Opposition is split over „European issue”
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.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.