Officials and opposition got used to EU sanctions

April 22, 2016 18:40

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.

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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.