Belarus Review by iSANS – March 15, 2021

Belarus Review by iSANS – March 15, 2021

Your insight into Belarus crisis

Pierre Albouy / Getty Images
15.03.2021 iSANS
  1. TSIKHANOUSKAYA CONTINUES HER GLOBAL TOUR AND OFFERS A DRAFT CONSTITUTION FOR THE TRANSITION PERIOD
  2. ECONOMY IN DECLINE. INVESTORS GET RID OF BELARUS-ISSUED EUROBONDS
  3. THE REGIME MUST BE DEPRIVED OF ANY FUNDING
  4. PROTESTS CONTINUE, HUNGER STRIKES BECOME THE LAST RESORT OF POLITICAL INMATES
  5. REPRESSIONS GAIN STEAM
  6. EU TO RECONSIDER RELATIONS WITH BELARUS OVER DIPLOMATIC SCANDAL
  7. A DOCUMENTARY ON LUKASHENKA'S CORRUPTION SETS NEW AGENDA
  8. LUKASHENKA PREPARES THE ARMY TO ENGAGE IN A "WAR" AGAINST CIVILIANS
  9. BELARUS-BASED INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS FAILED TO KEEP NEUTRALITY. ICRC IS BADLY CRITICISED
  10. EUROVISION REJECTS A POLITICALLY-CHARGED ENTRY BY PROPAGANDISTIC BAND FROM MINSK

TSIKHANOUSKAYA CONTINUES HER GLOBAL TOUR AND OFFERS A DRAFT CONSTITUTION FOR THE TRANSITION PERIOD

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 working group running under the aegis of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has developed a Constitution for transit period. Full text of the document is available here. Democratic leadership seeks international support to organise free and fair elections in the territory of Belarus in Fall 2020.

Last week, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has completed work visits to Portugal, Finland, and Switzerland. She met with the heads of EU missions to the UN, had phone calls with US State Department adviser Derek Chollet and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau. Overall, since August 2020 she has completed work visits to 15 countries and had negotiations with 24 states. Lukashenka only visited Russia since then.

During a meeting with UN leadership in Switzerland, Tsikhanouskaya called on the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, European Union to unite efforts in resolving the political and humanitarian crisis in Belarus.

For a complete official list of Tsikhanouskaya’s work activities over the last week, please click here.

ECONOMY IN DECLINE. INVESTORS GET RID OF BELARUS-ISSUED EUROBONDS

Despite bravado reports of state officials, around 450,000 people (4,8% of population) in Belarus live in poverty as defined by official statistics. Lukashenka’s regime defines poverty as surviving on less than a “living wage budget” equal to BYN 262,87 (USD 101) a month as of March 2020.

45,5% of the population live on less than BYN 500 (USD 193) a month. Slightly 8,7% of the population live on more than BYN 1000 (USD 385). In the light of growing economic difficulties, the economy will remain a key mobilization factor that allows to assume mass protests will inevitably return soon as the population will become poorer while state borders remain closed.

In February 2021, annual inflation in Belarus grew to 8.7% (reaching a five-year anti-record). Belarus central bank holds rates and canceled its future meetings. New monetary policy decisions send a negative signal about policy objectives and imply even less autonomy than remains at the moment.

In the last six months, international rating agencies changed sovereign rating of Belarus from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’. London-based Tellimer’s senior economist Patrick Curran puts Belarus in the ‘Fragile Frontiers’ group of vulnerable countries (suggesting a potential default in the upcoming months looks like a pretty realistic scenario).

European investment companies get rid of Belarusian government bonds. Over the last week, all four Danish Investment funds that owned Belarusian government Eurobonds – Nordea, BankInvest, Jyske Invest and Sparinvest – sold them despite high returns (the returns were ensured only by Russian credits and not the growth of the economy – hence payback returns may not happen in the near future). Danish pension fund AkademikerPension has announced that it will, too, refrain from any investments in any state-issued bonds related to Belarus.

