Belarus Retains Death Penalty, Promotes UN Reform – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In the first half of March, the EU’s top human rights official came to Minsk to talk President Alexander Lukashenka into introducing a temporary moratorium on the death penalty.
The Belarusian authorities are very willing to discuss human rights with Europe but remain reluctant to take specific action.
At the UN, Belarusian diplomats continue to promote greater inclusion of rank-and-file UN members in the decision-making process, this time by advocating a stronger role for them in selecting the next UN head. These actions are at odds with Russia’s position on this matter.
Lukashenka meets the EU human rights head
On 9-11 March, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, visited Belarus. The EU official met ministers for foreign affairs, the interior, justice and information. His agenda also included meetings with opposition and civil society leaders, independent journalists and human rights activists.
Lukashenka received Lambrinidis on the first day of his visit in Minsk. The Belarusian leader sounded reconciliatory and constructive. He expressed satisfaction with the fact that Belarus and Europe had “abandoned [their] head-on confrontation”.
Lukashenka spoke in favour of a “permanent dialogue, permanent contacts”. However, he claimed Belarus’ right to have its own understanding of human rights issues.
Lukashenka and Lambrinidis agreed that trade and human rights are interrelated but disagreed on cause and effect. The Belarusian president stressed that, with the development of trade and economic relations, human rights issues would disappear on their own.
The EU official, in his turn, believes that the improvement of the human rights situation in the country will result in more trade and foreign investment.
Belarus retains death penalty as a bargaining tool
Lambrinidis came to Minsk to persuade Lukashenka to introduce a temporary moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus. Belarus is the only country in Europe where capital punishment is still applied.
The issue of the death penalty remains at the top of Europe's demands vis-a-vis Belarus. When lifting the sanctions in February, the European Council “condemn[ed] the application of the death penalty in Belarus … and urge[d] the Belarusian authorities to set up a moratorium as a first step towards its abolition”.
On 10 March, the Belarusian foreign ministry and the UNDP office in Minsk organised an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide. Speaking at the conference, Lambrinidis urged Belarus’ highest authorities to show their political will by abolishing capital punishment.
The Belarusian authorities continue to shelter themselves behind public opinion. Opening the conference, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov pointed to the fact that most Belarusians still support the death penalty. “We cannot and will not ignore this fact, including in the context of dialogue with our much esteemed European partners”, Rybakov stressed.
Abolition of the death penalty would be one of the easiest steps for the authorities to take in order to please Europe. Unlike concessions on freedom of speech or assembly, such a decision would hardly undermine the regime’s grip on society. Public opinion on this subject can be easily ignored or tweaked.
Abolition of the death penalty or even a moratorium would improve Belarus’ image in Europe. It would help the European bureaucracy to rationalise the need for more cooperation with Minsk. Belarus would finally be able to join the Council of Europe.
However, one should not expect the Belarusian authorities to take such a step in the near future. They realise fully well the bargaining power that retention of the death penalty provides. Thus, they will likely choose to play this card at a more crucial moment, as they did with the release of political prisoners.
A temporary moratorium on the death penalty can hardly be an option. Lukashenka realises that nothing is more permanent than the temporary. Once the moratorium is in place, it will be difficult to withdraw it without damaging the country’s reputation.
At this stage, the maximum Europe may expect from Belarus on the death penalty is more dialogue and a lot of talking. The same also applies to other divisive issues between Belarus and Europe.
Belarus reforms the UN
By the end of 2016, the United Nations will appoint its new Secretary-General for the next several years. An informal regional rotation arrangement provides that the next head of the UN Secretariat should come from among Eastern European countries.
This factor makes the forthcoming selection process an important exercise for Belarusian diplomacy.
On 29 February, speaking at an informal brainstorming session, Belarus’ ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas insisted on the appointment of the UN’s chief through a secret ballot. Though the existing rules require such a procedure, in practice, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) always rubber-stamps the candidate recommended by the Security Council.
Belarus also wants the UNGA to withdraw its own recommendation (made in 1946) to the Security Council to “proffer one candidate only” for the appointment.
Throughout the UN's entire history, the UN Secretary General has remained a product of consensus of the Security Council’s permanent members. Submitting more than one candidate to the UNGA would mean effectively letting the wider international community have the final say on the matter.
Even if the UNGA adopts the Belarusian proposal, it is highly unlikely that China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States would agree to relinquish their control over who will head the organisation.
Nevertheless, this year the process of selection and appointment of the Secretary General promises to be more transparent and inclusive for member states. The process starts in April when Belarus will chair the UN’s Eastern European Group (EEG). The country’s mission at the UN seeks to organise a high-level EEG event with participation of potential candidates.
A UN official told Belarus Digest that Belarus favoured the candidature of Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian politician and UNESCO's Director-General. Bokova visited Belarus in April 2014 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s UNESCO membership.
Belarus’ activity in reforming the appointment process has been frowned upon by Russia, which does not welcome any change that could undermine its role at the UN. Belarusian diplomats have taken this into account by softening their reforming zeal. However, they are still pressing ahead with their agenda.
