- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 17)
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).
According to the latest satellite imagery from August 23, 101 tents out of 273, or one-third of the field camp of the PMC Wagner mercenary camp at village Tsel, have already been dismantled. According to available information, the dismantling of tents began no later than July 25 and lasted throughout August. At the same time, the amount of equipment in the mercenary camp has remained unchanged. In fact, the latest satellite images can currently serve as the only confirmation that a part of the mercenaries could really have left Belarus in the first half of August. On August 25, Aliaksandr Lukashenka also said that some of the mercenaries had left Belarus. In light of the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the fate of the mercenaries and their camp in Belarus is uncertain. Despite the dismantling of part of the tents, the amount of equipment in the camp in the village of Tsel has remained virtually unchanged. In other words, if only a part of the mercenaries returned to Russia, then PMC “Wagner” is not going to completely close its field camp. In the near future, the activities of PMC “Wagner” mercenaries in Belarus may be significantly reorganized. We can assume the following options: complete shutdown of PMC “Wagner” – an unlikely scenario; continuation of PMC “Wagner”, possibly in a new and more truncated format; transfer of the PMC “Wagner” structure under the control of the Lukashenka regime – an unlikely scenario, as the resources for the maintenance of mercenaries may simply not be enough. On August 24, the decree of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense No. 17 of August 3, 2023, was published, which approved the list of vehicles to be provided to the Belarusian Armed Forces during mobilization and wartime. The document replaces the previous similar list, adopted in 2009. In general, the amendment of the document is rather technical in nature and does not significantly change the procedure for the seizure of vehicles in case of mobilization. Last week, Soldiers of the 465th Missile Brigade of the Belarusian Armed Forces held fire control training at the Osipovichi shooting range. A missile forces unit equipped with the Iskander-M missile launcher and a unit equipped with the Tochka missile launcher were taking part in the training. In the course of the exercises, issues related to the preparation and conduct of combat operations by missile forces were practiced, as well as the execution of combat training tasks for the preparation and launching of missile strikes in both conventional and special (nuclear) equipment. Foreign military personnel started arriving in Belarus for joint military training of CIS countries “Battle brotherhood-2023”, which will take place on September 1-6, 2023. Is already known about the arrival of military personnel from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. On August 25, the Day when the Declaration of State Sovereignty proclaimed by the Belarusian Supreme Council in 1991 came into force and marks Belarusian Independence Day, many volunteer fighters of the Kalinouski regiment received awards from the Defense Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine for their courage in liberating Ukraine.
On August 18, Lithuanian officials announced the turning down of a request for political asylum by Belarusian activist, head of an NGO “Nash Dom” Olga Karach. Against this background, on August 21, and to disburse the accusations made by Karach, the Lithuanian State Security Department issued an official comment that the reasons for the denial were not the ones the activist was naming publicly. Lithuanian State Security Department said that Karach poses a threat to national security allegedly due to her relations with Russian intelligence. More information cannot be publicly disclosed for security reasons. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Migration Service said that the activist was not granted asylum but received a prolongation of her residence permit on humanitarian grounds. On August 21, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano announced that eight countries, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liechtenstein, and Norway, joined the latest EU sanctions package against the Belarusian regime, adopted on August 3. The latest listings include 38 individuals such as penitentiary officials, judges, prosecutors, criminal investigators, TV presenters, and three state-owned companies. As a reaction to the closure of two border checkpoints at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and rising tensions between Belarus and neighboring EU countries, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk issued a statement on August 21, urging U.S. citizens to leave Belarus immediately, if they are in Belarus, and refrain from traveling to Belarus. On August 23, leader of Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya paid a visit to the Speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen. Against the background of a public discussion to align regulations regarding Belarusians with restrictions and regulations for Russians in Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya called on the Speaker of Parliament to keep different approaches to the representatives of the two nationalities. She said that Belarusians should not be thrown into the same basket as the Lukashenka regime and asked to keep open humanitarian corridors, even if the borders with Belarus would be closed, and added that the regime should be isolated, not the people. On August 24, Belarusian democratic leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya congratulated President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people on the Independence Day of Ukraine and said that the whole world admires the Ukrainian fight for freedom and independence, that she is proud of Belarusians helping to win this fight, and that the good relations between Belarusian and Ukrainian nations will be restored one day. Last week, the delegation of Representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces Valery Kavaleuski, Anatol Liabedzka, and the newly appointed representative for the Diplomatic Mission of Democratic Forces in Ukraine Gennady Manko met with the Advisor of Ukrainian President Mikhailo Podolyak to discuss defending the independence of the two nations, expanding dialogue and possibilities for partnership.