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.
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.