidential election. In 2011, however, the country fell into currency and financial crisis.

Ahead of the upcoming general amnesty to honour the 70th Anniversary of the Victory Day, the Belarusian authorities are increasing pressure on political prisoners to write a petition for pardon enabling them to release political prisoners. For example, political prisoner Prokopenko wrote a petition for clemency to President Lukashenka yet in February 2015. Human rights groups report that the authorities have stepped up pressure on ex-presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich (to write a clemency appeal), who is awaiting trial, which will decide whether he would be transferred from the penal colony to prison.

The Belarusian authorities anticipate expanding the boundaries of acceptance for processes ongoing inside Belarus by Western capitals in order to mitigate the EU’s assessment of the presidential elections results and lay the ground for deeper cooperation after the elections. In particular, President Lukashenka said with regard to cooperation prospects between Belarus and the EU, “I find this matter the most interesting – to readjust, and possibly to construct our policy with regard to the European Union in the future”.

Political opposition inside Belarus is increasingly dissatisfied with the Brussel’s actions regarding rapprochement between the EU and Belarus on the terms of the latter, even though they were previously upbeat about the ‘normalisation’ in Belarus-EU relations. The opposition is counting on greater participation in developing approaches to shaping EU relations with Belarus.

President Lukashenka is unlikely to participate in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga regardless of the nature of the invitation.

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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.