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 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.