- ATTACKS ON FOREIGN BUSINESS: THREATS OF NATIONALIZATION
- "FOOD EMBARGO": THREATS ABOVE REAL STEPS
- RYANAIR CASE: SENSATIONAL WHISTLEBLOWER'S TESTIMONY
- PRATASEVICH'S GIRLFRIEND: UP TO 6 YEARS IN PRISON
- SANCTIONS: BELORUSNEFT CANCELS ITS SUPPLIES TO GERMANY
- INTERNAL INDEPENDENT MEDIA INDUSTRY IS WIPED OFF
ATTACKS ON FOREIGN BUSINESS: THREATS OF NATIONALIZATION
This is an update on the ongoing political crisis in the Republic of Belarus prepared for you by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
The number of acknowledged political prisoners exceed 900 people. As of December 12, no less than 913 individuals remain behind bars in this status. Due to collapse of judiciary and law enforcement systems as well as the nature of repressions that include systemic use of torture, inhuman treatment, physical, psychological and sexual abuse of civilians detained on political grounds, human rights lawyer and activist Andrei Stryzhak suggests recognizing them all as either prisoners of war or interned persons rather than political prisoners.
In the latest campaign of intimidation, Lukashenka’s armed units focused on kidnappings and media attacks on high-rank managers of foreign companies located in Belarus (including A1, Hyundai, EPAM Systems).
Since past week, Telegram channels related to Lukashenka administration claim that Austria’s major telecom business in Belarus a «terrorist company» that «fights terrorist war against Belarus on the side of terrorists», «announced war against Belarus«, and «keeps terrorists among its staff». The narratives of Lukashenka’s propaganda against A1 are extremely aggressive, use violent and degrading language, hate speech, and incite the use of violence against A1 personnel and particular individuals.
The campaign began on December 10, when a press secretary of A1 (major telecom operator in Belarus, a daughter company of A1 Telekom Austria Group), Mikalai Bredzialeu (a.k.a. Nikolai Bredelev), was kidnapped in Minsk by one of Lukashenka-affiliated armed groups. Although Bredzialeu was accused of «disseminating personal data», A1 was never contacted by the civil or military administration of Belarus in relation to any case or investigation on such matter. Moreover, Bredzialeu had no access to personal or sensitive data of the company’s clients.
Following the kidnapping of Bredzialeu, junta-affiliated Telegram channels called for nationalization of Austria’s major business in Belarus. One of their main narratives is Austria’s «inability to veto sanctions» against Lukashenka regime since Minsk-based propaganda sees Austria as the main ally of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the EU and expects its politicians to promote and protect Lukashenka’s interests in Europe against all odds.
Soon after Bredzialeu was kidnapped, he was reportedly transferred to one of detention centers in Minsk. Simultaneously, a coordinated media campaign was started against him through a network of Lukashenka-related media and Telegram channels of pro-junta propagandists. The majority of publications was inciting hatred against LGBT+, A1 personnel, entrepreneurs, and middle class. Later on, a Telegram channel controlled by Lukashenka’s office, published a series of sensitive personal photographs of naked Bredzialeu. The images were accompanied by degrading and aggressive comments related to his personal life (two degrading images of naked Bredzialeu are located here and here – strictly NSFW!).
In cases of A1, Hyundai, and EPAM top managers, all of them were forced to record «confession videos» similar to the ones that were recorded featuring Raman Pratasevich in May 2021, and have become a systemic intimidation practice since 2020. The records of such videos created to humiliate detained civilians and threaten civil population is widely promoted by Lukashenka-affiliated TV channels and propaganda workers. Although these videos clearly violate national legislation and international obligations of Belarus in matters concerning the prohibition of torture, Google’s YouTube continues to promote forced «confessions» as payed advertising (pre-rolls) on its platform and thus provides digital infrastructure for promotion of the use of torture against civilians in the Republic of Belarus. The U.S. government is recommended to address this issue directly with Google.
Attacks on foreign businesses are a part of larger intimidation campaign against civil population. In early December, Lukashenka’s armed groups unleashed new tactics of violence: they began to assault Belarus-based apartments where parents of exiled activist live. A Telegram channel related to Lukashenka’s armed groups published a humiliating video of one of such cases: an assault of private apartment conducted with heavy weaponry and featuring intimidation of an elderly mother of an activist. A 56 y.o. woman was forced to stand on her knees in front of a group of armed individuals in balaclavas and ask for mercy because of her son’s activity. The video was accompanied by a comment «parents are responsible for their children». Likely, more cases of this kind will take place in the upcoming weeks in growing wave of repressions.
"FOOD EMBARGO": THREATS ABOVE REAL STEPS
On Monday, Lukashenka’s foreign office (a.k.a. as «the Foreign Ministry of Belarus» lead by Uladzimir Makei) announced that in response to the new round of Western sanctions it would impose its own counter-sanctions against the EU. Restrictive measures were announced to include blacklisting EU citizens and goods, restricting the operations of European airlines and “a number of other non-public steps”. Last Tuesday, it was specified that from 1 January, 2022 Belarus will ban food imports from “unfriendly countries” as a part of its «food embargo».
