Why Lukashenko does not release political prisoners?
On March 5, the one-month period for the consideration of a pardon filed by Dmitry Bondarenko, a proxy of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov expired. Mr. Sannikov signed his appeal yet on 23 December 2011, however, both of them still remain in prison.
President Lukashenko’s delay with the decision on clemency overrides our previous assessment about the imminent release of political prisoners. On December 23, 2011 at a press conference Lukashenko expressed the willingness to release them based on clemency appeals, however he never fulfilled his promise. There are a number of reasons behind such behaviour of the Belarusian authorities.
Firstly, the most likely explanation is the unwillingness of Lukashenko to give way in conflict with the EU, which has escalated dramatically after the expansion of the EU visa “black list” with names of a number of Belarusian officials and the subsequent recall of EU ambassadors on February 27-29. Intransigent stance of Minsk can be explained by analogy with the non-introduction of moratorium on the death penalty: recently one of the Deputies of the Belarusian Parliament said that such a decision could have been taken long time ago, if not for the continued pressure on Belarus by the EU.
Secondly, the political conflict between Minsk and Brussels is compounded by the likely introduction of economic sanctions against businessmen close to Lukashenko on March 23. The Brussels-based EUobserver with reference to unofficial source in diplomatic circles wrote on 1 March about the possibility of such action with respect to 4 Belarusian businessmen.
Even if the economic sanctions are not to be extended, the EU statement significantly increases its stakes in the conflict and puts Lukashenko in an extremely awkward position: in order to resolve the conflict, he is forced to make concessions and fulfill the EU requirements, namely, the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. At the same time, business elite of Belarus gains negative attitude towards Lukashenko blaming him for increased business risks.
However, in the current situation concessions of Lukashenko will not guarantee benefits for Belarus, as in 2008, when the release of the former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin enabled the cooperation with the IMF Stand-by loan programme. The failed negotiations with the recent IMF mission in Minsk on February 22 - March 6, imply in 2012 that scenario is unlikely to repeat.
Belarusian authorities are usually prone to the short-term thinking. Therefore, most likely, the release of political prisoners in exchange for ending of the conflict with the EU is perceived by Minsk as a very bad deal. Firstly, it brings no economic benefits for the country. Secondly, the Belarusian elite, raised by Alexander Lukashenko, will certainly perceive such a move as a weakness of the President.
From this perspective, President Lukashenko does not choose from long-term exit strategies of this political crisis, alien to his political experience. On the contrary – he is trying to gain the most from the escalation of the conflict in short-term benefits: he is mobilizing state apparatus and tightens business discipline.
Therefore, it is likely that one of the reasons behind the detention of the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of “Technobank” Mr. Kotsarenko on 6 March on suspicion of tax evasion and complicity in the crime was to demonstrate the inevitability and unopposed nature of the president as the guarantor of the interests of business elite.
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.