Belarus Review by iSANS — December 20, 2021

Belarus Review by iSANS — December 20, 2021

Your insight into Belarus crisis

Maxim Hopman / Unsplash
20.12.2021 iSANS
  1. YARMOSHINA IS DISMISSED, BUT NOTHING WILL CHANGE
  2. LUKASHENKA TAKES REVENGE AGAINST SIARHEI TSIKHANOUSKI
  3. POLISH RUNAWAY SOLDIER
  4. SANCTIONS: ESTONIAN SCHEME MAY NEED ASSESMENT
  5. JUNTA INTRODUCED PRISON TERMS FOR CALLS TO SANCTIONS

YARMOSHINA IS DISMISSED, BUT NOTHING WILL CHANGE

The number of acknowledged political prisoners reached 929 people (+16 over the past week). Last week, Belarus Helsinki Committee (BHC) published the results of its National Human Rights Index (NHRI). This document compares the situation in 2019 and 2020 and provides an overview of changes in particular fields of human rights rights on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 0 being the worst result).

According to a group of experts who participated in preparation of the Index, through 2020 Belarus failed to provide basic human rights to its citizens and shows significant worsening of the situation in all related fields. Minsk-based regime shows major decline in providing protection from arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, arbitrary detentions, illegal interference in private lives of civilians – as well as protection of people in detention, public access to justice, information, and freedom of expression. For detailed breakdown of violations, click here.

Due to high risk of politically-motivated revenge and repressive violence, all experts who participated in preparation of the Index chose to keep their identities anonymous and were not credited by the BHC.

While the situation in 2019 was already poor (4 out of 10 points), in 2020 it deteriorated to 3.1 – and, most likely, will be rated as even worse in 2021 due to continuous repressions. In the last few weeks there is growing number of cases related to bullying of LGBT people. Civilians are forced to publicly claim their LGBT affiliations in «enforced confessions» despite their heterosexuality. This practice is used to humiliate civilians and target homophobic sentiments among Lukashenka’s followers – foremost, among his armed groups raised in homophobic macho culture.

On Monday last week, Lukashenka dismissed Lidziya Yarmoshyna who remained the head of the Central Election Commission (CEC) since 1996. Despite the fact that it is mainly a technical position, in 25 years Yarmoshina has become one of the most recognisable faces in the country, and her name has become a synonym of rigged elections. Yarmoshyna was illegally appointed by Lukashenka to this position in 1996 after he ordered the police to physically remove her predecessor, Viktar Hanchar (Viktor Gonchar), from his office. Hanchar became Lukashenka’s key political rival. He was kidnapped and killed in 1999 by Lukashenka’s «death squads». The whereabout of Hanchar’s body remain unknown.

Yarmoshyna was replaced by Ihar Karpenka. He is the former minister of education and played key role in falsification of elections in previous years. The employees of state education facilities formed large portion of elections commissions since 1990s and are largely dependent on this work and their management. During his cadency at the ministry of education, Karpenka was known for his brutal way of work and promotion of «Soviet» education model.

Karpenka was born in Russia, but started his career after serving in the Soviet army in Belarus. In 2012, he was appointed as the head of the pro-Lukashenka Communist Party of Belarus. Now, Karpenka is appointed the head of CEC – just two months before the so called «constitutional referendum» scheduled for February 2022.

The appointment of Karpenka should not be interpreted as an indication that Lukashenka has decided to make changes to the electoral process. Yarmoshyna has long and openly declared that she wants to retire. “The CEC office term expires on December 22 this year. We will be able to hold a referendum if this term is officially prolonged for some time. Or maybe there will be a decision to change the composition of the CEC. I don’t know yet,” she said last month.

Simultaneously, the draft of the so called «new constitution», which will be put to a «vote» in February 2022, was due to be published in mid-December. Despite the undoubtedly rigged-to-be «voting day» being less than two months away, the public has still not seen the draft. On top of that, the punitive units under Lukasehnka’s command started repressions campaign against civilians who participated in observation mission during 2020 elections. Reportedly, armed groups (foremost – the so called «interior ministry») are assigned to check and conduct searches at apartments of up to 5,000 civilians ahead of February 2022. The campaign of intimidation is run along with efforts to separate the society from independent information sources, especially from media activists.

LUKASHENKA TAKES REVENGE AGAINST SIARHEI TSIKHANOUSKI

On Tuesday, the verdict in the case of Sviatlana Tsikhanousksya’s husband Syarhei Tsikhanouski (as well as dissident Mikalai Statkevich, bloggers Ihar Losik and Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, and members of Tsikhanouskaya’s election team Artsyom Sakau and Dzmitry Papou has been delivered in pre-trial detention centre Nr3 in Homel.

The «defendants» (who were all illegally deprived of liberty before the August 2020 elections and shall be treated as interned individuals or hostages – rather than political prisoners), were accused of ‘organizing mass riots’, ‘inciting social hatred’ and ‘disrupting the work of the Central Election Commission’. Tsikhanouski and Statkevich were sentenced to, respectively, 18 and 14 years in a high security colony. Sakau and Papou – to 16 years in a medium security colony. Tsyhanovich and Losik – to 15 years in a medium security colony.

«The very existence of these people is a crime for the regime. They’re repressed for wanting to live in a free Belarus,» Tsikhanouskaya said in a tweet after the verdict. «The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won’t stop,» she added.

