Belarus Review by iSANS – October 18, 2021

Belarus Review by iSANS – October 18, 2021

Your insight into Belarus crisis

Andrew Keymaster / Unsplash
18.10.2021 iSANS
  1. MINSK REGIME PSYOPS AGAINST TELEGRAM COMMUNITY
  2. ALLEGED GUN TRADE OF EU COUNTRIES WITH RUSSIA AND BELARUS
  3. BORDER CRISIS TURNS VIOLENT, MIGRANTS ATTACK POLISH INSTALLATIONS
  4. DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE OF MAKEI'S REPRESENTATIVES SHRINKS FURTHER
  5. NEW REPRESSIONS DELIBERATELY TARGET BELARUSIAN LANGUAGE AND CULTURE ELITE

MINSK REGIME PSYOPS AGAINST TELEGRAM COMMUNITY

On Wednesday last week, the acting authorities in Minsk conducted a psychological operation (PSYOP) aimed at the followers of Telegram channels covering Belarus-related affairs. Multiple pro-regime sources reported that new amendments to the criminal code have been passed, and every follower or subscriber of a so-called «extremist» Telegram channels will face 7 years in jail. That would’ve meant that a good 500,000 of Belarus civilians who are currently subscribed to a variety of pro-democratic Telegram channels would’ve become criminals.

As it later became clear, the announcement was a part of a larger psychological operation to spread panic and fear among the community. Disinformation message was picked by major pro-democratic channels and independent media and resulted into rapid outflow of some 3 to 7 percent of subscribers among almost all of top-100 channels (by subscribers size) as of Sunday, October 17. In just two days tens of thousands of Belarusians have unsubscribed from Telegram channels in fear of potential arrest and torture.

Initial misinformation message quickly went viral internationally, and was shared by numerous global agencies – first in Russia, and then in the West. The effect was amplified by a large-scale spam campaign and promotion of deliberate misinformation about new wave of planned «arrest» via accounts of state media workers on Telegram. On top of that, Belarus-based users of Telegram received spam messages threatening them to unfollow «extremist» Telegram channels (or they would go to jail for up to seven years).

On Thursday, it turned out that the whole amendments to the criminal code thing were intentional fake news, despite the fact they were corroborated by top-level regime officials, including Uladzimir Makei. Almost simultaneously, key regime propagandist Ryhor Azaryonak (a.k.a. Grigori Azaryonok), openly acknowledged that Belarus «state media» operate as «information war soldiers» and not journalists, hence they do not need to follow «non-existent journalistic ethics» as there is «no journalism at all». The events of the past week indeed rise a question whether international and independent media, think tanks, and foreign governments should introduce disclaimers stating that any information provided by the Lukashenka regime representatives and / or officials is to be treated as potential misinformation used for the purposes of psychological warfare (PSYOPS).

Since August 2020, nearly 200 channels and chats on Telegram were labelled «extremist». At the same time, there is no media alternative for the general public as all other sources of independent information have been blocked, vanished, or are only available via VPN. Journalistic work remains extremely difficult, as numerous media teams, including once major publisher, tut.by (now zerkalo.io) seek ways to regroup their operations and reach wider audiences with limited resources and numerous digital obstacles, including criminal prosecution of reporters.

The attack on alternative sources of information is rapidly worsening in recent weeks to an extent that Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov had to discuss the security of pro-Kremlin and Russian media in the territory of Belarus.
Although there has been little reaction from Moscow regarding recent abduction of journalist Henadz Mazheika from Moscow, there is growing expectation that Vladimir Putin will later make Lukashenka pay for his current bravado.

And there seems to be a hint. Last Wednesday, Russia’s (and the world’s) largest oil pipelines operator Transneft issued a statement warning that it may suspend the operations of its Belarusian subsidiary. This is due to the fact that in early 2021 the regime in Minsk increased the tax rate for companies involved in the transit of Russian oil and petrochemicals through Belarus (from 18% to 50%), and introduced a new environmental tax. Transneft called these rates discriminatory as it is the only enterprise in the whole country affected by them. If Transneft decides to stop its operations in Belarus, that would put further oil supplies to Hungary and Latvia under risk.

