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.
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.