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Political prisoners Viktar Babaryka, Igar Losik, and Andrzej Pachobut, held in Novopolotsk Correctional Colony No. 1, have been isolated from other prisoners and are held in cell-type premises (PKT). To send Andrzej Pachobut to the PKT, a provocation was arranged against him by the colony administration – he was ordered to clean the toilet, a job that automatically entails the acquisition of a “low social status” in the colony. After refusing to perform the work, Pachobut received punishment in the form of placement in a PKT for the formal reason of “refusing to work.” Viktar Babaryka continues to be held in the “information vacuum”: the administration of the colony does not pass letters on to him and bans his communication with other prisoners. The situation with Igar Losik is similar. Given this news and earlier information about the isolation in custody of other well-known political prisoners, including Mikalai Statkevich and Siarhei Tsikhanouski, it is obvious that the Belarusian authorities systematically practice incommunicado detention of their political opponents in blatant violation of international human rights norms.A resident of Minsk, Igar Papa, was sent by the Minsk City Court to the Gaytyushniki Psychiatric Hospital for indefinite compulsory treatment with strict supervision for making comments on the Internet. He was tried on three charges: insulting Lukashenka, insulting a representative of the authorities, and threatening to use violence against an employee of the internal affairs bodies. The trial was closed. The verdict was handed down on May 12, but the details have only now become known. People are sent to the “Gaytunishki” Hospital according to a court decision in case they “by their mental state and the nature of what they have done, pose a special danger to society.” According to the information on the official website of the hospital, 280 people are currently being held there. Uladzimir Tychynski was sentenced by the Mogilev Regional Court to two and a half years in a general regime colony “for promoting extremist activities”. The basis of the charges was the fact that in April 2022 Tychynski took a video of the movements of the Russian military equipment and sent it to one of the media, which was recognized as “extremist” in Belarus. This is not the first case when people are sentenced to real prison terms for sharing information about military equipment. In December last year, a court in Gomel sentenced a former teacher Iryna Abdukeryna from the city of Khoiniki to four years in prison in a general regime colony for sending a video with military equipment to the telegram channel “Belaruski Gayun”, which monitors military activity in Belarus and is recognized as an “extremist formation”. On August 21, the Mogilev Regional Court held a closed trial against Anna Skrigan, Ph.D. in geographical sciences, former head of the Mogilev branch of the international association “Ecoproject” and a teacher of the Belarusian-Russian University. The circumstances of the criminal case and detention are unknown, but she is accused of “inciting discord.” The court found the woman guilty and sentenced her to two years in a general regime colony. Anastasia Petrachenka received three years in a penal colony for donating to the Kalinovsky regiment (a military regiment of Belarusian volunteers formed in February 2022 to protect Ukraine from the Russian invasion), although the transaction failed. She was found guilty of attempted financing of an extremist formation, although at the time of the transfer the regiment had not yet been recognized as an extremist formation. Petrachenka was arrested when she returned to Belarus from Poland. While there, she tried to transfer $16.71 to the Kalinovsky regiment from her Belarusian bank account. On August 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized the Human Rights Center “Viasna” as an “extremist formation” for “encroachment on the sovereignty and public security of the Republic of Belarus, discrediting and insulting officials.” All branches of the Center are recognized as “extremist”. About a hundred information resources and online accounts related to “Viasna” have been added to the “List of organizations, formations, individual entrepreneurs related to extremist activities.” These include websites spring96.org and freeviasna.org, Telegram channels, “Viasna” social media pages, shared messenger and e-mail accounts for communication with human rights defenders, Viasna Patreon page, photo stock on flicr.com, as well as personal mail and Telegram accounts. The website of the international human rights organization Front Line Defenders, frontlinedefenders.org, containing information about “Viasna”, was also added to the list. On August 23, political prisoner Polina Sharendo-Panasyuk went on a hunger strike. According to the Human Rights Center «Viasna», this is a protest against terrible conditions created by the administration of the temporary isolation center of the Rechitsa district police department. According to “Viasna”, after Polina’s arrival at the isolation center, she was placed in a solitary cell with extremely anti-sanitary conditions; the cell was infested by insects. All her personal belongings and food that she had brought with her were taken away. She was not given a mattress and linen and had to sleep on iron curved plates. Walks and all communications are banned. Investigative actions in the framework of a criminal case against Polina on “malicious disobedience to the orders of the colony administration” have been completed and next week, the case will be transferred to the prosecutor’s office, and then to the Rechitsky district court. In 2021, Polina Sharendo-Panasyuk was sentenced to two years in prison, accused of using violence against policemen and insulting them, as well as insulting Lukashenka. In April 2022, she received another year in prison for “malicious disobedience to the orders of the administration of a correctional institution”. The second term was supposed to end on August 6, but a third case was opened against Sharendo-Panasyuk for “disobedience.” On August 24, Artsem Lyabedzka, accused of financing the activities of an extremist formation, was sentenced to 3.5 years in a high–security colony. Artsem is the son of a well-known politician Anatol Lyabedzka, head of the