- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 33)
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).
Dear readers,We would like to thank you for your interest in our Review this year. This is our last issue in 2023. We will return with our news from Belarus next year and hope for your attention. In the meantime, we would like to wish you a Happy Holidays and a prosperous year 2024.
From December 12 to 14, a Delegation of the Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan was on a working visit to Belarus. During the visit, issues of bilateral military cooperation in the field of logistics were discussed. The Kazakh delegation visited the 2336th storage base for clothing equipment. On December 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law on ratification of the agreement with Belarus on the establishment and functioning of training and combat centers for joint training of military personnel. As a result, the process of ratification of the agreement was completed by the Belarusian and Russian sides. On December 12, the Defense Ministry of Belarus reported that on the order of the commander of the Western Operational Command, the combat readiness of the tank battalion of one of the mechanized brigades was checked. The tank battalion of the 6th Mechanized Brigade was inspected. According to available information, the battalion’s combat readiness check began as early as Monday, December 11. The battalion’s equipment moved to the area of concentration at the Gozhsky training ground in a combined way: some of the tanks were transferred to the training ground by road trains, while some of the equipment marched to the area of concentration on its own. During the march, the unit crossed the Neman River on a pontoon crossing. The tank crews began the formation exercise. On December 15, a surprise inspection of the Air Defense Forces on duty began. During the check, Air Defense Missile and radio-technical units moved to the designated areas and began to carry out combat missions. S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as low-altitude radar systems Rosa-RB, were involved. It should be noted that in the morning there were intensive flights of airplanes and helicopters of all air bases of the Air Force of Belarus (50th, 61st, and 116th). Several media and telegram channels spread information that mercenaries of PMC “Wagner” became employees in the special purpose unit “Tornado”. Such a conclusion was made based on the placement of PMC «Wagner» symbols on one of the pickup trucks, as well as on the flagpole. No other supporting facts were given. In general, one cannot exclude the possibility that some of the mercenaries remain in Belarus and are embedded in the security forces of the Lukashenko regime. But it is incorrect to assert this only based on the placement of the mercenaries’ symbols or dubious sources. New facts have emerged confirming preparations for the construction of a military camp in Homiel district for the Southern Operational Command. A paintball and laser tag club were located on the site of the construction of the military camp. Back in November, the club announced the change of its playground. The change of the playground could have happened because of the construction of the military camp.
Last week, the head of the United Transitional Cabinet Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was on a working visit to Brussels, where she met with the EU High Representative Josep Borrell to discuss the issue of political prisoners and call on the European ministers not to recognize the results of Lukashenka’s “elections” in 2024. On Borrell’s invitation, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addressed the EU Foreign Affairs Council. At the same time, the second meeting of the EU-Belarus consultative group took place. The group meeting raised many issues and discussed many topics regarding the support for the democratic movement and civil society. As a result, an agreement was reached to offer seminars and training for Belarusian lawyers according to the Council of Europe standards, along with the translation of HELP (European Program for Human Rights Education of Legal Professionals). Moreover, it was confirmed by the Representative for National Revival of the United Transitional Cabinet that the EU will allocate EUR 5 million for support of Belarusian culture. On the EU’s behalf, it was confirmed that the EU has already allocated EUR 140 million in support to Belarusian civil society from 2020 and stands firmly at the commitment to activate the support of EUR 3 billion comprehensive plan support of a democratic Belarus once Belarus embarks on a path to democratic transition. On December 12, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Office, the United Transitional Cabinet, and the Coordination Council presented the New Belarus Transition strategy for public discussion. The strategy has sections regulating the conduct of democratic elections, restoration of constitutional order and legality, maintenance of international obligations, delivery of economic stability and development, restoration of civil society, and national revival. Among other things, the strategy defines Belarus as a democratic, unitary, social, and rule-of-law state. The proposed form of the state is a parliamentary republic, where the prime minister is nominated by the parliament and the government is accountable to the parliament. On December 12, Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin signed a law ratifying the agreement between the government of Russia and the Lukashenka regime. This agreement allows the official Minsk not to repay its debts to Russia at least until 2029. According to the political analyst at Charles University in Prague, Putin’s policy regarding Belarus is aimed at further restricting the field of action for Lukashenka and leaving Belarus only nominally an independent state. On the same day, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control broadened sanctions targeting Russia by including 250 entities and individuals on the list. Not only Russian nationals and entities are affected by the restrictions, but also the ones in the UAE, Turkey, and China, and businesspeople of Belarusian origin made it to the list. Sanctions are aimed at restricting financing and aiding Putin’s war against Ukraine. Last week, the discussion on the unification of restrictive measures against