Staunton, August 23 – Alyaksandr Lukashenka has pardoned and released Nikolay Statkevich and five other Belarusian political prisoners, an action that the West has long sought and that is clearly intended to send a message to both the West and Moscow that the Mensk leader wants to improve ties with the West even as his relations with Moscow are souring.
Yesterday, Lukashenka pardoned Statkevich, who ran against him for the Belarusian presidency in 2010, as well as Nikolay Dedko, Igor Olinevich, Yevgeny Vaskovich, Artem Prokopenko, and Yury Rubtsov. Statkevich, who was serving a six year term, had 16 months left in his sentence (belta.by/society/view/prezident-belarusi-prinjal-reshenie-o-pomilovanii-v-otnoshenii-rjada-lits-159933-2015/).
Their release was welcomed not only by Belarusians who oppose Lukashenka but also by the European Union which declared that this was “a long-awaited step.” International efforts to free Statkevich, who has sometimes been called “a Belarusian Mandela,” have been going on since his initial arrest.
The six were greeted joyfully on their release, but speculation immediately began as to why Lukashenka had taken this action precisely now. Statkevich and other Belarusian opposition figures said that the Belarusian leader had been forced to do this because of his need for aid from the West given the meltdown in the national economy and problems with Moscow.
Statkevich himself said that he had expected to be released only after the Belarusian elections and that in his view, he had been released now only because “Lukashenka has run out of money” and he is seeking aid from the European Union to make up the shortfall (charter97.org/ru/news/2015/8/23/165764/).
That puts the West in a difficult position, he suggested. If it provides money to Lukashenka, it will strengthen his repressive regime; but if it doesn’t, Lukashenka will be driven back into the arms of Moscow, however much he no longer appears to welcome that Russian embrace.
Statkevich added that he doesn’t think the IMF or the Europeans will provide assistance until after the presidential elections. The IMF plans a visit only in October, but Lukashenka needs money now. He will try to get it from Moscow but apparently increasingly uncertain as to whether he can get it from that source, Lukashenka is trying to open a way to the West.
Whatever happens, the opposition figure said he would continue his fight to transform Belarus into “a normal country” (belaruspartisan.org/politic/315012/).
Other opposition figures shared Statkevich’s views. Andrey Sannikov and Dmitry Bondarenko said that no one should think Lukashenka had acted out of good will. The economic catastrophe had forced him to free the prisoners. And Vitatly Rymashevsky warned that no one should forget that the nature of the reigme had not changed and that “at any moment” Lukashenka could take new hostages (charter97.org/ru/news/2015/8/23/165776/ and charter97.org/ru/news/2015/8/22/165737/).
For background on what has been happening with the relationships between Belarus, Russia and the West in the days before this decision, see “Belarus Moving Away from Russia and Moscow Isn’t Happy,” August 22, at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/belarus-moving-away-from-russia-and.html.
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