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Belarus releases two political prisoners

April 17, 2012

Two high-profile political prisoners in Belarus were pardoned by President Alexander Lukashenko and released over the weekend. One of the two former prisoners was no less than Andrei Sannikov, founder of the opposition group Charter 97 and runner-up to Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential elections. Zmitser Bandarenka, a political ally of Sannikov, was also released. Interviews with Sannikov and Bandarenka have trickled out over the last several days detailing their experiences in confinement. The European Union has expressed its approval, along with the hope that Belarus will pardon all of its remaining political prisoners, of which there are approximately 15. Meanwhile, Syarhei Kavalenka, an activist currently serving a two year prison sentence for draping a white-red-white Belarusian flag (an opposition symbol) on a public Christmas tree in downtown Vitebsk, has reportedly stopped a hunger strike that has brought him to the brink of death.

But are things really looking up? Belarus has played this game before. In the aftermath of the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus, which spawned mass protests and a crackdown by the state security services, a number of opposition activists and presidential candidates were arrested and given lengthy prison terms. Andrey Klimau, Alaksandr Kazulin and others were ultimately released in 2008, after external pressure and sanctions had seemingly worn Lukashenko down. Sanctions were subsequently relaxed, and in the end nothing changed in Belarus. The events following the 2010 presidential election have thus far followed the same pattern, right down to the timing.

The remaining prisoners will likely be released over the next few months. If the EU and other actors do not pursue further engagement with Belarus afterwards, expect these events to repeat themselves once again, starting in 2014. A good place for the EU to start would be its visa policy towards Belarusian citizens, which is counterproductive in that it greatly limits the exposure of Belarusians to the benefits of democracy.

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