Official Minsk imposes its own game to Brussels

April 22, 2016 18:54

Amid growing tension in Russia – EU relations, the Belarusian authorities aspire to take the lead in their relations with Brussels. The Belarusian government considers the resurgent geopolitical confrontation in Europe as a window of opportunity to develop Belarus – EU dialogue without fulfilling the main requirement, i.e. the release of all political prisoners. However, Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the increasingly aggressive foreign policy of the latter seriously limits Belarus’ participation in European integration initiatives.

During his visit to Minsk, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius met with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and civil society representatives.

Amid growing geopolitical confrontation in Europe, official Minsk aspires to settle the Belarusian-European relations by taking a neutral passion in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and not openly supporting Moscow’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine (or other countries in the region, which signed association agreements with the EU). The Belarusian leadership is ready to deepen cooperation with the EU in some areas (those considered not overly politicised), such as visa liberalisation and economic cooperation.

Against the background of Russo-European escalation due to the downed Malaysian Airlines’ passenger plane and military conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, Belarus has increased her official contacts with Brussels. While the Kremlin is busy curbing sanctions’ pressure from the West in a response to the plane crash, Belarus attempts to settle her relations with the West without undue interference from the Kremlin. 

For instance, ahead of Belarus’ Foreign Minister’s visit to Brussels, the Belarusian authorities have issued an entry visa to German Bundestag Deputy Marieluise Beck, whose goal was to study the human rights situation and the political situation in Belarus. Marieluise Beck is a well-known critic of Belarus’ official policies; she has been denied entry to Belarus for three years in a row.

The Belarusian government also demonstrated interest in cooperation with the EU within the Eastern Partnership Programme. Primarily, this interest stems from the growing economic imbalances and the need for regular external borrowing to keep the national currency afloat. For instance, Belarus’ Prime Minister Myasnikovich said, that “more serious projects, such as infrastructure projects could be developed”. 

Amid the unpredictable Kremlin’s foreign policy, the majority of the opposition is not interested in throwing a spanner into the Belarus-EU machinery over “pragmatic” issues. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy and Belarus’ huge dependence on Russia, prompt her to cautious actions. In order to mitigate the Kremlin’s potentially negative reactions to enhanced cooperation between Belarus and the EU, the official Minsk proposed to involve Russia in the Eastern Partnership initiative “in order to pre-empt the emergence of new dividing lines in the region”.

The Kremlin reacted nervously to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (the EaP countries) signing the association agreements with the European Union and retaliated with adopting import restrictions on some goods from these countries. The Belarusian leadership supports the division of the Eastern Partnership countries into two categories in an attempt to reduce the Kremlin’s reactions towards this initiative. 

All in all, the developing Belarus-EU relations will be restrained by Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin. Most of President Lukashenko’s opponents are ready at least not to hinder the strengthening Belarusian-European cooperation. However, the Belarusian government will not ease the domestic political climate ahead of the presidential campaign, despite some symbolic steps inter alia, the release of some political prisoners. 

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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.