Officials and opposition got used to EU sanctions
The European Union has extended sanctions against Belarus by one year. The list of individuals with a travel ban and frozen assets within the EU has been updated. 232 persons and 25 entities remain subject to EU sanctions. Previously, the list contained 242 persons, and 30 entities.
Belarus officials have been prepared for the EU decision to extend sanctions. Their response has been restrained, as they are considering options for Belarus-EU relations to develop in the near future. As usual, the opposition has divided into two camps with respect to the EU sanction policy, but without serious confrontation.
The state media has not reported on the extension of EU sanctions. The only official reaction was from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, which issued a fairly neutral statement.
Belarus’ authorities have interpreted the shortening of the EU ‘black list’ as a step towards Belarus ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Savinykh emphasized the positive side in the EU decision, “We have noted the trend towards sanctions being reduced. However the European Union’s decision is wrong and counterproductive”. Meanwhile, whether Belarus will be represented at the Eastern Partnership Summit and at what level depends on Belarus’ ‘Eastern’ policy. Belarus hopes to resolve the issue of resuming Russian subsidies to the Belarusian economy in the near future.
Simultaneously, independent public opinion polls say that EU sanctions are assessed positively by the population. The opposition politicians’ debate about the necessity of sanctions has been heated up too. However, unlike before, this debate has not provoked any open accusations and hostility among opposition politicians. Opposition leaders have come to an understanding that the EU has limited means to influence Belarus’ government policies.
Some politicians who traditionally take a radical stand have criticized the EU’s decision to shorten the ‘black list’. However they have not used the information about complaints filed to the European Court by Belarusian citizens on the sanctions list to spur a debate in society. It is worth noting that this information was disclosed by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), which had previously been accused by certain politicians of lobbying the interests of the ‘regime’s sponsors’.
Belarus is not prepared to spoil relations with the EU: as yet there are no guarantees that Russia will resume its subsidies to the Belarusian economy. The Belarusian government is considering various opportunities to participate in the Eastern Partnership Summit. Depending on the outcome of negotiations with the Kremlin, Belarus will choose the best option for its representation and strategy at the Summit. Among the opposition, there are positive trends regarding convergence on the possibility of influence on the authorities from the outside.
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.