Belarusian opposition members met in Kyiv on Nov. 30 at a conference organized by the Belarusian volunteer Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment which is part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. As they left the meeting, entitled “Road to Freedom”, the opposition vowed to unite against Belarusian autocracy – but this determination swiftly dissipated for some.

Soon after, there were calls from some of the participants to ease sanctions and negotiate with Belarus's dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenka. This back-tracking raised questions about the sincerity of commitment of some of the opposition members.

On Dec. 2 and 3, the Belarus Coordination Council organised a conference to strategize for the release of political prisoners. Titled, the Coordination Council hearings on the Question of political prisoners, it took place in Warsaw. It saw Coordination Council members, together with representatives of the office Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the United Transitional Cabinet (UTC) of the Belarusian opposition voice their opinions on the freeing and supporting political prisoners in Belarus. 

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The three bodies represented at the conference are central to the Belarus democratic movement. The office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was formed after her leading role during and after the contested August 2020 presidential elections. Her office embodies the aspirations of numerous Belarusians advocating for democratic change.

The UTC, formed under her leadership, further solidifies Tsikhanouskaya's role as the principal opposition leader. This entity is instrumental in orchestrating efforts and strategies geared towards advancing democratic transformation in Belarus, representing the shadow executive branch of the Belarusian democratic movement.

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Finally, the Coordination Council, was initially conceived by Tsikhanouskaya to oversee the transition of power in Belarus, but has since reinvented itself as a representative assembly of democratic entities and civil society groups. Its mission is to amalgamate various societal actors, including independent activists, civil initiatives, associations, trade unions, political parties, and non-profit organizations, to forge a pathway towards democratic governance in Belarus.

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Often categorized as a shadow legislature, the Coordination Council has failed to prove itself as such, as it has failed to put forward any legislative material to the Belarusian democratic movement and has received a fair degree of criticism over its transparency and conduct in the free Belarusian press. Debating the topic of political prisoners, gave the Council the chance to redeem itself by providing a vision for this growing problem in Belarusian society.

The Belarusian regime's human rights violations are becoming increasingly evident

While human rights groups report around 1,445 political prisoners in Belarus, the actual number is believed to exceed 12,000.

This discrepancy highlights the challenges in documenting political repression, including resource constraints, fear of retaliation, and lack of support for prisoners' families.

Despite the severity of the situation, the global response has been lukewarm due to limited awareness and strategic action.

At the conference, council member Svetlana Matskevich remarked that three years of intensified sanctions and pressure have not freed Belarusian political prisoners nor weakened repression. She argued that negotiations should be reconsidered, suggesting a flexible approach to sanctions. Matskevich proposed using sanctions as a bargaining chip in negotiations, advocating for a nuanced approach that includes strengthening, suspending, or reversing sanctions based on progress in freeing political prisoners.

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Ivan Kravtsov, Secretary of the Coordination Council and former supporter of presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, former chairman of the Russian owned Belgazprombank, commented on the role of Western nations in imposing sanctions on Belarus and the possibility of lifting them.

He noted, “Western countries have more to offer. Although sanctions may not critically impact the economy, they create discomfort, limit business opportunities, trade, and technology development. Flight and train bans exert colossal infrastructural pressure. Excluding Belarusian athletes from competitions causes diplomatic image losses – all pressuring Belarusian authorities, who would prefer these not to exist. However, we must be ready that any negotiations between the West and Belarus might require lifting international isolation and considering sanctions removal.”

Anna Kravchenko, Council member, voiced scepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions. She suggested they might harm more than help, potentially eroding Belarusian sovereignty and weakening the democratic movement. This view echoes sentiments sympathetic to the regime and Russia, yet it overlooks internal factors like Belarus's alliance with Russia, which has also contributed to sovereignty loss and democratic challenges.

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Rodion Beglyak, a business analyst and Belarusian political refugee, analysed Lukashenko's reliance on political prisoners at the conference. He argued that detaining these individuals serves a dual purpose for Lukashenko, targeting different segments of the population.

He explained: “President Lukashenko's regime uses these imprisonments to break down dissent. Silencing key figures fragments the opposition, undermining their organization and mobilization. For the general populace, it's a tactic of intimidation, creating fear to discourage anti-regime activities and enforce compliance under authoritarian rule.”

