Release of political prisoners is a step towards normalisation of relations with EU
By releasing all political prisoners, Lukashenka has removed one of the major obstacles in normalising relations between Belarus and the EU and demonstrated that he is intending to refrain from mass repressions against the opposition before the elections. In addition, such a move by the authorities has deprived supporters of the boycott of their major argument and introduced some uncertainty in the opposition setup before the campaigning stage kicks off.
On Saturday, August 22nd, Lukashenka pardoned all six prisoners, who were recognised by human rights defenders as political prisoners in Belarus, including ex-presidential candidate 2010 Mikola Statkevich.
The release of all recognised political prisoners is clearly a move towards the implementation of agreements, which have been reached in the framework of the negotiation process between Belarus and the EU. This gesture has removed one of the major obstacles in the process of normalisation of Belarus-EU relations and opened the door for future progress with other issues on the agenda, including visa facilitation, future modernisation, mobility and a whole range of other issues.
The Belarusian authorities are most likely counting on the lifting of sanctions in the framework of normalisation dialogue and on signing the partnership and cooperation agreement between Belarus and the EU at its final stage. However, both sides understand that that would be a long process, which may fail at any moment.
In particular, Mikola Statkevich’s comeback to the political scene bares additional risks, depending whether he decides to support those who participate in the elections or those advocating for a boycott, or refrains from any activity before the elections. The so-called ‘boycott’ camp, supported by Malady Front and European Belarus (Charter 97), counts on Statkevich, who has long been a symbol of uncompromising resistance to the regime. If that is the case, they may attempt to organise protest actions, leading to new repressions and the standard finale for the election cycle – isolation and breach in relations with the EU until the next elections.
Meanwhile, in his first interview after the release, Mikola Statkevich did not imply that he might join the ‘boycott’ camp. In particular, he said, “I do not know what to do now. The boycott is a boycott of the weak, who have not collected signatures. The boycott may still result in votes count; the opposition candidate however should not be supported either as it may lead to the recognition of elections by all alternative candidates”. He spoke along the same lines in a telephone interview with Charter97: “the situation with the boycott is very difficult right now, because they have somewhat compromised the idea as such when supported the boycott after the failure with signatures. We have to think what to do now. We should not vote for anyone if after the elections all these ‘candidates’ recognise them as ‘fair’”. Apparently, Statkevich is considering supporting Karatkevich under transparent conditions that her team guarantees not to recognise the elections as free and fair. In addition, Statkevich said that after a week of rest he would meet with the opposition leaders.
Overall, the release of political prisoners is a clear signal of Lukashenka’s readiness to continue normalising relations with the EU and to lower the degree of repressions. In addition, the opposition will have to deal with some uncertainty arising from the compromised positions of the supporters of the boycott.
According to Belstat, in August 7,600 people were dismissed, including 4,800 civil servants. Dismissals of civil servants were due to the optimisation in the public administration by up to 30%. Some civil servants would retain their job however would lose the status of a civil servant. Vacancies on the labour market are likely to reduce in number, thanks to the optimisation, the state administration would increase wages for public servants. The payroll fund for retained employees is likely to increase and some former state employees are likely to get jobs in affiliated organizations. The optimisation of the state apparatus should complete by January 1st, 2018, and some former civil servants are likely to join the ranks of the unemployed.