The ban targets imports from the EU, the US, Canada, Britain, Norway, Albania, Iceland, Northern Macedonia, and Montenegro. Among other things, it will affect imports of meat, sausages, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, salt, confectionery and “other goods”. Baby food and dietary items will be exempted. So will sea products and alcohol. The food embargo will last for six months and is said to be expanded in case of new «destructive actions» (read: sanctions) by the West.
Although Lukashenka’s regime is aiming to make a big deal out of this step, in reality the food embargo is more of bluff than serious measures. For instance, the majority of European and American FMCG companies that do trade with Belarus (Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo, Mars, Danone, etc.) sell goods from their Russian-based factories or through their Russia-based offices. Due to that, the overall expectation is that the so-called «embargo» will not largely affect business interests of these companies due to Russia-centered structure of their operations in FSU.
The «food embargo» intentionally excludes sea products – since the business empire of Lukashenka’s most trusted tycoon Aliaksandr Mashensky is fully dependent on exports from the EU.
Similarly, the effect of «measures against EU airlines» is unclear since EU passenger aircrafts avoid Belarus airspace.
RYANAIR CASE: SENSATIONAL WHISTLEBLOWER'S TESTIMONY
The New York Times published an article about Belarus’ Belaeronavigatsiya air traffic controller Oleg Galegov, who grounded the plane with Raman Pratasevich. After Galegov and his wife fled Belarus, he provided Polish investigators with a testimony about the details of Ryanair aircraft hijacking.
According to Galegov, an officer of Belarus’ KGB was in the control tower at the time of the operation and “at a crucial moment took control of the air traffic controller.” Throughout the hijacking, a KGB officer “maintained ongoing telephone contact with someone to whom he reported on what was currently happening with the plane,” according to Stanisław Żaryn, a spokesperson of the Polish Minister-Special Services Coordinator.
Air traffic controller Oleg Galegov managed to escape Belarus immediately after plane hijacking, but kept low profile until recently. He had gone on vacation from Minsk to Georgia (he is a Georgian citizen) in June 2021 and had not been seen since. Over the summer, he came to Poland. However, he has since left, one of the European security officials told NYT. His current whereabouts are unclear.
Galegov’s testimony has not been previously reported, but has helped Polish prosecutors with their criminal investigation into the incident. Last Friday, Polish Internal Security agency (ABW) published a recording of the dialogue between Galegov and the pilot of a Ryanair aircraft with Raman Pratasevich onboard. After 20 minutes of back and forth, the pilot was told by the alleged KGB operative that “the code is red” (meaning an emergency), and reluctantly agreed to divert to Minsk.
In its piece, NYT mentions a separate investigation by the Lithuanian police and Lithuania’s prosecutor general’s office. Their inquiries found that a passenger who disembarked after the plane landed in Minsk was a Belarusian man believed to have been recruited by Belarus’ military intelligence service. That man, identified as Siarhei Kulakou by Lithuanian investigators, arrived to Vilnius a day before Pratasevich took an outbound flight from Vilnius to Athens for a vacation – and joined the dissident on his return flight from Athens to Vilnius that was forcibly landed in Minsk a week later.
PRATASEVICH'S GIRLFRIEND: UP TO 6 YEARS IN PRISON
Junta’s prosecutors have filed final «charges» against Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, who was arrested along with her boyfriend, Raman Pratasevich, after Ryanair plane was hijacked over Belarus. The chairman of Lukashenka’s «Investigative Committee», Dzmitry Hora, told reporters on December 8 that Sapega has been «charged» with inciting social hatred, damaging information security, mishandling private data, and threatening law enforcement.
If convicted, Sapega could face up to six years in prison (instead of the maximum sentence of 12 years, since she agreed to cooperate with «the interrogation»). Hora added that the official charges and the case will be handed to Sapega and her defense team «in the near future.»
Sapega and Pratasevich are under house arrest, but in separate accommodations. Sapega has been moved to a house in Lida, her parents’ hometown. Pratasevich supposedly remains in Minsk, but there has been no recent news about his whereabouts or his case since summer 2021.
SANCTIONS: BELORUSNEFT CANCELS ITS SUPPLIES TO GERMANY
Belarusian oil producing company Belorusneft (formally state-owned, de-facto puppetized by Lukashenka) has cancelled its 2022 export plans to Germany via the Druzhba pipeline following new EU sanctions against the company, three traders familiar with the matter said on Friday, Reuters reports.
The EU imposed sanctions against Belorusneft on 2 December. Belorusneft exports most of its oil production to Germany on a regular basis using Russia’s Druzhba pipeline. In October-December, Belarus could supply about 450,000 tonnes of oil to Germany. Trading firms supply the oil to the Schewdt refinery in Germany, owned by Russia’s Rosneft and Italy’s Eni. In November, Belorusneft issued a sales tender for 2022 supplies to Germany. But it only sold a part of the planned export volume, some 40,000 tonnes per month, to Shell, traders told Reuters. After the sanctions were announced, the companies cancelled the supply plans for 2022.
INTERNAL INDEPENDENT MEDIA INDUSTRY IS WIPED OFF
These practices clearly contradict European and American goals to counter misinformation and propaganda. Instead of countering propaganda, Western business is actually funding major propaganda agencies affiliated with Lukashenka and calling for war against the West. This money comes on top of «state media» funding in Belarus that reached $80.5 million in 2020 – way above combined funding provided by the EU and the US to support civil society and independent media.