Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has released six opposition leaders, including a former presidential rival, less than two months before presidential elections in a move hailed Sunday by the European Union.
Lukashenko has pardoned six jailed opposition figures, including Nikolai Statkevich who was imprisoned after running against him for the presidency in 2010, his administration said on Saturday (22 August).
The surprise move to pardon and release the six detainees in a decree that based the decision on “humane principles” comes as Lukashenko, in power since 1994, seeks reelection for a fifth term in an 11 October election.
Statkevich, 59, is the last to be released of about 10 politicians who were rounded up and detained after running against Lukashenko in an election in 2010 dubbed fraudulent by the West.
The release was welcomed by European officials, who said it was a long-overdue step towards normalising relations following years of sanctions over Lukashenko’s political crackdown.
On his release, a smiling Statkevich was given a hero’s welcome with flowers and balloons by around 200 people in Minsk. He and the five others were considered by international rights groups as the last political prisoners in the country. “I will continue to do what I have always done: work for a free Belarus,” Statkevich told the jubilant crowd as he embraced his wife and was even lifted into the air by supporters, some of whom shouted: “Mikola is our president!”
“I will not leave Belarus under any circumstances. I will fight for creating a normal country,” he added. “Together we will make this country normal and free.”
The EU said the prisoner release marked “important progress towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus”.
The US State Department called the release “an important step toward normalizing relations with the United States.” It also reiterated its call for the Belarussian government to restore the political rights of the six opposition figures and other former political prisoners.
Lukashenko, who a US top diplomat once said ran Europe’s last dictatorship, is largely ostracised by Western governments because of his intolerance towards political opposition.
Although Western sanctions are still in place, there have been small signs of a thaw this year, with Lukashenko distancing himself from the tough policies of Russia, his country’s biggest ally, towards neighbouring Ukraine, and reviving contacts with European Union and US officials.
The European Union is an important trade partner for Belarus and the two sides have been working for years on closer relations to remove trade barriers. Progress has stalled because of what the European Union sees as Belarus’ lack of commitment to democracy and political and civil rights.
“We now expect the authorities of Belarus to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of full civil and political rights of the released,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement on Sunday.
Statkevich was given a six-year jail sentence in May 2011 on a charge of organising mass street protests against Lukashenko’s re-election at the time.
“Elections are approaching and Lukashenko now has a chance to get from the West a more or less favourable assessment. It was clear that such an assessment would not be forthcoming from Western politicians while political prisoners were being held in jail,” Minsk-based political analyst Aleksander Klaskovsky said.