Peaceful Elections as a Foreign Policy Tool
In October, the Belarusian foreign ministry worked hard to use the presidential elections as a tool to strengthen the positive trend in relations between Belarus and the West. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei managed not to miss this second chance, after the failure of a similar attempt in 2010.
Belarusian diplomats contacted the domestic opposition through different channels to dissuade it from possible street protests. They also used hand-picked “independent” observers to create a positive image of the elections.
The peaceful elections allowed Europe to decide on the suspension of sanctions against the regime. However, the EU can reimpose them at any moment should Lukashenka abandon his rapprochement policy.
Talking to the Opposition and Hand-Picking Observers
Belarusian diplomats focused on securing a positive image of the elections in the international media and public opinion. They also sought to prevent any incidents that would jeopardise the progress already achieved in Belarus’ relations with Europe.
Domestically, Vladimir Makei and other high-ranked diplomats worked to convey a message to opposition leaders in Belarus that Russia might use eventual street protests to stage provocation aimed at sabotaging the positive trends in Belarus’ relations with the West. They did it mostly through Western envoys in Minsk.
Internationally, the Belarusian embassies worked with the usual sympathisers of the Belarusian regime to engage them as “independent” observers or members of the European observation missions at the presidential elections. These are people who are ready to support the regime with positive testimonies, either out of their sincere sympathy for Belarus or in pursuit of lucrative business opportunities in the country.
“Nothing Abnormal” at Polling Stations
The Belarusian government has often sponsored, fully or partially, the trips of many hand-picked “observers” to Minsk. Many of them, like Mikhail Morgulis, President of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation (US), are regulars at presidential elections in Belarus. Unlike the European observation missions, Morgulis and his collaborators tend to praise the elections as “free and fair” .
Thierry Mariani, a French MP, came to Minsk as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation. This former minister, known for his pro-Russian stance, visited fourteen polling stations in Minsk and found “good organisation" and “nothing abnormal” there. However, he took no apparent interest in the vote counting process and early voting, which drew the most criticism from others.
Belarusian diplomats also remained in good working contact with the observation missions of the European institutions. Despite the critical conclusions of their joint report, the ministry refrained this time from criticising them as biased and even avoided commenting on them altogether. Lidia Yermoshina, head of the central election commission, went as far as thanking the mission for its objectivity.
Getting the Sanctions Suspended
Rumours about the imminent recall of the sanctions against high-ranking officials and companies circulated well before the elections. They became almost a certainty after Lukashenka released all the political prisoners in September.
The EU will first renew the sanctions and then suspend them
The European Union virtually confirmed the veracity of these rumours on 12 October, when the European observation missions made public their preliminary conclusions. Harlem Désir, France’s minister for European affairs, announced the decision to suspend the sanctions for the next four months. He made this announcement when answering a question from a reporter after an EU meeting in Luxembourg.
The format of the announcement mattered in this case. Belarus was not on this meeting’s official agenda. The EU intends to formally review and action upon the issue of sanctions before they expire on 31 October. In such circumstances, the news could have come from an “anonymous source” or even been postponed altogether under the premise that the observers’ final conclusions needed to be studied first.
However, Belarus needed a prompt quasi-official confirmation that the EU would stick to its part of the step-by-step arrangement. In its turn, Brussels wanted to reassure Minsk on the eve of Lukashenka’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. Thus, they chose as a messenger the French minister who met with deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna in May 2015 and is familiar with the situation in Belarus.
Low-Key but Positive Reaction
On 15 October, Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, refused to comment on this announcement but reiterated Belarus’ position on the “inefficiency and futility” of anti-Belarus sanctions. He pointed out that the ministry expected their “complete abolition... as soon as possible”.
Lukashenka: "The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!"
Four days later, his boss Vladimir Makei was more outspoken in his reaction. In an interview with a Belarusian TV station, he labelled as “positive” the emergence of such statements. The foreign minister also expressed his understanding of the fact that the sanctions would not be lifted immediately, blaming it on the EU bureaucratic mechanism.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka sees the repeal of sanctions as a fait accompli. “The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!”, he told his ministers at a meeting on 20 October in Minsk, prompting them to expand Belarusian exports.
Announcing the suspension of sanctions, the French minister stressed that they “can be reimposed immediately if this is justified”. In fact, the EU will first renew the sanctions and then immediately suspend them.
The definitive lifting of sanctions would mean that the reasons for their introduction no longer apply, which is untrue. Also, it would make their reimposition quite difficult if Belarus lapses into its old ways of serious human rights abuse. The suspension of sanctions will allow the European Union to have Belarus on the ropes, stimulating the government into taking further steps towards the political liberalisation.
Belarus and Europe are now at the very beginning of a complex diplomatic play, trying to squeeze as many concessions from each other without giving ground on matters of principle.
Europe will demand more democratic reforms culminating in free and fair parliamentary elections next year and will be ready to provide economic assistance in return. Belarus will seek economic benefits as a payment for its role as a "donor of security" in the region and try to avoid meaningful political liberalisation.
Starting with the release of political prisoners, Belarus added the "peaceful elections" and minor electoral improvements to the package to obtain a serious concession from the EU. This is a culmination of the rapprochement, which began after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
The next big test for the step-by-step strategy will be in early 2016 when the EU and Belarus will negotiate the full abrogation, or at least further suspension, of the sanctions.