Belarus is ready to escalate the conflict with the West
Belarus’ Western foreign policy remains tough; the authorities do not consider concessions feasible and even ready to escalate the conflict. Thereby President Lukashenko increases his political importance, and tests the Belarusian elite’s loyalty.
On June 27th the Belarusian Parliament adopted Draft Law “On amnesty”. Early release of prisoners, who are internationally recognized as prisoners of conscience, is not envisaged.
Failure to include the Belarusian prisoners who are recognized as political prisoners into the amnesty lists was anticipated, regardless of the numerous media speculations about the possible release of prisoners of conscience on the eve of the Independence Day (July 3rd). It is likely that the Belarusian authorities have used information about the likely release of defendants in the December 19th, 2012 case to test the EU reaction.
The main reason for delaying the prisoners of conscience’s pardon is the foreign policy context. On the one hand, the relations between Belarus and the EU and the U.S. remain in the mode of mutual accusations. On the other hand, the current level of minimally acceptable interaction (after the EU ambassadors returned to Minsk) has been mutually satisfying both parties: off and on they exchanged rigid rhetoric and, until recently, did not resort to action.
However, in the end of June Minsk attempted to escalate the conflict. Belarusian authorities are well aware that after the arrest of journalist Poczobut and searches in the office of the unregistered Union of Poles, they should expect stiff EU response.
In the worst case scenario, visa and economic sanctions could be tightened and the European External Action Service of the European Union has warned against it.
From the foreign policy point of view, these actions of Belarus seem irrational: “frozen” Western policy increases Belarus’ political dependence from Russia and narrows the space for maneuver. However, these actions of Belarusian authorities could be interpreted in the following way: they deliberately exacerbate the conflict with the West in order to make loyalty tests for the business elite and get rid of unwanted companions.
We have previously used this interpretation to explain President Lukashenko’s steadfastness vis-à-vis the release of political prisoners – even under the threat of the EU sanctions against Belarusian businessmen. Contrary to the conventional logic, the threat of EU sanctions, personified in President Lukashenko, increases his value as a guarantor of the Belarusian business elite’s safety.
In turn, Lukashenko has made every effort to exclude any possibility for businessmen to hold own negotiations about his fate behind his back and thereby increased their dependence on his actions. In psychology this phenomenon is called the “Stockholm syndrome”.
President Lukashenko benefits from keeping businessmen close to him in a mobilization mode and thereby testing their loyalty. Belarusian company Beltechexport, which recently fell under the EU sanctions, was sold to a Russian businessman and its former owner Mr. Peftiev went out of business after long and unsuccessful attempts to challenge the sanctions in court, as well as via EU lobbying organizations. It is highly probable that the withdrawal of Peftiev from business also implies his exclusion from the Belarusian elite’s circle.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.