What Stands behind Another “Liberalisation” in Belarus?

Collecting signatures in the centre of Minsk. Site: nn.by

Just as before the 2010 presidential elections the Belarusian authorities show certain signs of liberalisation. They do not use aggressive hostile propaganda on TV and have allowed the opposition to campaign without interference.

In addition, Alexander Lukashenka held a press-conference for three independent journalists, where he hinted on the possible release of the main political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.

These and other steps reflect an attempt to normalise relations with the West. Naturally, Lukashenka will preserve his authoritarian system of governance and the practise of holding elections. But he plans to carry them through quietly without notable repression, after which OSCE observers may prepare a relatively positive report.

The geopolitical context – conflict in Ukraine and Belarus’ role in the peace process – can foster the unfreezing of contacts between Minsk and Brussels, both of whom seem ready for it.

Authorities Show Their Mild Face

First and foremost, the liberalisation trend concerns the presidential campaign. Lukashenka himself publicly invited everyone who wishes to monitor the election and ordered his power ministers “not to catch or drag anyone who stands in the wrong place”, which was interpreted as giving the opposition carte blanche to campaign.

Indeed, so far the authorities have allowed the opposition to campaign freely, travel across the country and even gather small rallies at markets, near plants and factories to collect 100,000 people’s signatures required for a candidate's registration.

One opposition leader Anatol’ Liabedz’ka went even further and transformed a couple of his pickets into fully fledged protests for releasing political prisoners and punishing those responsible for political kidnappings in 1999-2000. Formally speaking, this could be considered as violating the Electoral Code because pickets are supposed to serve merely for collecting signatures. However, no sanctions followed.

State TV and print media still praise the president, but, in general, speak more neutrally about the opposition. The most popular state TV channel ONT airs a weekly political talk-show, inviting independent experts and even moderate opposition politicians.

In the meantime, Alexander Lukashenka for the first time since he came to power held a press-conference only for three journalists from the independent media: informational portal TUT.BY, Euroradio and Radio Free Europe. The event lasted 4.5 hours instead of the 90 minutes it originally planned. Lukashenka guaranteed no invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian territory, supported the promotion of the Belarusian language and promised that journalists will have full access to voting process and ballot counting.

More importantly, Lukashenka admitted he was considering the release of the No1 political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich before the elections. Prior to the press-conference the standard response from Lukashenka was: “Statkevich is a criminal, is he asks for pardon, I will think about it”.

Reaching Out to the West Again

For those who have observed Belarusian politics for a while, this liberalisation trend may seem familiar. In 2010, after two years of improving ties between Belarus and the EU, the presidential campaign started in a surprisingly free atmosphere. However, this political honeymoon ended on election night, when 700 people were arrested after a brutal crackdown on a mass opposition rally in Minsk.

Since then Belarus-EU relations went through a deep crisis in 2011 followed by a very cautious reengagement. Parties negotiated a visa facilitation agreement and Belarus joined the pan-European Bologna process. The Ukrainian crisis also made its contribution: Minsk put on a hat of a reliable partner hosting peace talks and distancing itself from Russia.

The EU started curtailing sanctions: the latest revision took place on 30 July when two dozen Belarusian officials were crossed off the visa ban list. However, the existence of political prisoners in Belarus stands in the way of normalising relations.

After Russia intervened in Ukraine and fell under Western sanctions going into economic recession, it became a far less reliable donor and safe partner for Belarus. In these circumstances Lukashenka tries to improve ties with the West. He needs it to get some space for geopolitical maneuvering and maybe even assistance in receiving IMF loans or selling bonds on European stock markets. The unclear statement about Statkevich’s future may be seen as a trial balloon, an attempt to ask Europeans what they can give in return.

How Realistic are Lukashenka’s Plans?

It is rather obvious that Alexander Lukashenka cannot allow truly fair elections – it will bury the whole political system he depends on. The authorities will not let many opposition activists into electoral committees, or make the counting process more transparent. The state TV channels will not stop praising the president. Also, liberalisation will hardly cover areas Europeans pay less attention such as press freedom, freedom of associations or assembly. And for sure this liberalisation will end the moment its objectives are met or if it starts getting out of control.

However, overall political apathy in Belarusian society and the fear of any revolution after the Ukrainian crisis already caused lack of enthusiasim in traditional protests after the elections. The absence of protests in its turn will mean no need for government suppression.

As a result the OSCE may still call the elections unfair but notice some slight progress like more room for opposition agitation or no political arrests. It would be a repetition of 2010 (when everybody emphasised the liberal spirit of campaign before election night) but without the cruel disruption of protests and new political prisoners.

After the elections Lukashenka hopes to approach the EU holding a moderately positive OSCE report in one hand and peacekeeper image in the other. If in addition he will release Statkevich and some other political prisoners (all in all, six people by human rights activists' assessments), the road to lifting European sanctions seems open. Elections come right on time - at the end of October the EU Council annually reviews its sanctions against Belarus.

On the other hand, according to diplomatic sources, the EU has prepared an internal document, some sort of a road map, providing certain concrete steps the EU can undertake in relations with Belarus, if major political obstacles are removed. The document includes trade and investment facilitation measures, technical support in various fields.

The 2015 presidential elections have fully predictable results in terms of the winner. However, their implications on the relations between Belarus and the EU can be crucial. Smooth elections without repression and the release of key political prisoners may finally unfreeze the comprehensive relations with the West. Geopolitics played its part, now it’s time for Alexander Lukashenka to play his.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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