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.
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.