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.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.