Updated at 11:50,16-10-2017

Belarus-West rapprochement coming? Political prisoner Bialiacki released

Vadzim Smok, BelarusDigest

On 21 June, Belarus authorities unexpectedly released one of political prisoners, the head of 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 the remaining inmates.

The Belarusian authorities do not recognise the political prisoners problem in Belarus, calling them criminals who deserve a just punishment. However, in previous years they demonstrated readiness to free people in exchange for improvement of relations with the West or need to balance Russia's pressure.

Currently, another cycle of rapprochement is going on, while major regional crisis develops in Ukraine and Belarus is trapped in Eurasian Economic Union. More prisoners are likely to be freed soon if the West will demonstrate a positive response.


An Unexpected Freedom

Bialiacki remains 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 since it was the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice which leaked information on Lithuania-based bank accounts of Belarus NGOs and opposition.

As the authorities made the reception of foreign aid inside Belarus virtually impossible if conducted legally, most organisations use foreign banks for these purposes. Bialiacki's Viasna was among them.

The Lithuanian Ministry said it did not expect such developments and stopped cooperation with Belarusian side, but the Belarusian authorities already initiated proceedings against Bialiacki.

Shortly after his release Alieś gave a press-conference. He said he was surprised to be released on 21 June. Administration of prison showed no signs of that and moreover, considered him a troublemaker.

Other inmates were restricted on contacts with him as a political prisoner and received punishment for any violations of this rule. People were afraid of me, Bialiacki said. He also informed that he was not going to leave Belarus and felt comfortable here. He will keep on human rights activity in Belarus and internationally, but will not go for presidential post 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 political prisoners. 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: 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, also anarchists who attacked Babrujsk KGB office with Molotov cocktails in 2010, are considered as offenders, who were tried with violations" and received excessive punishment. Most activists appeared in jail after 2010 protests, while anarchists conducted their activity separately from opposition.

However, the Belarusian authorities do not recognise the existence of political prisoners. In a recent interview to BelaPAN news agency Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makej explained that Belarus sees the political prisoners as criminals who committed crimes and thus received fair punishment.

He also called the EU approach towards the political prisoners issue in Belarus hypocritical, since Europe regards East Ukraine militants as terrorists, but here in Belarus persons who throw Molotov cocktails (meaning anarchists) are seen as political prisoners.

To release them, Makej said, a legal procedures should be conducted - prisoners should submit a written appeal for pardon which authorities shall consider. I think it is right that the state does not bargain with the West for these people, the minister said. Lukashenka also stresses that pardon appeal is a must for release. On 23 March this year Lukashenka repeated again that If I have a pardon appeal they have my signature. Otherwise nothing will help. This is my principle approach.

However, he also accepted that sometimes he could decide to pardon a prisoner without an appeal, depending on the offence. In January this year he ordered to check the information that civil activists have paid off the full sum of Bialiackis allegedly evaded 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 to reestablishment of the EU-Belarus cooperation. The EU leaders repeatedly stress that the release of political prisoners should be the first step in normalisation process.

For Belarus, political prisoners are like hostages whom the regime trades to improve relations with the West. Usually prisoners are taken during post-election cycles, when election fraud causes mass protests and authorities crack down on them.

After the Eastern Partnership summit in Autumn 2013 Belarus and the EU have gradually shown signs of mutual interest in improvement of relationship. The rapprochement unfolds at the background of continuing Ukraine crisis and reluctance of Belarus to support Russian aggression.

Belarus also ceded to Russian conditions in the Eurasian Economic Union and seeks some balance in this uneasy situation. The regime again uses the prisoner's card in its geopolitical game. But the fate of the rest of prisoners remains unclear.

If Europe will respond with a friendly step, such as lift of sanctions, or suggest other benefits to Minsk, their release looks very likely. However, no profound democratisation or regime change will follow, as the current regional crisis demands regime stability to resist Russian pressure.

But any improvement of Belarus-West relations will bring benefits for common people who can enjoy EU support at local level and visa liberalisation effects. Most importantly, the country as a whole needs a geopolitical balance to ensure its sovereignty, and rapprochement with the west remains the only option to take.