Lukashenka may release political opponents in return for concessions from EU
Belarusian authorities temporarily lifted a travel ban on journalist Iryna Khalip and increased pressure on imprisoned opponents to appeal for pardon amid behind-the-scenes negotiations with European Union officials. Lukashenka may release what the EU calls political prisoners in return for aid or concessions.
The probation department of the Partyzanski district police station in Minsk on February 14 allowed journalist Iryna Khalip to travel to Britain and Russia and return before April 3. Khalip would like to spend one week in Britain to see her husband, opposition politician Andrey Sannikaw, and one week in Russia to meet with editors of her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
Journalists help obtain permission from authorities
Khalip, 45, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence in May 2011 over a post-election street protest staged in Minsk in December 2010. She said her application has been granted thanks to Yevgeny Lebedev, a journalist for The Independent, and BelaPAN correspondent Tanya Korovenkova who "kept catching Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the hand and holding him to his words that Khalip could go abroad any moment." "They rocked the boat until this wall of nonsense finally moved a little," she said.
Speaking at his lengthy news conference on January 15, 2013, the Belarusian leader said neither yes nor no when asked the direct question from Korovenkova as to whether the travel ban had been lifted from Khalip and whether she would be allowed to go abroad to join her husband, former presidential candidate Sannikaw.
Instead, Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed that Khalip would not want to leave the country.
"If you want to carry her somewhere, go to the prosecutor general tomorrow," he said. "I have the necessary powers. You will pick up and carry her. But she won’t go."
Khalip suggested that the favorable decision on her application could have been due to "another round of bargaining with the West." "If a deputy head of the Presidential Administration's Operational and Analytical Center is going to attend a conference in Vienna, why shouldn't Khalip be allowed to go to England?" she said. "This resembles castling."
Invitation of official to OSCE event had nothing to do with Khalip, analyst says
Khalip was referring to Uladzimir Rabavolaw, first deputy head of the Presidential Administration's Operational and Analytical Center who took part in "Internet 2013—Shaping Policies to Advance Media Freedom," an OSCE conference held in Vienna, Austria, on February 14 and 15.
Belarus is a member of the OSCE, so the organization was supposed to invite Belarusian officials to the conference, Andrey Fyodaraw, an international affairs observer, told the Viewer.
He says that Lukashenka simply fulfilled his promises made publically to prove that he is a man of his word.
Khalip was subject to travel restrictions under the law, therefore, the political decision to let her travel abroad was made on the highest level of the government.
Lukashenka encourages opponents to leave the country
Valery Karbalevich, of the Stratehiya think tank, agrees with Fyodaraw, noting that Lukashenka repeatedly said he would allow all political prisoners to leave the country and settle down abroad. The remark was indicative of the authorities’ particular concern about opposition activities in Belarus.
The authorities are wary "of mass public discontent in the country," says Karbalevich, noting that foreign-based opposition centers are considered less dangerous.
It does not make much difference for the authorities whether Khaip comes back from London or not. If she returns, she would face another trial in July to have her suspended sentence declared complete. If she stays there with her son, she would come under a volley of attacks from state media as a fugitive member of “the fifth column.”
Minsk seeking compromise with EU
The decision on Khalip may be indicative of Minsk’s willingness to improve ties with the EU and the United States. However, officials realize that this is hardly possible without the release of more than a dozen of jailed political opponents.
Lukashenka would have released them all, if they appealed for pardon, Karbalevich says.
Human rights defenders linked the growing pressure on Ales Byalyatski, chairman of a human rights organization called Vyasna (Spring), and other political prisoners to their refusal to ask Lukashenka for a presidential pardon. They made that conclusion after the prison administration banned Byalyatski, sentenced to four and a half years in prison on a controversial charge of large-scale tax evasion, any meetings with visitors for six months.
But Minsk could release some of the sensitive prisoners without their request for a pardon if it reached a deal with the EU providing for reciprocal concessions. Lukashenka released scores of opponents without any petitions in September 2011 following behind-the-scenes talks with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov.