Sannikov and Bondarenko released
In the context of recent statements by high level officials and President Lukashenko, it could be stated, that the range of issues for a dialogue is rather wide. Belarusian authorities made Europeans understand, that the release of the political prisoners is far from being the only concession they are prepared to make.
Minsk is ripe for compromises: from the abolition of the death penalty to a certain liberalization of the upcoming parliamentary election campaign.
At the same time, the liberalization trend is yet far from being irreversible. Evidently, Lukashenko has hard time making decisions like that. The future of this trend will largely depend on the external factors; it could be undermined by a minor provocation.
Brussels should not overestimate its own efforts and the efficiency of the sanctions. Indeed, the latter played a significant role, however the situation should be treated systemically. During the recent conflict Moscow was inflexible and did not offer the alternative to Lukashenko. Quite the reverse, Kremlin’s position was less attractive for Minsk, compared with pompousness of Brussels. On the other hand, Belarusian leader, perhaps, recons the situation is not hopeless enough to implement the “North Korean” scenario.
The release of two political prisoners coincided with the Easter celebrations (a very significant festivity for the Orthodox). On the one hand, it allowed the authorities to save face to an extent (in the view of Christian mercy), and on the other, to minimize the public interest.
Authorities’ concerns about the potential public response turned out unjustified. Society (including the opposition) had lukewarm reactions to Sannikov and Bondarenko being set free. Their release was something everyone expected, moreover, after signing clemency appeals, their heroic aura had faded considerably. It is worth to note, that the release of a large group of activists in September last year provoked stronger emotional reactions in the society.
One could anticipate that Sannikov would try to take advantage of the moment to try to win leadership in the opposition or at least to increase his own influence. However his first statements were not firm enough. It is clear, that if before the end of the week Sannikov does not take a pro-active stand, the radical part of the Belarusian opposition will continue marginalizing in the future.
Analysis of the first comments on the Charter97 website demonstrates, that Charter97 intends to stick to the previous practices of many years: to do minimum inside the country and concentrate on lobbying outside the country. As well, the nature of the messages they send to the West has not changed either: do not trust the “vile regime”, apply new sanctions and isolation.
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.