This week, Raiffeisen Bank (Austria) will enter the negotiations on the Belarusian government bonds issued before the presidential elections, and will very likely quit all Belarus-related investment projects.

THE REGIME MUST BE DEPRIVED OF ANY FUNDING

Ongoing repressions force the civilians and political leadership in Belarus to focus on economic measures ensuring international blockade of any financial resources for Lukashenka’s regime. The National Anti-Crisis Management (NAU) is now focused on negotiations with international financial institutions to stop the use of any financial instruments issued by the self-declared regime in Minsk.

In early March, NAU addressed Citibank, Raiffeisen, Credit Suisse, and Deutsche Bank to shut down correspondent accounts of two state-run banks from Belarus – Belarusbank and Belinvestbank – to block their international operations. Both Belarusbank and Belinvestbank are directly involved in financial operations of organizations responsible for repressions and financing of [internationally sanctioned] punitive units engaged in crimes against humanity under Lukashenka’s direct control. These include the establishment of at least one concentration camp, the use of mass torture and support of detention centers and kidnapping units such as special units Almaz, Alpha, GUBOPiK, and OMON.

European and American lawmakers should consider acknowledging cooperation with Belarusbank and Belinvestbank as financing of terrorism and ban their national from any operations with these entities. Similar approach should be taken towards any investment in financial instruments issued by state-owned institutions (such as Eurobonds) and / or cooperation with all individuals associated with the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka (including politically exposed businessmen in immediate surrounding of Lukashenka’s family).

As the profits of Belarus state-owned companies decreased by 22 times in 2020, and half of IT businesses considers relocation, Belarus is facing a huge economic challenge in the long-term transformation processes. Despite popular expectations for privatization as a source of funding, financial analyst Maksim Adaskevich (Duff & Phelps) assumes that realistic overall price of 16 major state-owned companies will not exceed USD 10 billion in the most positive scenario. In current circumstances, the future of the economy looks extremely vulnerable and without a clear systematic financial plan of international support for post-Lukashenka transition period (a.k.a. Marshall Plan for Belarus), the recovery of the country and stability of democratic governance may become very uncertain. Hence, in order to plan effective democratic transformations, a package of strategic economic support should be defined as an undetachable element of international support for democratic and market-oriented trasnformation plan.

PROTESTS CONTINUE, HUNGER STRIKES BECOME THE LAST RESORT OF POLITICAL INMATES

Protest actions continue in Belarus and abroad. At least 15 people have been detained on political grounds over the last weekend. In the last week, human rights watchdogs add 16 new people to the list of acknowledged political prisoners. The total number of political prisoners grew to 285 people, including minors, elderly, and females (full list).

At least four prisoners are now on a hunger strike. Two of them went on a ‘dry’ hunger strike (means they refuse drinking water in addition to consuming any food) that kills a human over 8 to 10 days due to severe dehydration. Political prisoner and musician Ihar Bantser from Hrodna keeps a ‘dry’ hunger strike since March 3. He is in immediate danger.

Another political prisoner, Ihar Losik, a former consultant for Radio Svaboda (RFE / RL), cut his wrists in front of investigator and his lawyer and went on a dry hunger strike on March 12 to protest new charges brought up against him (“Participation in a riot”). This is the second hunger strike for Losik. This year, he’s already been on 42 days of a “wet” hunger strike (meaning he refused to consume food, but drank water). His health is especially vulnerable due to past hunger strike. US Agency for Global Media has already demanded  immediate release of Ihar Losik.

The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka denies entry into prisons to diplomatic workers and international humanitarian organizations to avoid public outcry on the conditions in which the political prisoners are being kept.

REPRESSIONS GAIN STEAM

Investigative journalist Dzianis Ivashyn was kidnapped from his apartment in Hrodna by KGB personnel. His house was searched. Ivashyn is known for his investigations on the relations between Ukrainian pro-Russian paramilitary and Lukashenka’s regime. In particular, his last article was about former Ukrainian “Berkut” (riot police engaged in mass killings during 2014 Maidan events) officers successfully landed jobs in Belarusian police forces, including OMON. Presumably, the journalist is kept in Hrodna city prison. A total of at least 11 journalists now remain behind the bars in politically motivated cases.

