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.
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.