- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 16)
A weekly update on the ongoing political crisis in the Republic of Belarus was prepared for you by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
On August 16, Chinese Minister of Defense Li Shangfu arrived in Belarus together with his delegation. During his visit, Shangfu met with Lukashenka and Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin, among others. It is also known that Li Shangfu visited military objects of the Belarusian Armed Forces. His trip included, as reported, a visit to Osipovichy on August 17, where three brigades of rocket troops and artillery are stationed: the 51st artillery brigade, the 336th reactive artillery brigade, which has Smerch and Polonez multiple rocket launchers in service, and the 465th rocket brigade, which has the Iskander operational-tactical missile system in service. Judging by the published photos, Li Shangfu attended an exhibition of weapons of the Belarusian Armed Forces, small arms, missiles, and artillery, as well as a training of artillery units of 152-mm howitzer «Msta-B». It was also reported that Li Shangfu was to visit the enterprises of the Belarusian military-industrial complex. However, no information about this was published. On August 17, Belarusian Air Force received the first batch of four of the transport-combat helicopters Mi-35M from Russia. The contract for helicopter delivery was signed in August 2020. In 2021, it was reported that Belarusian Airforce will receive a whole fleet of 12 helicopters. In February 2023, commander of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense Andrei Lukyanovich said that the new Mi-35M helicopters should arrive in Belarus beginning of April 2023. However, the helicopters were delivered five months later. It is not known what the delay in handing over the helicopters is related to. Mi-35M entered service at the 50th Mixed Aviation Base (v/h 0672 airfield Machulishchy). It was reported that Belarus will receive four Mi-35M helicopters until the end of 2023, and another four in 2024. The Mi-35M helicopter is the most modern item in service of the Belarusian Air Force. Servicemen of the Belarusian Special Operation Forces are engaged in guarding the Russian military, which is located at the airfields of Zyabrouka and Vialiky Bokov, where the Air Defense units of the Russian Armed Forces are stationed. Such a conclusion can be made based on military purchase analysis. According to the data received, the Belarusian Special Operations Forces will be located at the airfields Zyabrouka and in the village of Vialiky Bokov until the end of 2023. Units of the 103rd Airborne Brigade and the Fifth Special Purpose Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces are located there. Previously, the presence of the Belarusian military in the southern regions of Belarus was justified solely on the ground of strengthening the protection of the border with Ukraine. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Belarusian military units are not only protecting the border with Ukraine but also ensuring the security of Russian military objects. According to the existing data, the quantity of PMC Wagner mercenaries in Belarus can be estimated at 4,000-4,5000 men. The information about the mercenaries’ withdrawal from Belarus to Russia is still not confirmed. Moreover, there was no information about special mercenary flights from Belarus to Africa. PMC Wagner mercenaries continue drills with Belarusian servicemen. Last week, it was reported that the mercenaries train Belarusian internal troops. In general, a decline in the intensity of military drills of the Belarusian Armed Forces by PMC Wagner has been observed. Last week, Lithuania and Latvia took additional measures to increase their eastern borders’ security, following the earlier decision by Poland to send 10,000 troops to its border with Belarus. Lithuania did not announce the exact number of troops but announced joint drills of Lithuanian Border Guards and Armed Forces on August 27 at its frontier with Belarus. Lithuanian servicemen will train to tackle unusual situations that might arise and prepare for possible provocations. Latvia imposed a vacation ban for the Border Security Guards and sent troops to strengthen its Eastern borders. The Ministers of Interior of the three Baltic Countries and Poland will gather on August 28 in Warsaw to discuss the possible joint complete closure of the EU’s Eastern borders with Belarus. On August 16, US State Security Department Spokesperson Admiral John Kirby stated at a press briefing that it is not clear what territorial threat Wagner forces pose in Europe, but the US is monitoring closely the events in Belarus. Admiral assured during his speech that the U.S. has not changed its commitment to defend every inch of NATO territory. On August 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posthumously awarded the Order of Courage of the third degree to former political prisoner and Belarusian volunteer fighter Eduard Lobov, who was killed in combat in January 2023 near Ugledar and earlier participated in the liberation of the Kyiv region and the Chernobyl area. According to another decree of Zelensky, Belarusian volunteer fighter Daniil Lyashuk will be posthumously awarded the Order of Courage.
