Updated at 11:50,16-10-2017

Belyatskis release cannot help Minsk unfreeze ties with EU

By Artsyom Shraybman, BelaPAN

Minsks recent decision to release human rights defender Ales Byalyatski from prison is widely seen as an effort to improve relations with the European Union (EU) and part of a balancing act between the EU and Russia. However, the EU lacks potential to counterweight Russian influence.

Besides, Minsk and Brussels do not trust each other and are not willing to make concessions. Observers tend to exaggerate the importance of Byalyatskis release for both sides.


EU preoccupied with other matters

Many observers speculated that Minsk and Brussels were seeking to unfreeze relations. However, both Minsk and Brussels are not high on each others agenda.

The EU gives priority to internal issues, while the Ukrainian crisis and other international challenges have dwarfed its tensions with Belarus.

The Belarusian leaders role in connection with the Russian-Ukrainian standoff also should not be overestimated. The EU has no opportunity or time to pay any attention to Alyaksandr Lukashenkas rhetoric because he does not have any weight in the crisis.

The only reason the EU still cares about Belarus is its geographical location. If the country sat on another continent, Minsk would not have seen any EU resolutions and statements condemning or approving its policies.


Window of opportunity shut

Many observers linked Byalyatskis release and the Belarusian leaders tentative effort to improve relations with the West to Russias assertiveness or a presidential election coming up in 2015.

They drew parallels with the 2008-2009 thaw that ended in a disappointing crack-down on the opposition immediately after the December 2010 presidential race. Belarus was not as weak economically then as it is now and it was less dependent on Russia.

Now the government begs Moscow for short-term loans to repay its debts. Belarus has signed a treaty with Russia to launch the Eurasian Economic Union and allowed its eastern neighbor to increase its military presence on its soil. Russia supplies Belarus with cheap energy vital for the countrys struggling economy.

The EU can hardly offer Belarus a lot to reduce its dependence on Russia.

Western loans and investment will not flow to the country without structural economic reform. Moreover, the release of all dissidents would not be enough to rebuild trust ruined by the 2010 crackdown.

Minsk is unwilling to launch genuine political and economic reforms for fear of losing control. Even reforms might not be enough to persuade the EU to pay attention to Belarus.

Do not only Minsks diplomatic efforts to unfreeze ties with the EU lack credibility, but they may also provoke Moscow into taking an unpredictable response.

Minsk cannot afford another quarrel with the Kremlin given its financial dependence on Russia.

Lukashenka, the most experienced politician in the region, understands it and does not see the EU as a counterweight to Russia. Although Minsk could benefit from rapprochement with Brussels, the move can be fatal for the Belarusian authorities.


No bargaining

Byalyatskis release came as a surprise, some political analysts said, but this is not true. He was freed under an amnesty program as Lukashenka had promised in January after activists collected funds to pay the alleged damage he had caused to the state.

Minsk might use the release as a trial balloon to see whether the West is willing to meet halfway.

But it does not cherish any hopes. The West is not expected to significantly change its attitude to Belarus following the release of so-called political prisoners, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey said in an interview broadcast by state television channel Belarus One on Sunday night.

"We look at the situation realistically and we know that even if we released those whom they call political prisoners, new fault would be found with Belarus the following day," Makey said during the "Halowny Efir" news show. "For example, why Belarus doesn't register same-sex marriages? They would blame us for the fact that our kids call their parents 'Dad' and 'Mom' and not Parent One and Parent Two, as they require.

Obviously, one released dissident is not enough as Brussels repeatedly stated that it would deal with Minsk after it frees all what it calls political prisoners.

Two Western diplomats told The Viewer in a private conversation that the EU did not plan to drop that condition.

The EU would not make concessions because it does not take Belarus as a potentially important or independent player. Minsk is so much dependent on resurging Russia that it is unlikely to take serious steps to unfreeze relations with the West.