Lukashenko’s release of political prisoner is counterproductive to his own ambitions and narratives within Belarus. The question remains how the Belarusian opposition, can justify the easing of sanctions when, by their own admission, no sanctions directly relate to political prisoners. They are largely a result of Belarusian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, positioning of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, and the forced landing of Ryanair flight 4978.

Negotiating prisoner release in exchange for easing sanctions carries risks. It will legitimise the regime, strengthen its repressive tactics, and provide an economic boost, further entrenching its power. Such actions could worsen the Belarusian people's situation.

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Belarus's complex relationship with Russia adds another layer of difficulty. Any steps towards democracy or concessions by Minsk risk upsetting Moscow, given its interest in keeping Belarus under its influence. This geopolitical intricacy restricts international efforts to free political prisoners, posing a challenge for effective global diplomacy.

Contrary to current perception the Belarusian opposition is not backing away from supporting Ukraine or applying pressure on Russia and Belarus, even though loud voices calling for the easing of sanctions may suggest otherwise.

Tsikhanouskaya, is unwavering in her stance against the regime, and has advocated for more sanctions before US lawmakers

Some opposition groups are active in identifying individuals and companies for additional sanctioning.

Vladimir Zhyhar, representing the union of exiled Belarusian police service personnel, BlePol, offers a crucial perspective on the current sanctions against Lukashenko's regime, countering the narratives sympathetic to the regime and Russia. He firmly believes in the necessity and effectiveness of sanctions as a vital tool for the opposition.

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Zhyhar stated, “We believe the current sanctions against the Lukashenko regime are not enough. The pressure should be increased.”

Contradicting the view that sanctions are counterproductive, he stresses their focus on the regime's financial mechanisms, including entities used by Lukashenko as personal resources. He calls for “blocking all potential ways for the regime to bypass sanctions,” including the involvement of countries like Kazakhstan and China, to ensure a comprehensive strategy.

In a stance that opposes the pro-regime argument that sanctions harm the democratic movement and Belarusian sovereignty, Zhyhar also sees an intensified sanction regime as a way to corner the Lukashenko government, potentially leading to a reduction in repression and concessions for survival.

He says, “More sanctions can push the regime to stop its repression and then offer concessions, simply to survive.”

The complex and evolving landscape of Belarusian politics, especially in the context of the country's relationship with Russia and its stance towards Ukraine, requires a nuanced and discerning approach from Ukraine and the Western world. As the Belarusian opposition grapples with internal divisions and its varying views on sanctions and negotiation, it is crucial for Ukraine and Western allies to be vigilant in identifying genuine partners in the struggle for democracy in Belarus.

This awareness becomes even more pertinent in distinguishing those who may cloak pro-Russian narratives under the guise of humanitarian concerns. The effectiveness of sanctions, the necessity of supporting democratic movements, and the careful navigation of geopolitical sensitivities demands a strategy that is both prudent and resolute.

Ukraine and the West must tread carefully, aligning with factions that genuinely seek democratic reforms and resist Russian influence, to ensure that their support effectively contributes to the liberation and betterment of the Belarusian people.

Dr Stepan Stepanenko is a director of a UK-based political relations and media consultancy, Forward Strategy Ltd. He has written and commented for the Daily Express, the Mail Online, Epoch Times, the Sun Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. Stepan has also worked as a research fellow at a London-based think tank, focusing on Eastern Europe, post-Soviet states, and defense. He appeared on British national TV and radio commenting on the war in Ukraine, and a range of defense and national security issues.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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Comments ( 1)

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John
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All Belarusians have a critical decision to make. If they want to continue under current authoritarian leadership which is controlled by international pariah putin, they probably do nothing. However if they want to get out from their historic yolk of violent russian oppression, then the best chance they have ever had to do this s right now. But it is a potentially fleeting chance. They must thwart any russan military activity within their borders which is harming Ukraine. If Ukraine wins, putin falls....his regime falls.....his installed crony in Belarus falls.

Belerusians have proven unable to dispose of Lukshenko while he has putin's support. Bringing down putin should be a goal and burden they equally share with Ukraine

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