Vatican Helps to Release Belarusian Political Prisoners

Apostolic nuncio Claudio Gugerotti is the only diplomat who can visit the Belarusian prisoners of conscience.

The Holy See seems to work as an intermediary between the European Union and Lukashenka with regard to release of the political prisoners. The nunciature tries to keep their profile low and refuses to give details of the visits to prisons. The secrecy of those visits may hint at the seriousness of intentions. 

On 3 October, Claudio Gugerotti met with the Pope to discuss the latest events in Belarus.

The nuncio visited seven political prisoners last month: ex-presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkevich, chairman of the human rights organisation Vyasna Ales Byalyatski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Paval Syevyarynets, Young Front leaders Zmitser Dashkevich and Edward Lobau.

He also met anarchist Pavel Syramalotau and activist of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front Syarhei Kavalenka. It is notable that the Belarusian authorities released the latter two after the meeting with the nuncio.

Besides, Belarusian analysts have often expressed the idea that the Catholic Church would have been a perfect intermediary in Belarusian-European relations - an opinion shared by some politicians in the West. 

Weakness of the Catholic Church in Belarus

The position of the Catholic Church in Belarus is unstable. On the one hand, the Belarusian Catholic Church effectively develops: builds new churches, organises mass pilgrimages to holy places and religious camps. 12 per cent of Belarusians consider themselves Catholics and every second Belarusian visits church regularly. The Catholic pilgrimage Budslau in Northern Belarus is considered to be the key religious event in Belarus. Christians of all denominations take part in it.

On the other hand, Belarusian Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz knows that the Belarusian Catholic Church can develop only if the authorities allow this. Therefore, the Catholic Church has to remain loyal to the regime.

But discontent with the policy of the Catholic Church administration is growing among the ordinary priests. Fathers Piotra Rudkouski and Yury Barok have many times condemned in public the silence of the Catholic Church authorities when the regime beats people and illegally sentences them to long terms in prison.

Nonetheless, the official line of the Catholic Church remains the same. 

How Lukashenka Made Friends with the Catholic Church

In 2007, relations between the Catholic Church and Lukashenka significantly improved. At that time Pope Benedict XVI appointed Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz as Metropolitan of Minsk and Mahileu. The new Metropolitan soon found understanding with the authorities which made conditions for development of the Catholic Church in Belarus more favourable. However, this development was achieved at the price of loyalty to the Belarusian regime.

In 2009, the Pope officially received Lukashenka in the Vatican after long years of isolation. He was the first in Europe who did so. Naturally, Lukashenka is thankful to the Catholic Church for that. Lukashenka keeps saying at the meetings with the official representatives of the Catholic Church that there is a need for closer cooperation between Belarus, the Holy See and the West.

Last November, Lukashenka said to Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that he expected “from the Catholic Church and from Pope Benedict XVI personally more integration with regard to defence of our interests, especially in the West”.

This April, Lukashenka mentioned to the current Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti that “the Catholic Church’s work on making the relations between Belarus and Western Europe is incomplete”.

It is obvious that Lukashenka really wants to see an influential ally with minimum political ambitions beside him. This ally should also depend on him in some way. The Catholic Church meets these criteria perfectly. 

Why Do They Need an Intermediary?

Brussels does not trust Lukashenka anymore. It is clear that the “dialogue 2008-2010” and its sudden interruption cost a lot to European politicians. The European Union does not want to hold direct negotiations with Lukashenka. Back on 26 August 2011 Bulgaria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Nikolay  Mladenov arrived in Minsk with a mission to talk to Lukashenka. Lukashenka promised he would release all political prisoners soon but failed to keep his promise. 

Brussels is tired of “spinning Minsk round”. The European decision-makers built their Belarus policy on the basis of a search for dialogue and compromises which could lead to at least minor political changes. Today Brussels is tired of looking for common points and the new approach is “if Lukashenka wants it, we want it too”.

This is why Lukashenka decided to establish relations with the Apostolic Capital himself. Today, the Catholic Church is a perfect intermediary for Lukashenka. Belarusian analysts think that positive sides of the Apostolic Capital as an intermediary are great experience in negotiations and non-essential political ambitions. However, there’s one more aspect, which no one mentions for some reason – the Catholic Church in Belarus is Lukashenka’s hostage.

Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti probably knows that Lukashenka will not go for reforms, but the Catholic Church sees its own advantages. First, the Catholic Church as an organisation based on morality wants to facilitate release of political prisoners. Second, although release of several political prisoners is not a great achievement, it will positively affect the reputation of the Holy See. Third, Lukashenka will pay back by letting the Belarusian Catholic Church develop freely.

Release of Several Political Prisoners Will Happen in the Near Future

It is worth mentioning that Belarus has its own very simple political cycle. If Russia is ready to supply energy resources at low prices to Belarus, Lukashenka will destroy the opposition by any means. If Russia demands that Belarus should pay more for oil and gas, Lukashenka starts slow liberalisation and the Belarusian prisoners of conscience come out of prisons.

Relations between Lukashenka and Putin are getting worse again. The Russian authorities demand that Lukashenka respects his own commitments. In the first place, this concerns privatisation and no more sales of oil products disguised as solvents. Belarus is not obliged to return taxes to the Russian budget when it sells oil products this way.

In such conditions, Belarusian authorities will seek support in the West. Belarus' foreign minister Uladzimir Makey even had a short meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week in the United States. Naturally, the former head of the presidential administration had some serious business to discuss with Clinton.

Therefore, the time for Lukashenka to release political prisoners has come. The Belarusian authorities will not do it massively in order not to lose face. However, several political are likely to leave their prison cells soon.

Ryhor Astapenia

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