On August 14, Switzerland imposed new sanctions against Belarus that came into force on August 15. 38 individuals and three companies were added to the Swiss sanctions list. The sanctions target especially Belarusian judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers, who were engaged in repressions and sentences of the leadership of TUT.by, Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Sergei Tsikhanouski, and others. Propagandists such as Vadim Gigin and others were also included in the sanctions list. Among sanctioned companies, there are concerns “Belneftehim”, Minsk electro-technical plant, and the company “BMZ”. The sanctions provide for a ban on the export of raw materials, equipment, and technologies, freezing of assets and issuing loans, and prohibiting entry into the country. Lithuanian government launched legal procedures on August 14th for the closure of two out of six border checkpoints at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and set the date for the closure of Tverecius/Vidzy and Sumskas/Losha checkpoints from midnight August 18th. The border checkpoint closure is a temporary measure to secure state borders from the rising “Lukashenka regime orchestrated” migration crisis, combat smuggling of goods, and the rising threat from PMC Wagner Mercenaries’ presence in Belarus. Representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces reacted to Lithuanian officials’ announcement about the partial closure of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. Representative for National Security and Defense at the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus (UTC) Valery Sakhashchyk stated that the situation would be calmer for Europe, without the smuggling of goods and disturbances, however, Belarusians would find themselves in a situation, where they would have to choose, where to stay in Europe or Belarus. UTC Representative for Parliamentary Solidarity and Constitutional Reform Anatol Liabedzka said that if Belarusians are treated equally as Russians, it will only benefit Lukashenka, and this would bring both Poland and Lithuania reputational damage. UTC Representative for Foreign Affairs Valery Kavaleuski advocated for keeping passenger traffic for Belarusians open. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda in his festive address during the celebrations on the Polish Army Day on August 15 underlined that free Ukraine and free Belarus are essentially important for independent Poland, “for the security of Polish borders, which the Poles consider sacred”. Last week, the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarusian democratic forces completed the survey on “Golos” (Voice) platform to assess demand for the alternative Belarusian passport, presented during the “New Belarus 2023” conference in Warsaw on August 5-6. Results received after the August 16 deadline positively surprised the organizers. Representative for Foreign Affairs of the Cabinet Valery Kavaleuski wrote on the Telegram Channel of the Cabinet that in the 10 days of the survey, around 57,000 requests for alternative passports were received. Belarusians asked for passports not only individually, but also for members of their whole families. Requests came from different parts of the world, including the US and Canada, but most surprisingly, one-third of them were from people living in Belarus. Also last week, the National Anti-Crisis Management of Belarusian democratic forces handed over a list of individuals and organizations of the Lukashenka regime that actively support Russian aggression against Ukraine to the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption of Ukraine so that Ukraine could impose national sanctions against the listed individuals and companies. The suggestion includes 24 regime judges involved in repression against Belarusian citizens that openly expressed their support for Ukraine and opposed Russian aggression; 15 regime propagandists who are involved in inciting war and justifying Russian aggression as well as other persons and organizations associated with the Union State of Belarus and Russia, including those involved in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children from Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine to Belarus.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
The process of legal liquidation of pro-democratic political parties continues in Belarus. On August 14, the Supreme Court of Belarus liquidated the country’s oldest political party, the Belarusian Popular Front. It was founded in 1993 by opposition politician Zianon Paznyak. Since 2017, the party was headed by Ryhor Kastusiou, who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the case of “conspiracy to seize power” in September 2022. On August 15, the United Civic Party was liquidated. The party was founded in 1995. At the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, it urged not to vote for Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who, according to the party, “publicly abused power and demonstrated complete disrespect for voters.” In November 2022, a court in Minsk sentenced party leaders Mikalai Kazlou, Aksana Aliakseyeva, and Antanina Kavaliova to imprisonment for up to 2.5 years in the case of participation in the “March of the New Belarus” in Minsk in 2020. The previous chair of the party, Anatol Liabedzka, was forced to leave the country.
On August 16, KGB officers detained at least seven employees of the National Historical Archive. Among the detainees are the Deputy Director for Science and heads of several departments. This happened two days after Mikhail Glushakov, who previously worked in the Ministry of Justice and the KGB, was appointed director of the archive. This is not the first wave of repression in the archive. Under the previous director Oleg Voinov, more than 15 people were dismissed for political reasons.
On August 17, businessman Yuri Taskinav was sentenced by the Gomel Regional Court to three years in prison for transferring money to help Ukraine. Taskinov was found guilty of “financing an extremist formation” and “inciting hostility”. The investigation called the “financing of the extremist formation” the money transfers that the entrepreneur made to the BYSOL fund to help Ukraine. He was accused of inciting hostility because, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he spoke out against the war on social networks and published reports on humanitarian aid to residents of the Chernihiv region. The case was considered in closed mode, its details are unknown.
Minsk City Court sentenced 68-year-old pensioner Natallia Piatrovich to six years in prison for comments on the Internet. She was found guilty on five counts at once: insulting Lukashenka, insulting a government representative, inciting hostility, calling for harm to national security, and participating in an extremist formation. In addition to imprisonment, Natallia Piatrovich must pay compensation for moral damage in the amount of more than BYN 3,000 (about $ 1,183) under the chargers of insulting a representative of the authorities.
Political prisoner, journalist, and cameraman Pavel Padabed, previously sentenced to four years in a general regime colony, has been transferred from Minsk pre-trial detention center No. 1 to the pre-trial detention center at Mogilev prison, from which he will be sent to a correctional colony. It is not yet known where he will serve his sentence. Pavel is accused of collaborating with the Belsat TV channel, which is recognized as an “extremist formation” in Belarus. Also, during the trial, it turned out that Padabed’s phone was tapped, and the security forces had access to his correspondence in messengers. Padabed was also accused of “selfish motives” from journalistic activities and “obtaining financial benefits” – the reason was the discovery of his foreign bank card.