The US and the EU condemned the sentences. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “politically motivated convictions are further evidence of the regime’s disregard for these international obligations as well as for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Belarusians”. EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano also condemned the «harsh and unfounded» prison terms: «These sentences are part of the ongoing brutal and systematic repression of all independent voices in Belarus».

Also last week, another prominent political blogger, Eduard Palchysgot 13 years in prison in a separate hearing held in Minsk city court. Palchys, who was arrested in October 2020, was claimed to be found guilty of ‘incitement of hatred’, ‘preparation of mass riots’, and ‘calls for actions detrimental to national security’.

 

POLISH RUNAWAY SOLDIER

Last week, a Polish soldier crossed the border into Belarus and claimed political asylum, saying that he opposes the Polish government’s policies regarding the migration crisis. Lukashenka’s «Border Committee» named the soldier as 25-year-old Emil Czeczko, from the 11th Masurian Artillery Regiment of the 16th Pomeranian Mechanised Division.

A few hours later, Polish defense minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, confirmed that the soldier is missing and added that “the soldier who went missing […] had serious legal problems and had handed in his notice to leave the army. He should never have been assigned for service at the border”. Three of his commanders were dismissed from their positions, and a criminal case was opened. Czeczko could be charged with desertion and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

On Friday, a Belarus-based TV channel controlled by Lukashenka’s administration released an interview with Czeczko. He repeated all the main narratives of the Belarusian propaganda and said there was «not a single day» on the border when Polish soldiers «didn’t kill migrants». According to Czeczko, they even killed Polish volunteers who came to the border to help migrants, and the bodies of the alleged victims were «either buried or were devoured by wolves».

The stories delivered by Czeczko were spiced by references to Harry Potter books. The stories that he shared are unbelievably detached from reality (according to Czeczko, hundreds of migrants and volunteers were killed by Polish army). Poor delivery led to Belarusian propaganda having blown a potentially valuable propaganda asset. However, made up stories from Polish deserter are just a part of propagandistic efforts by Lukashenka’s media holding. In this publication iSANS provides a brief breakdown of some of the most notable fake stories created by Minsk-based TV propaganda outlets.

At the same time, Polish Onet.pl claimed that Czeczko may be a Belarusian spy or at least an informer. According to the website, this version is being seriously considered by the Polish special services – Czeczko’s sister is married to a citizen of Belarus and the deserter himself has friends there.

The accusations against Poland are established in line with growing aggressive rhetorics from Minsk. Lukashenka’s military representatives and TV propaganda threaten the Baltic states with complete destruction («they will be wiped off the Earth») while Lukashenka’s subordinate Uladzimir Makei threatens to bring nuclear weaponry into Belarus or suspend gas supplies (similar statement by Lukasehnka past week wasn’t welcomed by the Kremlin that rejected such possibility). The latter is particularly important matter for certain CEE countries, such as Slovakia (where gas supply from Russia and anti-European Kremlin’s propaganda are directly connected).

SANCTIONS: ESTONIAN SCHEME MAY NEED ASSESMENT

Estonian media reported a surge in exports of Belarusian petrochemicals to Estonia and suggested that it may have something to do with the circumvention of the EU sanctions. In the first 10 months of 2021, exports of some oil products increased 30-fold. According to the Eesti Päevaleht newspaper, Belarusian oil products transit via Estonia by rail. Most of these cargo flows are handled by Estonian state-owned operator Operail.

According to Belarus’ statistical committee, exports to Estonia in the first 10 months of this year amounted to $126.6 million (a drop of 30% compared to the same period last year). Estonian figures are completely different. According to them, imports of Belarusian goods in January-October 2021 reached €522 million (against €121.4 million a year earlier) – or 4.3 times more compared to the previous period.

The main product Estonia started importing from Belarus are petrochemicals. They accounted for more than 80% of all Belarusian exports to Estonia, or €428 million. Last year, imports of Belarusian petrochemicals to Estonia amounted to only €13.5 million.

Most notably, Belarus denies an increase in exports to Estonia. This can be explained by the fact that the Belarusian statistical committee classified the exports of all products that have fallen under sanctions since the second half of this year.

Estonia denies all accusations and insists that all operations are legal. Companies brokering or transiting goods from Belarus to foreign markets through Estonia do not violate sanctions imposed on the Lukashenka regime, Estonian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. Kristina Ots, a spokeswoman for the ministry, specified: “Today, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no reason to believe that an Estonian state-owned company or the authorities have violated the existing sanctions. Of course, If the restrictions are specified or changed, compliance with them must be reassessed”.

JUNTA INTRODUCED PRISON TERMS FOR CALLS TO SANCTIONS

On December 14, Lukashenka signed the law ‘On Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus’ which criminalises calls for imposing sanctions against his regime and its members. According to the new «law» signed by Lukashenka in private capacity, the following penalties are envisaged for calls to sanctions:

up to 6 years of imprisonment – if calls are addressed to «ordinary» individuals;

up to 10 years – if they are addressed to other states, international and foreign organisations;

up to 12 years – if the calls come from a public servant or result in the imposition of sanctions.

Earlier, general Aleh Belakoneu said that Belarusians calling for sanctions should be deprived of Belarusian citizenship and their property should be confiscated. In October, another key figure of the regime, head of the Department of the Main Office for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) Vyachaslau Arlouski, came up with a similar proposal – to deprive of citizenship those who are “serving the interests of Western countries from abroad”. In current circumstances, this measure may soon be potentially applied to an arbitrary interpretation of dissident public expression.

Best regards,
iSANS team

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