Tut.by journalists reported at least six attempts to hack their accounts on Telegram. As a rule, Belarusian authorities request mobile operators to provide a copy of sim-cards owned by targets if their accounts use Belarusian phone numbers to register on the messenger. Then, copies of SIM cards are used to hack personal and professional accounts of civil activists, politicians, and diplomats. The perpetrators use VPN to change the IP during their attempts to mislead the targets (so far, two fake IPs were used to represent fake geographic location of hackers: Ukraine and Poland). In February 2021, iSANS was informed of at least two similar cases targeting high-rank foreign diplomats based in Minsk. The hacks were successful, but no sensitive information became available to Belarus state security.

BYPOL published a video showing leaked footage of civilians marked by paint at police facility – in a fashion similar to the practice used in Nazi concentration camps. State security in Belarus uses spray paint to humiliate and indicate the detainees based on degree of violence to be applied to the victims of enforced disappearances and kidnappings – including torture and inhuman treatment.

Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a husband of president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, faces up to 15 years in prison, according to the latest information. He is charged with organizing mass riots, inciting social hostility, obstructing the work of the Central Election Commission (CEC), and organizing actions that grossly violate public order. Tsikhanouski is charged for actions that took place at least three months after he was illegally detained on May 29, 2020 as a result of state-security led provocation, and had no connection with the external world outside his cell.

Popular blogger and iSANS member Anton Matolka now faces four criminal charges in relation to his work as democratic media activist (mass riots; incitement of social enmity on the basis of professional affiliation; creation of an extremist group; actions aimed at destabilizing a socio-political, economic and informational situation in the country, causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus). Anton left Belarus on July 9, 2020 and remains in a safe location since then. We urge all foreign governments to ignore politically-motivated charges against Anton Matolka and refrain from cooperation with the self-declared government in Belarus on similar cases.

EU TO RECONSIDER RELATIONS WITH BELARUS OVER DIPLOMATIC SCANDAL

Three Polish diplomats (the consul of the Consulate General of Poland in Brest, the head and consul of the Polish Consulate General in Hrodna) were expelled out of Belarus following a cultural / educational event in Brest that commemorated the members of Polish anti-Soviet resistance. Later, a prosecutor’s office in Brest opened a criminal case for ‘glorification of nazis and incitement to national hatred’ following commemorative gathering at a Polish school. This case became a formal reason to restart systemic harassment and ungrounded arrests of members of Polish ethnic minority in Belarus (for instance, Anna Paniszewa, the director of the Polish School in Brest was arrested last week). In response, Poland expelled two diplomats representing Belarus MFA.

On March 12, a group of members of the European Parliament (EP) urged the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli to review the relations of EP with the Embassy of Belarus in Brussels. The members of the EP additionally urge to restrict and limit access to the European Parliament for the staff of the embassy that represent the illegal regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

A DOCUMENTARY ON LUKASHENKA'S CORRUPTION SETS NEW AGENDA

Last week, popular blogger NEXTA published an investigation about properties of Lukashenka and his close allies. The film collected first million views over 24 hours and became a huge success in Belarus. In less than a week, it gained over 5 million views becoming the most successful political movie in national segment of Internet and YouTube.  Following the publication,  the deputy chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee Viola von Cramon (German Greens) announced she will initiate an investigation on misuse of EU funds in Belarus based on facts provided in NEXTA’s investigation.

It is important to highlight that this movie is a great success story in setting up the internal news agenda. It forces Lukashenka to be reactive, rather than leading the information space, and sets up a good example for further informational warfare against state propaganda.

In the aftermath of the movie premiere, democratic activists and non-state media call for the application of ‘cancel culture’ in relation to Lukashenka’s public performances and speeches of his trustees. Latest data shows that independent media and bloggers play significant role in dissemination of propagandistic narratives by simply mentioning viral speeches of the self-declared ruler, and this practice needs to be changed to minimize media presence of Lukashenka.

