Authorities continue showing “guts” to the West
Last week, the number of Belarusian citizens, who have been denied permission to travel abroad increased. On March 17 Mr. Kovalev, one of the convicts in the case of the terrorist attack in the Minsk metro was executed.
The increased number of individuals, who are banned from leaving Belarus, is a continuation of the Belarusian authorities’ response to the EU visa “black list” and a confirmation of their unwillingness to make concessions. The Belarusian “ban” list has not yet been disclosed and no governmental agency has yet assumed responsibility for it, on the contrary, officials deny its existence.
To date, empirically collected data suggests that this list includes leaders of opposition parties (United Civic Party, “Fair World” party) and non-governmental organizations and campaigns (Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, “For Fair Elections” campaign), as well as journalists of the independent media.
It is likely that president Lukashenko and his surrounding circles thereby challenge the EU and simultaneously take a preemptive measure against potential extension of visa ban list or introduction of economic sanctions on the eve of a meeting of EU Council on 22-23 March. Such a response is quite traditional of the Belarusian authorities, who perceive foreign policy through a narrow agonal optics of “attack – counter-attack”.
At the same time the authorities broadcast signals of their readiness to release political prisoners. In particular, Mr. Statkevich for the first time in the past seven months of imprisonment was allowed to phone home. There are reports the consideration of Mr. Sannikov’s appeal is delayed.
The death sentence could not be unambiguously interpreted as a proof that Minsk is not interested in a dialogue with the Council of Europe on the issue of a moratorium on the death penalty. On the contrary, after rejecting a pardon within a fundamentally important for the authorities case and the execution that followed, Minsk could get back to a discussion of a moratorium on the death penalty. The paradoxical logic of the regime suggests, after drawing a line under the terrorist attack case it has been “liberated” to continue a dialogue on the issue of the death penalty.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.