Belarus-West Rapprochement Coming? Political Prisoner Bialiacki Released

On 21 June, the Belarusian authorities unexpectedly released one of its most prominent political prisoners, the head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, Alieś Bialiacki. The EU, US, UN and OSCE welcomed the release as a positive step and called upon Minsk to release its remaining political prisoners.

The Belarusian authorities do not recognise that there is any political prisoner problem in Belarus, calling them criminals have earned their sentence for breaking the law. However, in previous years they have demonstrated their readiness to free people in exchange for improved relations with the West or in an attempt deal with Russian pressure.

Currently, another cycle of rapprochement is unfolding at a time when a major regional crisis has developed in Ukraine and Belarus itself is trapped in the Eurasian Economic Union. More prisoners are likely to be freed soon if the West demonstrates a more assertive positive response.

An Unexpected Freedom

Bialiacki is not only the head of Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Centre, but also a vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights. He was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison in November 2011 on tax evasion charges and spent almost three years in jail. The case became an international scandal after the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice which leaked information on Lithuania-based bank accounts of Belarusian NGOs and the opposition.

As the authorities made the reception of foreign aid inside Belarus virtually impossible by legal means, most organisations use foreign banks to run their organisations. Bialiacki's Viasna was one such example.

The Lithuanian Ministry said it did not anticipate the Belarusian authorities' reaction and stopped cooperating with them once their intentions started to become clear, but it was too late as the Belarusian authorities had already initiated proceedings against Bialiacki.

Shortly after his release Alieś gave a press-conference. Speaking to the media, he said he was surprised to be released on 21 June. Administration of prison showed no signs of being ready to release him and, moreover, considered him a troublemaker.

Other inmates were permitted only restricted contacts with him due to his political prisoner status and they were punished for any of their transgressions. “People were afraid of me”, Bialiacki said. He also informed the media that he was not going to leave Belarus and felt comfortable here. He will continue with this human rights activism in Belarus and internationally, but has no intentions of running for the presidency in 2015.

Belarus Denies That Political Prisoners Exist

On 21 June the United States and European Union called the release of Alieś Bialiacki a positive development and called for the release of all other remaining political prisoners. The OSCE Working Group on Belarus and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus also welcomed the release of Bialiacki.

According to Viasna, there are currently 5 political prisoners in Belarus

According to Viasna, there are currently 5 political prisoners in Belarus: former candidate for president Mikalaj Statkievič, Malady Front activist Eduard Lobaŭ, anarchist activists Mikalaj Dziadok and Ihar Alinievič, and opposition activist Vasil Parfiankoŭ.

Two more inmates, Jaŭhien Vaśkovič and Arciom Prakapenka, who are also anarchists and attacked the Babrujsk KGB office with Molotov cocktails in 2010, are considered as “offenders, who were tried with violations" and received excessive punishment. Many of the activists imprisoner found themselves in jail after 2010 protests, while the anarchists conducted their activity separately from the opposition and have no ties with them.

The Belarusian authorities, however, do not recognise the existence of political prisoners. In a recent interview with the BelaPAN news agency the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makej explained that Belarus views what are being called 'political prisoners' as criminals who committed crimes and thus are receiving the appropriate punishment for their crimes.

He also called the EU's approach towards the political prisoner issue in Belarus “hypocritical”, since Europe regards eastern Ukraine militants as terrorists, but here in Belarus persons who throw Molotov cocktails (i.e. the anarchists) are seen as political prisoners.

To release them, Makej said, a legal procedure should be carried out - prisoners should submit a written appeal for pardon which the authorities should, in turn, consider. “I think it is proper that the state does not bargain with the West over these people”, the minister said. Lukashenka also stresses that submission of a pardon appeal is a must for release. On 23 March Lukashenka repeated again that “If I have a pardon appeal – they will have my signature. Otherwise nothing will help. This is my principle approach.”

However, he has demonstrated that sometimes he can decide to pardon a prisoner without an appeal, depending on their particular offence. In January, he ordered officials to determine whether or not it was true that civil activists had paid off the full sum of Bialiacki’s unpaid tax. He called it a “serious argument” and stated that “politics is not the case here”.

The Belarusian Geopolitical Pendulum Swings Again

The problem of political prisoners remains the main obstacle for reestablishing EU-Belarus cooperation. EU leaders repeatedly stress that the release of political prisoners should be the first step in the process of normalising relations.

Political prisoners are like hostages whom the regime trades in order to improve relations with the West

For Belarus, political prisoners are like hostages whom the regime trades in order to improve relations with the West. Usually prisoners are taken in during post-election cycles, when election fraud can cause large scale protests.

After the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2013, Belarus and the EU have gradually shown signs of mutual interest in improving their relations with one another. Rapprochement is unfolding against a background of an unabating Ukraine crisis and the Belarus' reluctance to support Russian aggression.

Belarus also ceded to Russia's conditions in the Eurasian Economic Union and seeks to achieve some balance in this uneasy situation. The regime is again using the “prisoner's card” for the purposes of its geopolitical games. But the fate of the remaining political prisoners remains unclear.

If Europe will respond with a friendly, but concrete, gesture of good will such as lifting sanctions, or make another beneficial offer to Minsk, their release would appear to be very likely. Still, they should not expect that any profound process of democratisation or regime change will follow, as the current regional crisis demands regime stability to resist Russian pressure.

But any improvement in Belarus-West relations will bring benefits for regular people who can enjoy the fruits of EU support at a local level and the effects of visa liberalisation. Most importantly, the country as a whole needs to strike a geopolitical balance to ensure its sovereignty, and rapprochement with the West remains the only option available to them at the moment.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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