LUKASHENKA PREPARES THE ARMY TO ENGAGE IN A "WAR" AGAINST CIVILIANS

Lukashenka urged the army to prepare for a “war inside the country” against civil population that does not share his views and does agree with his rule. He treats peaceful rallies as an internal “war of a new kind” ahead of return of mass marches in Spring 2021.

The head of the KGB of Belarus Ivan Tsertsel says that KGB is expecting “destabilization” alongside the growth of terrorist threats “from the territory of neigbouring states”on the eve of March 25. This date is traditionally celebrated by democratic activists as Freedom Day to commemorate the creation of first national state of Belarusians in 1918. Traditionally, KGB is known for annual pre-Freedom Day provocations used to create the atmosphere of terrorist threat.

BELARUS-BASED INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS FAILED TO KEEP NEUTRALITY. ICRC IS BADLY CRITICISED

Red Cross Belarus faces furious criticism after democratic activists published a set of documents that prove direct political engagement of its members into falsification of elections. Although Red Cross Belarus is prohibited from any political affiliation by the Geneva Convention, the organization has recruited thousands of its members to serve on election commissions – often in polling stations where systematic frauds were proven during the election of August 2020.

In response to public criticism, the head office of the Red Cross provided a vague public comment and denied that Red Cross Belarus possessed any information about the participation of “some of its members” in the electoral process (while official reports of Central elections commission and media reports proving otherwise, and Red Cross Belarus has been long engaged in political campaigns in the past decades).

Despite thousands of reports of torture and facts of inhuman treatment in Belarus detention centers ( including a concentration camp created at direct order of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in August 2020), the ICRC President Peter Maurer responded that he “does not have a mandate” to visit prisons and that all issues needed to be resolved with the government of Belarus.

It should be noted that Belarus Red Cross is run by a direct subordinate of Lukashenka which makes local branch fully dependent in relation to the regime and makes it natural for the organization to collaborate with illegal government that is responsible for mass torture, inhuman treatment of prisoners, political killings, kidnappings, forced disappearances, the use of military against civil population, and other crimes that fall under the definition of mass crimes against humanity. In previous years, Red Cross Belarus has been widely criticized for its cooperation with Lukashenka’s team and imposed “carpet membership” lobbied throughout state institutions and education facilities.

Overall, since August 2020, local branches of international humanitarian organizations (including Red Cross Belarus and offices of UN institutions located within the borders of Belarus) failed to effectively protect the rights of civilians – including minors and females – did not engage in peaceful resolution of the conflict, and showed a policy of cynical collaboration with illegal and illegitimate regime that grounds its power on illegal use of armed force against the civil population. None of UN officials permanently present in the territory of Belarus officially met with democratic groups after August 9, 2020 despite non-partisan character of the organization. UN organizations located in Minsk run a clearly one-sided public position and do not engage into official contacts with legitimate leadership of Belarus, be it Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya or the Coordination Council.

EUROVISION REJECTS A POLITICALLY-CHARGED ENTRY BY PROPAGANDISTIC BAND FROM MINSK

International isolation of Lukashenka’s regime grows worse. After the cancellation of Ice Hockey championship and sanctions from the International Olympic Committee, Eurovision bans a propagandistic song send by Belarus television propaganda unit, Belteleradiocompany.

The song was acknowledged politically charged and violating the rules of the contest – days after a public communications campaign run by democratic activists and targeting European Broadcasting Union, the organizer of Eurovision song contest. The song sent by Belteleradiocompany implied repressive practices against dissidents and was charged with promotion of crackdown on civil population in Belarus.

Prior to that decision, the representatives of Belteleradiocompany were excluded from the international jury of Eurovision for their role in promotion of hate speech and crackdown on civilians. Now, the self-declared government of Belarus and its affiliates are likely to be completely disqualified from the contest that is an important part of state propaganda inside Belarus.

Best regards,
iSANS team

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