Political prisoner, Belarusian-Polish journalist, and activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus Andrzej Paczobut, who in February of this year was sentenced to eight years in a high-security colony for inciting hostility and calling for sanctions, was placed in a cell-type room for six months. In a letter to his wife, Paczobut wrote that conditions were tightened for him for refusing a job that he could not perform. Initially, a prison paramedic refused to sign a certificate that he could be kept in the cell-type room, since during the examination, a breakdown of the heart rhythm and blood pressure of 190/140 was recorded. However, the next day a “more experienced” prison doctor came and signed the necessary document. Now, when measuring blood pressure, Andrzej is refused to be shown the measurement results.
Plumber Mikhail Myakeka was tried and sentenced to six years of imprisonment in a high-security colony under charges of incitement to discord, participation in actions grossly violating public order, threats against officials, as well as slander against Lukashenka. Mikhail worked in Poland, returned to Belarus in 2022, and was arrested upon his return. According to the prosecution, in June-October 2020, he left comments on various telegram channels, published posts, and while in Poland, allegedly registered in the Peramoga plan (underground people’s militia, aimed at the restoration of law and order in Belarus, as well as the return of power in the country to its people).
The Ministry of Internal Affairs updated its list of “persons involved in extremist activities”. 32 people have been added to the list, including the CEO of TUT.by media portal Lyudmila Chikina, and Marina Zolotova, its editor-in-chief. In its turn, the KGB of Belarus updated the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities” by adding 12 more people, including political commentator Valeria Kostyugova and co–founder of the Sympa School of Young Managers of Public Administration Tatiana Kouzina, who were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to seize state power, calls for sanctions and incitement to hostility.
On August 14, Belarusian pro-government journalist and “expert” Aliaksandr Shpakousky, speaking live on the Russian TV channel Rossiya-1, said that Belarus should warn Poland about the possibility of a preventive nuclear strike on objects in its territory. He stated that the current situation reminds 1941, whereas Poland is boosting up troops at the border with Belarus and the Kaliningradregion of Russia. Earlier, Shpakousky said that “delivering a preventive strike against the enemy, if we know about the preparation of aggression against Belarus, not only does not contradict the Constitution but is also provided in the Belarus military planning.” While speaking on Russian television, the Belarusian propagandist also stated that the Russian army is still capable of fulfilling all the tasks set at the beginning of the so-called “special military operation” (a propaganda term for the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine). On August 15, it became known that the Russian media holding VK intends to open its office in Belarus by the end of 2023. The newspaper Kommersant reported that the Ambassador of Belarus to Russia, Dmitry Krutoy, had already discussed the direction of its activities in Belarus with the management of the company. It is officially reported that the office in Minsk will be involved in the development of video games and other projects. VK (formerly Mail.ru Group) is a private media holding that owns the main social networks of the Russian-speaking segment of the Internet. VK assets include VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Mail.ru, ICQ, and other social media. VK is known for its pro-Kremlin position and is believed to be under the control of the security services. The head of the VK holding is Vladimir Kiriyenko, the son of Sergei Kiriyenko, the First Deputy Head of the Russian President’s Administration. In Ukraine, the access to main assets of VK is blocked. On August 15, in his address to the 11th Moscow Conference for International Security, the Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that the deployment of nuclear weapons in the country “does not cancel Belarus’ peace initiatives”. He also called Western sanctions “a new type of weapon” that undermines the system of international trade and economic relations. On August 17, in an interview with Ukrainian pro-Russian journalist Diana Panchenko, Lukashenka said that the war in Ukraine could have been avoided and that it can be stopped at any moment now. At the same time, Lukashenka again tried to justify Putin’s actions and accused Ukraine of being the one to be blamed for the war, saying that just before the start of the war in February 2022, Russian troops were on military exercises in Belarus, after which they started their “return to Vladivostok”, ironically alluding to the fact that they allegedly ended up in Ukraine by accident. “And why Putin began to withdraw his troops to the Far East via Kyiv – ask Zelensky this question. He will answer you faster. But don’t blame me for Putin going to Vladivostok via Kyiv”. Further, he suggested asking Putin that question and stated that Minsk will always help Russia, but not engage in hostilities in Ukraine if Ukrainians won’t cross the border with Belarus. It is important to note that Diana Panchenko, a former host of pro-Russian channels owned by Ukrainian oligarch and Putin’s friend Viktor Medvedchuk, is herself under Ukrainian sanctions. Commenting on Lukashenka’s statement that “the Russian troops could allegedly have taken Kyiv while Zelensky was sitting in a cellar,” which the self-proclaimed President made during the interview with Panchenko, state propagandist Alexander Shpakovsky wrote in his Telegram channel that the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Kyiv allegedly “was due not to military reasons, but first, to political ones, namely, Putin’s desire to avoid fratricidal bloodshed. That at the initial stage, the ‘special military operation’ was considered by the Russian leadership as a demonstration of force for coercion to a compromise. Best regards,iSANS team