Opposition is split over „European issue”

April 22, 2016 18:28

Last week, opposition and civil society representatives had hot debates about the Belarusian-European relations’ principles and about the role they could play. The debates started on April 8th when “Wider Europe for Belarus”, the Belarusian Popular Front, “For Freedom” movement and “Tell the Truth” civil campaign made a joint statement.

Last week’s debates in democratic environment confirmed disagreements among them over the “European issue”. The “Trio” (“For Freedom”, “Tell the Truth” and BPF) called upon the EU to implement different policies towards the authorities and the Belarusian population, regardless of the Belarusian authorities’ actions. Charter 97 and the UCP stood against dual policy and called for ‘freezing’ relations until Belarusian authorities fulfill the EU demands.

BPF leader Yanukevich, “For Freedom” movement Alyaksandr Milinkevich and “Tell the truth” Vladimir Neklyayev called upon the EU to implement proactive policy of engagement vis-à-vis Belarusian population, regardless of the relations between Belarus and the EU. Namely, they proposed to unilaterally minimize visa barriers, to launch implementation of small border traffic agreement, to simplify the rules for the Belarusian-European small and medium-sized joint ventures, to create favourable conditions for Belarusian students at European universities, to continue supporting civil society.

Mr. Sannikov, “European Belarus” (Charter 97) leader said it would be unacceptable for the EU to expand cooperation with Belarus without the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. Sannikov called upon the EU to demand immediate release of all 13 political prisoners. In his view, the EU should seize all relations with the dictatorship, suspend oil products trade, potash imports, freeze bank accounts, and stop all formal and informal interactions with the authorities until all political prisoners were released.

There are no formal contradictions between these positions. The “Trio” talked about the EU’s unilateral steps towards Belarusian citizens, and about leaving relations with the authorities unchanged – i.e. no dialogue until the political prisoners were released. Sannikov said nothing about the EU’s policy towards the Belarusian citizens, but demands maximum isolation of the regime. However, these positions differ not only by their “conciliatory” or “non-compromising” tone, they base on different concepts about the most probable and desirable scenarios for changes in Belarus.

The first group reckons that the most possible and desirable changes will come when the regime is eroded by the increased opportunities for the Belarus’ citizens, when their dependence on the state is reduced, thereby reducing fear of the regime and bringing changes. The second group advocates for narrowing opportunities for both, the regime and its citizens, creating unbearable socio-economic conditions and, as a consequence, for social explosion. Both positions base on the current electoral perceptions in the Belarusian society.

Therefore, regardless of the EU policy towards Belarus, the differences among the opposition forces in Belarus will remain – at least until of the scenarios becomes true.

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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.