ALLEGED GUN TRADE OF EU COUNTRIES WITH RUSSIA AND BELARUS

Last week, EUObserver published a story on how EU arms manufacturers allegedly supply the Lukashenka regime with arms and ammunition despite arms embargo which had been imposed on Belarus since 2011.

The reported embargo violation scheme has been revealed by the law-enforcement authorities of Moldova (which serves as a transit country, according to EUOBserver’s sources). The alleged scheme involves arms manufacturers from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic which export weaponry (pistols and rifles) and ammunition to Moldova and then re-export them to Russia and Belarus despite EU arms embargo.

EU security source is quoted to have said that the enforcement of embargo is purely symbolic: «In general, the flow of arms and ammo to Belarus and Russia [from EU countries] is wider [than the Moldova scheme], including other military equipment».

The EU weapons and ammunition are widely used by the Belarusian security services, and were used on multiple occasions in 2020-21 political violence campaign. For instance, EU-made pistols were most likely used during a punitive operation that resulted in murder of Andrei Zeltsar in his flat on 28 September. Since August 2020, Lukahsenka’s armed group widely used Czech-made stun grenades (reportedly produced long after EU embargo was enforced).

On October 12, one of the victims of stun grenades use, Pavel Sibilyou, a Minsk bus driver who was severely injured in August 2020, died following long rehabilitation (the exact reason of death is currently unknown). The police claims he was injured in a «force major» case, and thus law enforcement agencies were not responsible for his injuries.

BORDER CRISIS TURNS VIOLENT, MIGRANTS ATTACK POLISH INSTALLATIONS

Since this week, migrants attack Polish border guard installations and aim to destroy them. Belarus continues to weaponize refugees and support EU-targeted asylum fraud operations by providing assistance to irregular migrants.

While migrant influx is growing and nights are getting colder, new deaths and multiple hypothermia cases arise. At least seven migrants are reported to have died in the border zone since August 2021.

Probably, it’s because Polish lawmakers have recently approved the construction of a wall on the border with Belarus. The installation will be equipped with motion sensors and cameras and will cost Poland over $400 million.

In another move, due to intentional weaponization of migrants and assistance provided by Lukashenka-controlled armed groups on the border, Poland approved a law for migrant pushbacks at Belarus border. Politico reports that «local guards were granted powers to reject any application without examination and ban people from re-entering the country for six months up to three years

Now, the situation on Belarus-EU border rises new human rights law application issue for regional and international legal experts. Although anyone seeking international protection must be guaranteed an asylum process, hybrid operation conducted by Lukashenka regime (and, reportedly, coordinated by the Kremlin), questions whether the migrants who effectively are a part of deliberately hostile hybrid operation run by a malicious foreign government, pose a threat to national security of multiple EU and NATO members that border Belarus. Should they be treated as the subjects of hybrid warfare or require humanitarian assistance against all odds? Poland additionally reports that Lukashenka regime is making significant financial profits from organizing human trafficking routes from third countries to the EU.

Another issue is raised by Belarusian activists who fear that new measures may affect those Belarusians who seek political asylum and need to escape from politically-charged prosecution. Poland so far favors most asylum applications of Belarusians and creates favorable conditions for those seeking refuge from repressions. Very likely, fears of activists grow since Ukraine is growingly perceived a less safe harbor for Belarusians after recent alleged murder of activist Vitaly Shishov in Kyiv.

