Opposition Reshaping: Where Will it Lead?
Following the full-scale fragmentation after the 2015 presidential election campaign, the Belarusian opposition is starting to unite.
Tatsiana Karatkevich, currently quite popular in polls, is rounding up her supporters to enter the 2016 parliamentary elections. Centre-right parties have formed a coalition. Street protests leader Mikola Statkevich is trying to gather other opposition groups around the idea of a new congress that is supposed to lay down a new united strategy.
However, mistrust among leaders, a lack of human resources, political apathy among the population and the evident strength of the Belarusian authoritarian regime still undermine the prospect of success for the opposition in the foreseeable future.
Karatkevich: most popular, yet ostracised by the opposition
The Tell the Truth campaign represents the "moderate" camp of the opposition. It is headed by two young politicians – Tatsiana Karatkevich, a presidential candidate in the October 2015-elections, and political strategist Andrey Dmitrieu.
Karatkevich, through the use of a mild political style, gained considerable support during the elections. A poll by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) conducted in October after the presidential elections placed her second after Lukashenka in terms of popularity, with 22% of votes. Among all Belarusians (including those who abstained from voting in the elections) she enjoyed a 16% approval rating. The deeper IISEPS analysis showed that Karatkevich attracts the support of many people from moderate groups of society who had refrained from supporting the opposition beforehand.
Immediately after the elections Karatkevich and Dmitrieu announced that they were preparing for the 2016 parliamentary elections campaign. They called upon all like-minded people to sign up to their candidate nomination list titled "TaK. For Peaceful Changes" ("tak" – is the Belarusian word for "yes", and is also the acronym of the first letters of Tatsiana Karatkevich's name).
Their political activity so far has included a series of meetings with the heads of Belarusian parliamentary committees, where Dmitrieu and Karatkevich discussed and lobbied their "peaceful changes" plan. They also took a number of trips to the regions, evidently, to mobilise their local activists. They have become more and more active in the media, publishing statements on urgent topics like the ruble devaluation and showing up at various public fora (like those of entrepreneurs or economists) to announce their reform agenda.
Other opposition leaders have distanced themselves from this movement. Many view Karatkevich and Dmitrieu as loyal to the regime, or sometimes as a KGB project.
For long enough the Belarusian opposition has failed to unite on an ideological basis. In December 2015 leaders of the United Civil Party, Belarusian Christian Democracy and the For Freedom movement established a centre-right coalition. A fourth party, the Belarusian People's Front, has said it is ready to coordinate its actions with the coalition but does not want to fully join it.
It is worth noting that the unification was supervised by European Parliament bloc the European People's Party (EPP). The EPP had earlier recognised these opposition structures as partners. At first glance, such foreign backing gives the coalition a dubious image of an artificially created Brussels' project. On the other hand, having an influential curator in the European Parliament implies a certain degree of trust in the West. This may serve as a stabiliser for the coalition, because failure to stay united may irritate important Western partners.
The coalition has announced that it will take part in the parliamentary campaign, launch a united election observation programme, promote a European trajectory and market reforms and fight for free elections. So far, the leaders of the coalition have visited several regions of Belarus to introduce their ideas to local officials and private entrepreneurs at markets.
A street leader summons the opposition congress
Former No1 political prisoner Mikola Statkevich, known for his uncompromising stand and bravery during four and a half years in custody, became an icon for certain opposition fractions. This background together with his personal charisma has made him a leader for those activists and movements who view street protests as, ultimately, the only feasible regime change tactic.
Statkevich organised six unauthorised rallies in the centre of Minsk before and after last year's presidential elections. Currently he is organising an opposition congress. The idea is to gather activists from all over Belarus to determine a united strategy for the opposition and to put forward democratisation requirements to the authorities. When they are ignored, as anticipated, Statkevich proposes to prepare street protests.
In 2005 the congress format enabled the opposition to field united presidential candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich. Since then all attempts to use the congress as a uniting strategy have failed. That is why this time the Statkevich proposal was met with very limited enthusiasm.
Statkevich has managed to get support from some well-known figures: two former presidential candidates – poet Uladzimir Nekliaeu and political exile Andrei Sannikau, trade-union leader Henadz' Fedynich, co-chair of the right-wing Young Front Zmicier Daschkevich and several other activists. However, except for Sannikau who controls popular opposition website Charter'97, the others lack serious structures behind them.
Statkevich reached out to the rest of the opposition for support of his idea, with the exception of Tell the Truth and the leftist Just World party, whom he has called "KGBists" and "communists" respectively. The others, including the centre-right coalition, are still considering Statkevich's proposal and have promised to respond soon.
Still no window to succeed
The ad hoc coordination of efforts between the Statkevich camp and the centre-right coalition seems possible: they share a common agenda, electorate and, to a certain degree, political tactics. However, personal mistrust among the leaders will most likely stand in the way of a considerable unification.
As for the Tell the Truth campaign, it seem neither able nor willing to cooperate with the rest of the opposition. It is trying to gain the support of a so-called "new majority", median electorate that supports neither the government nor the traditional opposition. Affiliation with the latter can only be a problem in this regard.
The moderate Tell the Truth campaign can hope to be granted some seats in parliament on the wave of the Belarusian-European thaw in relations, but this scenario also remains unlikely. Lukashenka will choose other concessions, like cosmetic changes in election or media law, rather than sacrificing the political sterility of his parliament.
Belarusian Diplomacy in 2015 – Annual Foreign Policy Digest
On 6 January, the Belarusian foreign ministry published an annual review of Belarus’ foreign policy (in Russian only). The document, in bureaucratic lingo, tediously reports on the ministry’s achievements and activities in 2015.
