On 22 August 2015 the six remaining political prisoners in Belarus were suddenly released from jail. They included a man who had worn an anti-Lukashenka T-shirt and a number of young activists, but the most prominent was the former presidential candidate in the 2010 elections, Mikola Statkevich, who was four years into a six-year sentence for organising post-election protests.
Although the exact timing of the release was a surprise, the fact that they were pardoned and released at all this year is not completely unexpected, nor is it unprecedented. It should certainly not be viewed as a sign of imminent political liberalization, real systemic change, or heralding a free and free presidential election campaign leading up to polling day on 11 October.
Instead, the prisoners were released because it suited the interests of the long-serving Belarusian president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Freeing political prisoners opens up the opportunity for improved relations with West, and in particular the prospect of financial support and an IMF credit, which would reduce dependence on Russia. Lukashenka’s profile had already been burnished by trying to act as a broker in peace talks over Ukraine. If the presidential elections next month were to take place without any egregious oppression of the opposition, Lukashenka would hope for favourable reciprocal gestures from the EU and US.
The West will be cautious however, as this tactic follows a similar pattern seen in 2008. Political prisoners were released, and while parliamentary elections were not particularly free and fair, there was no crackdown against the opposition. However the high hopes and expectations of the West were never realised during this window of opportunity from 2008 to 2010. Travel bans and asset freezes against prominent officials, including Lukashenka himself, were temporarily lifted. Genuine democratisation was not forthcoming however and offers of some Western financing were not enough to prevent a brutal crackdown by the Belarusian authorities against the opposition after the December 2010 elections.
Minsk will hope to extract the maximum gains from any thaw in relations with the West, in return for the minimum concessions towards liberalisation. Past behaviour shows that the authorities will be more than willing to imprison opponents again if there is dissatisfaction with how the West responds, in effect turning prisoners into hostages. The EU and US will have to decide whether small steps by Belarus should rewarded with positive measures by the West, such as temporarily lifting the targeted sanctions in place when they come up for renewal at the end of October, or whether more far-reaching conditions should be met before there is any serious re-engagement with the regime. The coming weeks and months will show how the West handles calls from some to stick to its principals in prioritising human rights and democracy in Belarus, while others will support improved relations with Belarus for the sake of regional stability in the face of what is perceived as the greater threat of Russia.