Minsk playing rough with Brussels despite differences with Kremlin
In an interview with Reuters on November 26, Alyaksandr Lukashenka attacked the European Union over sanctions, economic problems and the lack of assistance in fighting illegal migration. He denied that Belarus had any political prisoners.
"Come and point to at least one political prisoner," Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Reuters. "Point to at least one person who has been convicted illegally by us and we will show you our materials. And I will ask you how you would treat these people in accordance with your democratic laws in Great Britain, Germany and other countries."
Lukashenka said that most of the imprisoned post-election protesters had already been released. "I decided to pardon all those who had appealed to me [for a pardon], although they are guilty," he said.
"One or two did not appeal [to me for a pardon]. They say that it’s better for them to be in prison, then they will be heroes. Good, stay in prison."
Lukashenka admitted that EU crises have affected Belarus. “We sell more in the EU than in Russia. As soon as you have a chaos, a mess and a recession, it affects our economy.”
Andrey Yahoraw, director of the European Transformation Center, a Minsk-based think tank, defends the EU’s stance on imprisoned opposition figures. “The EU clearly insists… on the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. Half-measures that have been taken by the Belarusian government, trading in people in return for some benefits, are unacceptable to the EU,” he says.
He also pushed back against any suggestion that the EU was to blame for Belarus’ uneven economic performance. The EU has proposed specific steps to “improve the level of cooperation and bring huge benefits to the Belarusians,” Yahoraw says citing EU’s proposals to simplify visa requirements and open local border traffic. “All these [proposals] were rejected by the Belarusian authorities. This means they acted counter to interests of their people.”
Yahoraw argues that the EU has provided millions of euros for technical assistance, a dialogue on economic subjects, support for Belarusian cities, humanitarian assistance, transport and cross-border cooperation projects.
“It is a shame for Belarus to use EU money for improving the border control system, receive millions from the EU, and afterwards claim to be the EU’s defender from migrants,” Yahoraw told The Viewer.
Yahoraw says that since Minsk has no tools of influence on the EU, Lukashenka has been trying to manipulate differences among some EU members and tensions between Russia and the West in his favor. “It has been performing a balancing act mainly to scare Moscow,” he says. “Brussels cannot be scared for one simple reason – cooperation between the EU and Russia has been closer than between the EU and Belarus.”
He stresses that the EU’s dialogue on modernization with Russia calls for the unification of technical standards anyway. “Even the Eurasian Union being built by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Lukashenka and [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev is not devoid of efforts to move closer to European norms and standards,” Yahoraw stresses.
Andrey Yeliseyew, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), says that Lukashenka’s attacks on the EU expose a lack of confidence in his policies, noting that Minsk would like to improve ties with the EU. He stresses, however, that the EU would not make any concessions before Minsk releases what it calls political prisoners.
“This move [the release of prisoners] depends on Minsk’s financial situation,” Yeliseyew says. “It will depend on when Russia gives the green light for the fourth tranche of a EurAsEC stand-by arrangement, if ever, and whether Belarus… needs to ask the IMF for a new loan.”
He points out that Minsk and Moscow have not yet reached an oil deal for 2013.
“By all appearances the Kremlin will keep up pressure on Minsk,” Yeliseyew says. “Moscow is not yet ready to… transfer the tranche and supply big volumes of oil without Minsk honoring at least some of its commitments. In particular, Minsk has failed to deliver on its privatization promises. In addition, the authorities denied their involvement in a petroleum smuggling ring [petroleum exports under the guise of solvents and diluents], therefore, one can hardly expect any concessions from Moscow,” Yeliseyew says.
He adds that if oil talks with Russia fail, Minsk may soon free the remaining jailed opposition members.