Russia, not Belarus, is interested in uncertainty in bilateral relations
On May 29th, President Lukashenko participated in the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting in Astana, and on May 31st he met with Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev in Minsk.
Lukashenko’s meetings with Russia’s top leaders failed to resolve the most pressing economic issues for Belarus. Belarus’ negotiating potential in bilateral relations is weakened by the intensified Eurasian integration.
Potential enlargement of the Eurasian Economic Union reduces Belarus’ bargaining opportunities. On May 29th in Astana, three Customs Union members granted Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine with observers’ status, and on May 31st, Kyrgyz and Ukrainian delegations signed in Minsk a memorandum on expanding the cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Commission.
Thus, the Eurasian integration expanded to “3 +2” format. This – even nominal – change de facto narrows Belarus’ negotiating opportunities in trade and economic disputes with Russia. First, Lukashenko’s current relationships with Ukrainian and Kyrgyz senior management in particular, are strained. Second, since 2011 President Lukashenko has a critical shortage of assistants he could trust to organize Bishkek-Astana-Kiev-Minsk negotiations to ensure the joint pressure on the Kremlin.
Finally, the cancelled bilateral meeting between Putin and Lukashenko in Astana, where both presidents could have discussed the privatization of Belarusian property and oil supply in Q3 and Q4 2013, implies that Lukashenko has once again failed to resolve the most disputable Belarusian-Russian cooperation issues.
Thus, in the coming two weeks – until mid-June, when oil supplies to Belarus are supposed to be signed – bilateral negotiations will continue at a lower governmental level. Consequently, it will be hard for Belarus to retain its negotiating position and to continue delaying enterprises’ privatization in favor of the Russian capital.
In this connection, Lukashenko’s statement on May 31st at a meeting of CIS government heads in Minsk, with reference to the negotiations at the Astana Summit, is interesting. He said that Russia allegedly was ready “in a year and a half, or maximum by January 1st, 2015 to lift virtually all tariff restrictions, including in the oil and gas industry”.
Potentially, in this way Lukashenko is preparing public opinion and the Belarusian elites in particular, for economic concessions that he is going to make in the near future. In addition, this statement is obviously in line with his pre-election strategy and will be included in the 2015 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Russia provided no comments about future potential preferences for CES members. This topic could have been discussed and Lukashenko could not resist and was the first to disclose that information.
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.