Belarus Digest offers its own subjective summary of Belarusian diplomats’ most notable successes and failures in the past year in a "top ten" format. In most cases, the results were mixed, however.
Getting the sanctions suspended. In October, the European Union suspended for four months its restrictive measures against many Belarusian companies and individuals. In coordination with the EU, the United States also provided a six-month long reprieve from sanctions for nine major petrochemical enterprises.
Belarusian and Western diplomats carefully crafted this milestone in their step-by-step strategy of improving relations through months of negotiations. However, it became possible only after the authorities released political prisoners and held presidential elections in a peaceful manner.
Facilitating the Minsk agreements. In February, the German chancellor and presidents of France, Russia and Ukraine met in Minsk to negotiate a peace deal on Ukraine. The resulting Minsk agreements have become a reference point for further efforts to resolve this crisis. The Belarusian capital gained immediate and lasting international notoriety.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka finally got direct access to the true European decision-makers. Angela Merkel and François Hollande, by their mere appearance in Belarus, broke Lukashenka’s isolation and blessed Minsk’s claims of becoming a regional diplomacy hub.
Building brand-new ties with Europe. Building a strong web of bilateral and institutional ties with Europe, Belarus held meetings of commissions on trade and economic cooperation with thirteen countries and political consultations with twenty-two European states, including France, Italy, Sweden and most Central and Eastern European nations. Belarusian diplomats tried to leave out from discussion, whenever possible, political and human rights issues, topics on which disagreements remain substantial.
However, Belarus did not exchange highest-level visits with EU countries in 2015. Alexander Lukashenka met his counterparts from Austria and Latvia only on the sidelines of the UN summit. His foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid visits to Berlin and received his colleagues from Austria, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania in Minsk.
Achieving a thaw in relations with the US. Dialogue with America was far less intense than that which Minsk established with Europe. The United States is deeply mistrustful of Belarus’ intentions. However, the two countries were able to launch a “virtuous cycle” in bilateral relations in which the positive steps of one are responded to in kind.
Several US delegations visited Belarus in 2015. Alexander Lukashenka received some of them in a baffling disregard for diplomatic protocol. Belarus and the US began discussing human rights and the gradual resumption of their embassies’ normal functions.
Reinventing the Eurasian dimension. In July, Belarus obtained the long-sought prize of observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, it is unlikely to provide any real added value for Belarus, besides some PR benefits. The same applies to the country’s contacts with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The state visit of Xi Jinping, China’s “paramount leader”, to Minsk in May was labelled as a “milestone” in bilateral relations. Belarus hopes to lure more Chinese investment into the country and get the Celestial Empire interested in importing more Belarusian goods. However, doubts remain about how genuine Beijing's interest is in Belarus' exaggerated offer of becoming a China's gateway to Europe.
Advocating the Eurasian Union. Belarus, as the current chair of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), invested a lot of effort in the international promotion of this project. Belarusian embassies made a pitch for investing in and trading with the EEU at every opportunity.
In this vein, Belarus sought to obtain observer status for the EEU at the UN. The Belarusian mission in New York failed to forge a consensus on this initiative because Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey opposed it. The international status of the EEU was falling victim to problems which some of its members have in bilateral relations with third states.
Promoting the “integration of integrations”. Belarus remained charmed by the verbal beauty of the idea of “integration of integrations”, seeing it mostly as a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Lukashenka and Makei promoted the concept during bilateral meetings, at the UN summit in September and at the Eastern Partnership summit in Minsk.
In October, Belarus tried to engage the EU in a practical consideration of this idea, submitting a non-paper to this effect in Brussels. The European Commission responded to this invitation by a letter that its President Jean-Claude Juncker sent to … Vladimir Putin in November. This was a slap in the face for Belarus’ president and an indication that the EU understood the real nature of the Eurasian integration project.
Negotiating visa facilitation with Europe. In 2015, Belarus and the EU failed to complete the visa facilitation talks that they so successfully launched in 2014. Belarusian negotiators expected the agreement to be initialled at the May Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. This did not happen as some “technical details’ needed further discussion.
In November, a senior EU official announced that the visa facilitation and readmission agreements were ready for signing as soon as Belarus upgraded its diplomatic passports. The Belarusian foreign ministry promptly contested this assertion without elaborating on outstanding issues.
Resisting a single visa regime with Russia. Lately, Russia has been obstinately probing Belarus’ position on a single visa regime between the two countries. In March, Moscow brought in the big guns when Vladimir Putin announced upcoming talks on the issue. Russia wants the single visa space as a means of exercising stronger leverage over Belarus’ relations with third countries.
Belarus has so far refused to confirm the existence of such plans, reaffirming that the country's approach on the matter had "undergone no fundamental changes". Its foreign ministry has instructions to agree on nothing beyond a coordinated visa policy.
Fighting the human rights battle. Belarus stuck to its stubborn denial of the dire human rights situation in the country. In October and November, it fought vehemently at the UN against the country-specific procedures, one of which targets Belarus. On this matter Belarusian diplomats enjoy the support of many like-minded human rights pariahs. Belarus also failed to cooperate properly regarding thematic human rights procedures, i.e. on human rights defenders.
Meanwhile, Belarus conducted two rounds of human rights dialogue with the US and one with the EU, as a part of the step-by-step strategy of improving bilateral relations. In September, Lukashenka unexpectedly talked to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the sidelines of the UN summit in New York.
In 2016, Belarus’ foreign policy priorities will not change much. The foreign ministry will focus on the definitive abolition of Western sanctions, increasing export revenues and luring foreign loans and investments. It will also rekindle the issue of international post-Chernobyl assistance.