opposition United Civic Party (2000-2018), currently an adviser on interparliamentary cooperation of the Joint Transitional Cabinet, who is forced to live in Vilnius. Artsem Lyabedzka pleaded not guilty and stated that he did not even understand the essence of the charges. According to the case file, in 2020, Artsem “for reasons of ideological hostility” made transfers to three charitable foundations recognized as “extremist formations”. The funds were transferred through the Facebook payment system. Lyabedzka was detained in March of this year under an administrative article. Later, a criminal case was opened against him. Political prisoner journalist Andrzej Pachobut, who was sentenced to eight years in a penal colony, was awarded the Polish Jan Karski Mission Medal. The medal is named after an outstanding Polish figure, a member of the Resistance movement Jan Karski. During the Second World War, Karsky documented the facts of the mass extermination of the Jewish population by the Hitler regime in the occupied territory. For his activities aimed at revealing the truth about the Holocaust, he was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations of the World. The award of Andrzej Pachobut was a reaction to the pressure that the journalist was experiencing in the Novopolotsk colony. “Just as the legendary emissary of the Polish underground state suffered Nazi imprisonment and torture, Andrzej Pachobut is subjected to a similar test of physical fortitude, firmness of character, and perseverance in the spirit of hope,” the award’s justification says. On August 23, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a speech at a cultural evening dedicated to artists, opposition activists, and other people who were forced to leave their country for political reasons or were imprisoned in their homeland because of their views. In his speech, Steinmeier paid special attention to political persecution in Belarus. The Lukashenka regime is responsible for the lives of opposition politicians Maryia Kalesnikava, Maxim Znak, and other people imprisoned in Belarus “only because they called for law, freedom and democracy,” Steinmeier said. On August 25, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, commented on the recognition of “Viasna” as an “extremist formation”: “This week’s decision by authorities to declare the country’s leading human rights organization Viasna as ‘extremist’ is a further disturbing sign of the ongoing crackdown on civil society, media, and other independent voices.”
On August 17-19, the so-called “Second Anti-Fascist Congress”, a state ideological event funded and organized by the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, took place in Minsk. It was attended by “public figures”, state propaganda media employees, officers of the Ministry of Defense, and officials from Russia, Belarus, and representatives of other CIS member states. The resolution of the “Congress” called for “stopping the world’s evil in the guise of Western democracies”, “counteracting fascism and neo-Nazism, which is resurgent in many countries of the world, primarily in Western countries and the United States”, as well as creating an “international tribunal to bring the neo-Nazi military and political criminals of Ukraine to justice”.
On August 18, at the so-called “Anti-Fascist Congress” in Minsk, State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich stated that Russia is fighting not with the Ukrainian people and not with Ukraine, but with “fascism”. “We are trying to remind the world community that fascism must be stopped. This is exactly what is being done today in the course of a special military operation by Russia on the territory of Ukraine. This is not a fight against the Ukrainian people, not a fight against Ukraine. This is a fight against fascism and neo-Nazism, which has raised its head”.
On August 25, during a visit to the Belarusian State University, Aliaksandr Lukashenka made a number of statements in relation to the possible murder of the leaders of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin. On August 23, the plane on which they flew to Moscow crashed in the Tver region; all passengers died. In his statements, Lukashenka tried to relieve himself of responsibility for Prigozhin’s safety, as well as whitewashing the image of Vladimir Putin. In response to several statements in the media about “security guarantees” that Lukashenka provided for Prigozhin and his Wagnerites after the failed “mutiny” in June 2023, Lukashenka said that “he did not guarantee Prigozhin’s security.” At this, a few minutes later, Lukashenka denied his own words: “I tell them (the Wagner mercenaries): “If you are afraid of something, I will talk with President Putin, we will take you to Belarus. We guarantee you full security in Belarus.”
To the question “What happened to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s jet?”, the “head” of Belarus replied that he did not believe in the version of a missile strike or an explosion on board. “I cannot imagine that Putin did this, that Putin is to blame. Too rough, too unprofessional. It doesn’t look like Putin,” Lukashenka said.
He also answered the question of what will happen next with the PMC Wagner mercenaries in the country. “Wagner lived, Wagner lives, and Wagner will live in Belarus.” He elaborated further that [if needed], “within a few days all of them will be here, up to 10 thousand people. There is no need to keep them here now.”
On August 26, another ideological event took place in Minsk: the “Forum of Eurasians and New Scythians ‘Great Scythia’”, organized by the Northern Eurasia Center, which was founded by the Belarusian “philosopher” and propagandist Alexei Dzermant. In addition to him, other propagandists from Belarus and Russia spoke at the Forum, including the notorious observer of the ONT TV channel Grigory Azarenok, as well as Russian Z-patriotic authors and so-called “war correspondents”. One of them, Andrey Polukhanov, founder of the battalion “Scythe” that is actively participating in the war of aggression against Ukraine, said that the military units of Yakut people, Ossetians, and other peoples who identify themselves as “Scythians”, “are all ready to fight for the Russian World, for a common space, for justice”. At the forum, traditional anti-Western narratives were discussed and a need to strengthen “Eurasian cooperation” in the post-Soviet space was underlined. Best regards,iSANS team