Belarus: End of the Prisoners’ Dilemma

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 159

Recently freed former Belarusian political prisoner Nikolay Statkevich

In mid-August 2015, two major events took center stage in media coverage of Belarus: the trip to Ukraine of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei as well as the release of six people, labeled political prisoners in the West, by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who pardoned them ostensibly out of dedication to “the tenets of humanism.”

Makei’s visit to Ukraine lasted from August 12 to 16, unusually long for such official trips. Not only did Makei meet with his Ukrainian counterpart and with President Petro Poroshenko, but he also met Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, who happened to be in Ukraine at the same time. Moreover, out of his five days in Ukraine, Makei spent three in Odesa, where he spoke with Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, whose personality and “gubernatorial” appointment are irritants for the Kremlin. Valer Karbalevich from Radio Liberty hypothesizes that Makei’s visit had three major goals: to galvanize Belarus’s peace-making mission in the face of brewing conflagration in southeastern Ukraine; to reverse the recent steep decline in Belarus’s exports to Ukraine; and to create the impression that Belarus is interested in channeling its exports to third countries through the Odesa seaport. This is what Ukraine wants to see happen, but not necessarily Belarus, which is satisfied with continuing to use Lithuanian and Latvian ports (, August 17).

The release of six prisoners, one week later, generated even more resonance and conflicting commentaries than Makei’s diplomatic trip to Ukraine. The recently-freed prisoner with the highest name recognition is Nikolay Statkevich, a 2010 presidential hopeful who, in May 2011, was sentenced to six years in prison for his alleged role in leading the assault on a major government compound on election night of December 19, 2010. A June 2015 survey by an independent pollster revealed Statkevich had the support of 6.5 percent of the electorate. Notably, Statkevich never petitioned Lukashenka for clemency, which is at least in part why he has remained in prison as long as he has. Other freed prisoners are Nikolai Dedok and Igor Olinevich, self-proclaimed anarchists who threw Molotov cocktails at the Russian embassy building; and Evgenii Vaskovich and Artyom Prokopenko, who were sentenced for carrying out a similar attack on the Mogilev regional headquarters of the Belarusian KGB (, August 22).

Lukashenka’s decision to pardon these people has at least two implications. First, at an informal ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, on September 4–5, the foreign ministers of the European Union member countries will consider suspending travel sanctions on Lukashenka and 200 other Belarusian officials as well as dropping economic sanctions against 18 Belarusian companies. In August, 24 people and 7 companies were freed from EU sanctions due to the “disappearance of the grounds” for maintaining them (, August 24). It is unlikely that EU sanctions will be canceled altogether. But the release of Belarus’s political prisoners has been the main condition for their suspension, which now appears likely.

The second implication has to do with the Belarusian opposition, which had failed to promote a single presidential candidate. Some of the longest-acting leaders of the opposition, such as Anatoly Lebedko and Sergei Kaliakin, have now failed to collect 100,000 signatures required for registration by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). For example, only 52,000 signatures were reportedly collected on behalf of Lebedko. In contrast, as many as 107,000 signatures have been collected on behalf of Tatyana Korotkevich, who, until recently, was unknown in Belarus and who represents the Speak the Truth political campaign, founded by Vladimir Neklyaev. Thus, assuming the signatures in her support are endorsed upon verification by the CEC, Korotkevich may become the de facto single candidate with opposition credentials. Moreover, Korotkevich may actually be informally endorsed by the official political elite as someone who represents a legitimate opposition as opposed to the so-called fifth column—that is, people denounced as such by Lukashenka for their alleged total accountability to foreign sponsors (, August 17). Some early indications of potential cooptation of Korotkevich into the political beau monde consist of Lukashenka’s conciliatory statement in regard to her (see EDM, August 12), a neutral article about her in a major Belarusian daily, and also “encouraging” statements by CEC chairperson Lidia Ermoshina, who expressed hope that Korotkevich will remain strong and not be “hounded” by other activists of the opposition (Belorusskii Partizan, August 27).

Praise dispensed by officialdom on any member of the opposition is dubious at best, but Ermoshina’s statement may, in fact, reflect the current political reality in the country. The opposition appears pervaded by a more vicious variety of internecine struggle than ever before. First, the authenticity of Korotkevich’s 100,000 signatures is being openly questioned by many in the opposition. The suspicion is that the “regime” may have collected her signatures for her. Ironically, this suspicion reflects the memory of 2010, when at least some registered presidential hopefuls failed to collect the requisite signatures to run in the election. Second, Korotkevich is being denied support by the most well-known opposition leaders, who call upon her to withdraw from the race if she is registered by the CEC. Such a protest action would send a message to Belarusians and, above all, to the West, that the elections are a fake and that Lukashenka’s future victory in these elections should not be legitimized in the eyes of the world (, August 28).

In the opposition media, Lukahsenka’s release of the remaining political prisoners is being described as a ploy to placate the West. Ironically, in the “patriotic” Russian media, whose overall views are worlds apart from the pro-Western Belarusian opposition, the interpretation of the event is actually the same. In contrast, writing for the “conservative” online magazine Nomos, Piotra Piatrouski claims that the prisoners’ release exposes Belarus to three risks: the mobilization of radical and extremist elements of society, a discrediting of the Belarusian legal system, and a further discrediting of Belarus’s political regime without any real hope for dividends. Among other things, Piatrouski points out that in the West itself, prison terms for identical transgressions (e.g., an assault on a government building) are actually longer than in Belarus, and ultra-left terrorists and anarchists are routinely caught and jailed (Nomos, August 23).

Be that as it may, the Belarusian electoral campaign, which until recently seemed predictable and boring, is now gaining zest. But it remains to be seen if Belarus will actually benefit from that.