President Putin’s visit to Minsk boosts pro-Russian sentiments in Belarusian society

April 22, 2016 18:53

President Putin’s visit to Minsk bolstered pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus and added loyalty to the Kremlin’s integration project – the Eurasian Economic Union. Officials in Minsk have been prompted to adjust their rhetoric regarding the Kremlin’s foreign policy, thus sending confusing signals to Belarusian society. The Belarusian government seeks to balance out Russian influence in Belarus by stepping up the rhetoric about the need to develop an independent and sovereign state.

President Vladimir Putin visited Minsk, where alongside President Lukashenko he took part in the Independence Day celebrations – the 70th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis. 

President Vladimir Putin flew to Minsk to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation from the Nazis, but he did not stay for the celebrations and the parade. Official Minsk was prompted to reaffirm its loyalty to the Kremlin, since the latter sought to show off its allies amid tensions in relations with Ukraine and the West.

The Independence Day parade in Belarus was co-organised with the Russians, which made many Belarusians upset in the view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea  and fears of Russia’s greater influence inside Belarus. According to the most recent poll by IISEPS, the majority of Belarusians support the Kremlin’s foreign policy and reproduce Russian propaganda myths against Ukraine. The Belarusian government cannot but be concerned about the pro-Russian sentiments therefore it puts more emphasis on the value of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty in public statements. 

Ahead of President Putin’s visit, President Lukashenko said: “we are intimidated with hordes coming from the East and now we are intimidated by the East with hordes coming from the West to dismember, crush and tear us to pieces. As President, I shall keep this in mind and shall not shake off of the options, even the most absurd ones”. The president also underscored that “today Belarus is free and independent”. 

Meanwhile, President Lukashenko’s dress code during the celebrations was a tie with orange-and-black stripes, reminiscent of the St. George’s Ribbon, which was used by the Russian propaganda as a symbol of the "Russian world" and Russian revival. Most likely, the president was prompted to prettify his rigid statements about the potential threat from the East with such a visual demonstration. It is worth noting that during previous Victory Day celebrations, the Belarusian authorities imposed a de facto ban on the use of St. George’s Ribbons.

At the meeting with his Russian counterpart, President Lukashenko as always  assured him that "Belarus and Russia will always be together”. However, after Putin’s departure Lukashenko once again expressed concerns about the threat to national security: “Today we see the decline in the efficiency of the international security system, established after the war. New threats have occurred. The post-war borders are revised and redrawn. A tendency of global instability is present”.

Official Minsk is strengthening rhetoric about the value of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty. However, while adopting some theses of the Belarusian opposition, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to reconsider relations with their opponents. 

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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.