Belarus Reality Check, Life After Sanctions – Digest Of Belarusian Analytics
Over the last weeks Belarusian analysts widely discussed the removal of EU sanctions and possible scenarios of further rapprochement, as well as benefits for Belarus. The surveys demonstrate that Belarus citizens became worse off, yet they are not going to channel the falling incomes into mass protests.
Green activists reveal that funding of EU-Belarus projects remains barely transparent. Belarus ranks 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.
6th Belarus Reality Check took place on February 25, in Vilnius and gathered Belarusian and international analysts, diplomats and development practitioners for an evidence-based review of the situation in Belarus. The topics raised were Belarus' economy and the processes of reforms; Belarus security and foreign relations, and Belarus-Western relation in light of Ukrainian crisis. Please check out the program of the event. A non-paper will be published based on the results of the meeting.
Belarus without sanctions
Amplituda. Life After Sanctions: How To Negotiate With Europe? – A new release of the TUT.by program discusses if the EU hastened with lifting the sanctions, who will determine the road map of rapprochement, which proposals can make Belarus to the EU and vise versa, which recent numerous bilateral meetings are the most significant. The speakers are Denis Melyantsou, BISS and Yauheni Preiherman, Liberal Club.
Belarus Without Sanctions: What Now? – Artyom Shraibman, Belarus Digest, notices that with the sanctions removed, Belarus can now hope for increased financial support from Brussels. Still, the new phase of relations is a positive development. In the end, Belarus will need a foreign helping hand to launch reforms and drag itself out of the crisis. For the sake of the country’s future and independence, this hand would be better coming from the West.
EU Lifts Most Sanctions Against Belarus Despite Human Rights Concerns – The Guardian highlights that decision to lift sanctions against 170 people including president Alexander Lukashenka prompts widespread criticism. The EU’s view of progress in Minsk stands in stark contrast to the concerns about political repression and human rights abuses.
Why Sanctions Against Belarus Could Not Stand – Grigory Ioffe analyzes the reaction of the Belarusian and Russian media on the removal of the sanctions on Belarus by the EU. The expert concludes that while the lifting of sanctions has manifested an overdue change in the Western policy vis-à-vis Belarus, it effectively posed more questions than it addressed.
Economic situation in Belarus
Fresh Charka&Shkvarka Index. BIPART Research Center and the KostUrada project released a Charka&Shkvarka Index (Shot & Bacon) for 4th quarter of 2015. The Index is calculated quarterly on the basis of price of 100 grams of pork and 100 grams of vodka. In the 4th quarter of 2015, the Index has risen by 1.6% – now the average Belarusian can afford 321 Charka&Shkvarka per month, which is equivalent to 32.1 kg of pork and 32.1 liters of vodka.
Belarusians Live Worse, But do Not Intend to Protest – According to a survey conducted by Vardomatsky laboratory in late December 2015, the nation's economic self-perception was worse in 2015 than during the previous year. At the same time, the growth of protest mood is not observed. The geopolitical orientation of Belarusians is characterized by the pro-Russian dominance throughout the year and a sharp rise in recent months (2/3 of the population).
REFORUM. Improving the Competitiveness of Belarus: What the State Development Programs Miss – The study conducted in the framework of REFORUM project identifies gaps in the state programs, the elimination of which would improve the competitiveness of Belarus. So far Belarus has not included either in the WEF ranking or any other rating, evaluating the competitiveness of countries, because the experts distrust to the Belarusian official statistics.
Foreign and security policy
Belarus Prepares to Adopt New Military Doctrine – Yauheni Preiherman, Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that in recent months, military affairs have featured high on the political and media agendas in Belarus. The analyst believes that this should not be interpreted in terms of Belarus being afraid specifically of a Donbas-type scenario or of increased military activity along NATO’s eastern flank. But this is generally a logical reaction of a small sovereign state to the multiple security challenges it faces on different levels.
Freedom of Associations and Legal Conditions for Non-Profit Organizations in Belarus – Legal Transformation Center and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs released the monitoring of the Belarusian non-profit sector for 2015. Major changes of the last year affecting the interests of NGOs concerned legal regulations of foreign funding. At the same time, all pre-existing legal restrictions and enforcement practices regarding all aspects of the NGOs establishment and operation remained unchanged.
Amplituda. Around What Authorities, Opposition and the Society Can Unite in Belarus (Video) – In TUT.by studio, political analyst Alexander Klaskouski and BPF leader Alexei Yanukevich discuss the recent protests of entrepreneurs. They raise such issues as fears of entrepreneurs to cooperate with politicians; who should set an example of the integration; why politicians united before; what challenges can shift to integration with pro-government structures.
Where the European Money Goes – WildLife.by journalists decided to get acquainted with organizations that have received grants under the project "Facilitating the transition of Belarus to the green economy", funded by the EU and implemented by the UNDP. Using the information from open sources, the journalists could not find a half of the grantees.
Belarus ranks 127th in the Democracy Index. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Belarus 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. The Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Ukraine is ranked 88th while Russia is 132nd. Compared to last year, Belarus dropped two positions.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.