Financial constraints may prompt Lukashenka to release opponents
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey described the European Union’s blacklist of Belarusian officials as "a hopeless mixture of absurdity and insinuation."
Makey, one of those blacklisted, told RIA Novosti that "there will probably be no movement forward without taking this problem off the agenda of our relations with the European Union." Was it an ultimatum or a statement intended to impress the public?
A remark for Lukashenka
"I do not think it was a condition put forward to the EU," says Andrey Yeliseyew, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. "It would be an unrealistic demand on the part of Belarus. Minsk needs normalization more than the EU."
He says that Minsk does not want to be perceived as the one that caved if a normalization process begins.
But Yawhen Preyherman, of the Liberal Club, says the statement was intended for Alyaksandr Lukashenka. "Makey shows that he is holding on to the negotiation position agreed with" the Belarusian leader, he told The Viewer.
Makey said that the EU possible new steps to tighten sanctions might change "the status quo" in bilateral relations. He had a point.
But a visa ban and other sanctions are likely to remain in place until Minsk frees what the EU calls political prisoners.
The EU can afford to adopt a wait-and-see tactics on Belarus, while Lukashenka urgently needs money. He failed to obtain any loans during his tour of Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates in March. Earlier, he suffered a setback in talks on a $2 billion loan with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Another sign of the government’s financial difficulties was the announcement that it was working on a plan of macroeconomic reform required for applying for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, which is also unlikely to be approved without the release of political prisoners.
All depends on Lukashenka
The Belarusian leader has been reluctant to free political opponents.
Minsk seeks an opportunity to unfreeze relations with the EU without losing face and get as much as possible in return for it. Their release cannot be ruled out, observers say.
The EU may remove Makey from the blacklist as the country’s chief negotiator, but it will not make a difference, says Preyherman.
The Belarusian leader’s position in talks with the EU depends on how urgently he needs money and on his ability to come to terms with Moscow. "For the time being Lukashenka insists on a tough line, but his position may change under critical circumstances," says Preyherman.
Minsk is not only interested in IMF and EU loans, but also in membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), says Yeliseyew. Accession progress also depends on Western countries.
Makey’s interview was indicative that Lukashenka had not yet made any decision. He is waiting for handouts from Putin, keeping possible rapprochement with Brussels in mind.
Does not only the EU insist on the release of political opponents, but it also calls for their rehabilitation. Some EU politicians seem willing to drop that demand as unrealistic. It is hard to imagine Lukashenka admitting all political trials fabricated as this implies bringing judges and prosecutors to account.
On the other hand, it is the problem of the Belarusian government to sort out all technicalities. If Lukashenka decrees to free prisoners without following correct procedures, the West can forgive him the "dictatorial gesture."