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 Read more
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 Read more
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.
Belarus Strengthens its Bargaining Position in the Eurasian Economic Union
Lukashenka's administration believes that Belarus' participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) does not restrict its ability to balance its interests between Russia and the West.
Despite Russia's position, Belarus continues to participate in the Eastern Partnership. Belarus has even recognised the results of the presidential election in Ukraine. Lukashenka intends to develop cooperation with the government of Ukraine, which is oriented towards European integration.
It is highly unlikely that the creation of the EaEU with Belarus' participation will entail the implementation by Belarus of Russia's demands, which the Belarusian party has already ignored during for more than twenty years.
The authorities simply refuse to sell enterprises to Russian companies and investors. Meanwhile, restrictions against Russian exports in Belarus remain, despite growing the two nation's apparent gradual economic integration.
Currently, Russia is not interested in a conflict with Lukashenka. The establishment of the EaEU provides additional guarantees for the years ahead that create favourable conditions for Belarusian exports to Russia. And all the while Russia, for its part, will be supplying Belarus with cheap gas. Lukashenka has been successful in guaranteeing that the conditions of their oil deal will also be quite favourable for Belarus as well.
Belarus’s Participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU): More Pros than Cons
Before the treaty was signed, several media publications appeared to be claiming that the Russian representatives would prevail in the supranational bodies of the EaEU; thus, Russia would be able to impose its will on its partners within the EaEU as it controlled its administrative organs.
However, the treaty which was recently signed is based on a decision making process that is based on obtaining a consensus at all levels. Similarly, the staffing policy in the union bodies envisages a principle of equal representation from all parties, a move that would severely hamper Russian dominance of its institutions.
At first glance, it would appear that Belarus’ joining the EaEU would bring with it a number of real benefits.
Indeed, when negotiating over the creation of the EaEU, Lukashenka demanded that Russia would eliminate all of its exemptions and restrictions on trade, whereas Russia's representatives scarcely mentioned the trade restrictions that Belarus has placed on Russian exports.
The Russians’ silence on the issue once more convinced their Belarusian counterparts that setting up the EaEU, as well as other integration platforms, is more of a move of geopolitical, rather than economic, significance for Russia.
The Belarusian market, in terms of Russia's overall trade, is rather insignificant when considered in broader terms. The trade volume between Russia and its present and potential EaEU members is miniscule in comparison to volume of trade between Russia and the European Union or with China.
Sale of Large State-Owned Enterprises Remains Unlikely
In the coming years, Russia is unlikely to raise the issue of Belarus selling off its largest state-owned enterprises to Russian investors.
At a time when relations with Russia have steadily deteriorated, Russia has not shied away from posing the question of whether or not Belarus was ready to sell its largest enterprises. It has tried to pressure the Belarusian authorities in several ways, from denying Belarus lines of credit, reducing its the amount of oil flowing into the country, and even introducing specific restrictions on Belarusian exports.
These kinds of coercive measures are nothing new and have been employed several times. For instance, during the so-called “milk wars” of the summer 2009. In the midst of the trade war, Lukashenka proclaimed: “We will go to the trenches, but will not sell [our] enterprises for next to nothing!”
With the establishment of the EaEU, Russia has provided Belarus with financing under largely favourable conditions. Russia has gone as far as creating a good environment for some Belarusian exports. To keep the economy afloat, it has agreed to provide Belarusian oil refineries with low-priced oil, oil that it will re-export to the EU at a profit. In 2015 its estimated that the Belarusian budget will see an influx of funds to the tune of $1.5 billion, in part due to the terms of their economic cooperation.
Belarus sets very strict terms for the sale of any of its factories and manufacturing plants Russian investors may wish to purchase Read more
All this enhances Belarus’ positions at the negotiation table when the question of selling of its state-run enterprises. As in the past, Belarus sets very strict terms for the sale of any of its factories and manufacturing plants Russian investors may wish to purchase: modernisation, maintaining the current number of workers employed, higher tax rates, etc.
Negotiations over the sale of the Minsk Automobile Factory, for example, have been underway for over 13 years. A similar situation has developed with other Belarusian-owned enterprises. From time to time, Lukashenko publicly states that he does not see any reason for selling them off, creating further delays and room for negotiation.
Despite reports to the contrary, for the time being Russia is unlikely to push other issues of real integration, whether it be political integration or unifying the EaEU's national currencies into a single currency.
The Growing Bargaining Power of Belarus
In the coming years, Belarus simply is not going to be at the top of the Kremlin's agenda. Currently, the burning issue for Russia’s foreign policy establishment is clearly Ukraine. Moscow is not only closely following the developments in eastern Ukraine, it is also supporting the region's separatists.
Russia's foreign policy agenda also includes dealing with the issues that are emerging from Georgia and Moldova's march towards European integration, all while drastic changes are taking place with Russia's own relations with the West.
Given these current circumstances, Russia is not interested in creating a more integrated (more than it is at present) EaEU, for two main reasons.
The first and, probably, the most crucial is that the Russian leadership wants to show to Russian society that in a world where Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are headed west, and ties with the West are on the verge of a new Cold War, Russia is not alone and has its own robust and integrated group of allies.
Second, Russia needs to make real progress with its Eurasian integration project in order to feel more confident when it comes to negotiating with the West.
Without Belarus' participation, all Russia's integration projects would be more Asian than Eurasian in their nature Read more
Certainly, the Belarusian side has taken into account another important point. Without Belarus' participation, all Russia's integration projects would be more Asian than Eurasian in their nature.
During negotiations on the founding of the EaEU, Belarus' adopted a tough stance on ensuring its demands were met. In March and April 2014, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that Belarus' participation in EaEU was conditioned on the abolition of duties on exported oil products created using Russian crude oil.
If Russia had accommodated Belarus, the Belarusian budget would have swelled by another $3-4 billion dollars annually. While not entirely successful, Belarus was able to secure a short-term deal with long-term prospects that has it in a much better position than it had held in years past.
More Economic Support from Russia and No Reforms
Lukashenka's team appears to be of the opinion that the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, and Ukraine’s, Georgian and Moldovan push towards European integration, comes with guarantees of significant economic long-term support from Russia. Russia will pay out exuberant sums to its Belarusian ally, and at the same time will not be in a position demand any real concessions.
The resources provided to Belarus after joining the EaEU could be used to carry out structural economic reforms, to implement programmes to enhance energy efficiency, or create new promising industries.
However, the first signals coming out of Minsk seem to indicate that these resources will be used to maintain the existing economic model. Increased levels of financing from Russia is not an impetus for stimulus and change, but rather a means to preserve the status quo.