While major American media refer to the situation as «humanitarian crisis», Deutsche Welle yet uses term «migration crisis» although more and more migrants reach Germany and numbers grow fast. Germany’s response to worsening situation on Polish-Belarusian border, however, yet seems more verbal, rather than pro-active. But as migration crisis is acknowledge a «hybrid war» by the governments of the Baltic states and Poland, on October 11, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hosted Eva-Maria Liimets of Estonia, Edgars Rinkēvičs of Latvia and Gabrielius Landsbergis of Lithuania in London to discuss joint response to threats posed by Russia, Belarus and China.

Meanwhile, the EU’s European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson summoned envoys from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia on Thursday to discuss the situation, but the meeting didn’t happen. It is unclear, why – and whether it will take place later. According to some sources, it was «postponed».

Recently, a retired Polish border guard officer has been detained on suspicion of spying for Belarus. He has been charged with working for the Belarusian KGB and placed under arrest for three months. According to the spokesperson of the Minister-Special Services Coordinator of the Republic of Poland Stanisław Żaryn, more arrests related to this case are expected to follow. It is yet unclear, whether the case is related to weaponization of migrants, or not.

DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE OF MAKEI'S REPRESENTATIVES SHRINKS FURTHER

French ambassador was forced to get out of Belarus, and he left for France on Sunday, October 17. French diplomat was expelled for principal decision to not present his credentials to unrecognized self-declared «president» Lukashenka. The embassy «cites no reason to move».

Presumably, following a hostile step by Uladzimir Makei and Lukashenka, France will expel Belarus ambassador to France (who is also Belarus representative to UNSECO headquarters in Paris). A few days prior to a major diplomatic scandal, Makei requested his chief subordinate in France (Ihar Fisenka) to return from Paris to Minsk.

The consulate of «Belarus MFA» (currently controlled by Lukashenka and managed by Makei) in New York City will close on October 21 at the request of the United States.

Apart from diplomatic field, there’s news from sports industry that was being widely used by Lukashenka for propaganda and soft power purposes. UEFA is facing public attention after the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) sent Europe’s federation a call for action against Football Federation of Belarus (BFF) on the charges of systemic politically-motivated repressions against athletes.

NEW REPRESSIONS DELIBERATELY TARGET BELARUSIAN LANGUAGE AND CULTURE ELITE

There are reports of hundreds of cases of systemic repressions targeting individuals and groups that use Belarusian language and promote Belarusian-language culture. Although Belarusian language is officially one of two country languages, its users have been badly discriminated since the rise of Lukashenka regime in mid-1990s. However, this group has never been deliberately targeted by repressions at a current scale.

In response to repressions, hackers and groups of cyberpartisans continue a «digital war» declared by IT specialists against the Belarusian dictator. They continue to access and publish leaks of phone calls with criminal orders given by major regime officials (including the use of weapons, torture of inmates, and intentional illegal persecution of civilians).

While Lukashenka regime is de-facto destroying national language and culture and replaces them with Russian (and Soviet) narratives and content, influencers in Belarus widely refer to Minsk regime as «internal occupation». This is mostly due to the use of 1941-1944 Nazi occupation methods by the current «government» that aimed to completely wipe of all dissent, including non-Nazi culture.

Current regime is deliberately targeting and destroying the cultural landscape and infrastrucutre that was being developed for over 30 years of the country’s independence. One of the most famous contemporary artists from Belarus, Jura Shust, names current campaign against artists a «total dystopian purge». The editorial team of the Washington Post highlights the attack on artists and says Belarus is turning into a «worsening totalitarian hellscape» with thousands of artists, high-tech specialists, and media workers arrested for their democratic views.

Notably, the European Parliament reacted to continuous repressions (with a non-binding resolution) and supported the idea of further discuss how to bring Lukashenka and his subordinates to an international tribunal. This conversation is timely, but need binding measures (such as those included in 2020 Moscow Mechanism Report). And as American sanctions approach entry into force, recent publication on Atlantic Council rises reasonable economic arguments on how to increase economic  leverage on the regime and push it into end of violent repressions unseen in the last 50 years of Europe’s history.

Best regards,
iSANS team

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