Russian and Belarusian citizens in Lithuania has deepened at all governmental levels in Lithuania. The Presidential office continued to maintain the position in favor of unifying the restrictive measures. According to the Chief Adviser to the President of Lithuania Kestutis Budrys, the country’s institutions would get more tools to check incoming foreigners and reduce their uncontrolled movement by implementing new rules. Laurynas Kasciunas, the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Defense, stated in his explanations on the reasons why he and his colleagues registered the bill on the unification of the measures for Russian and Belarusian citizens that Belarusians did not protest against the war in Ukraine [actually, the protest took place on February 27, 2022, and there were 800 detained] and he as the Chair of the Committee must react when the State Security Department issues a warning as it was done some weeks ago. On December 14, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya together with her Representative for Constitutional Reform and Parliamentary Solidarity Anatol Liabedzka, and representatives of the pro-democratic parties – United Civic Party, Movement “For Freedom”, Hramada and the Belarusian Christian Democracy, met with members of the Lithuania Parliamentary Committee of Foreign Affairs and members of the group “For a Democratic Belarus” to address the issue of imposing new restrictions against Belarusians in Lithuania. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the parliamentarians to refrain from non-proportional restrictions against Belarusians and urged not to put Belarusians and Russians in the same basket, “because it is exactly what dictators want.” According to the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces, there are many relocated Belarusian businesses in Lithuania, because they didn’t want to pay taxes to the Lukashenka regime, and they are significant profit generators with over EUR 490 M per year that add up to Lithuania’s economy. After the discussion, the Committee agreed to support the proposal to extend the validity of residence permits to Belarusians to three years, but the decision must be approved by the parliament. On December 15, Japan expanded its sanctions list as a contribution to the international efforts to achieve international peace, regarding the situation surrounding Ukraine. Japan included 57 Russian entities, 27 Belarusian entities, and six entities in other countries (e.g., the UAE, Armenia, Syria, and Uzbekistan). Japan’s sanctions include an asset freeze, a ban on trade and exports, a visa ban for certain people, asset freeze for individuals, including Lukashenka. On December 15, the Ukrainian government proposed to the Verkhovna Rada to terminate the agreement between the governments of Ukraine and Belarus on the promotion of investments, which was signed in Kyiv on December 14, 1995. Previously, four months ago, Ukraine terminated the Agreement with Belarus on cooperation in the field of technology and science and the Lukashenka regime adopted the resolution terminating this agreement only on December 14, 2023.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On December 12, it became known that the State Security Committee (KGB) had been conducting searches and inspections on people who were observers at the 2020 elections. They had their phones checked and were warned of criminal liability for “facilitating extremist activities.” Videos with them were recorded. Human rights activists commented that they consider the actions of the KGB to be revenge for the activities of independent observers in the 2020 elections. On February 25, 2024, a single voting day will be held in Belarus, during which it is planned to determine the composition of the Councils of Deputies at various levels, as well as of the House of Representatives. Human rights activists announced that a monitoring campaign within the framework of a single voting day will be conducted without deploying a network of observers. They underlined there are no prerequisites for holding fair elections in Belarus now.
On December 12, the Supreme Court refused to grant the appeal against the decision of the Minsk City Court on the liquidation of the New Life Church of Full Gospel Christians. The conflict between the New Life Church and the authorities has lasted since 2005. Then Minsk officials decided to evict believers from a building converted into a church from a former cowshed. Parishioners refused to comply with the decision of the authorities and held a protest. In November 2020, New Life believers recorded a video in which they condemned the violence by security forces and repression against peaceful citizens of Belarus. On February 17, 2021, the police and housing and communal services administration seized the church building and threw the believers out into the street. Parishioners held services in the parking lot near the seized building. The authorities declared the meetings illegal, and believers were detained and fined. On August 14, 2023, the security forces of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption broke into the house of pastor Vyachaslau Gancharenka, conducted a search, and detained him.
On December 12, the house of former political prisoner Leanid Sudalenka, who currently lives outside Belarus, was searched. His land plot was seized. On December 15, he wrote on social media about the search conducted in his city apartment: “The search of the apartment where my family lives in Gomel has been completed. They don’t say what they’re looking for, they didn’t take anything away. It became known that I was wanted in Belarus.” Leanid Sudalenka headed the Gomel branch of the “Viasna” Human Rights Center. In November 2021, he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on charges of financing and organizing actions that grossly violate public order. In July 2023, after serving his full term, he was released and left Belarus. Leanid Sudalenka continues to actively engage in human rights activities and talks about the situation in Belarus on various platforms, drawing attention to the Belarusian agenda. In November, it became known that a new criminal case had been opened against him on charges of the promotion of extremist activities.
Uladzimir Zhurauka, involved in the criminal case of Rabochy Rukh (Labour Movement), was transferred to a prison regime. He was sentenced to 15 years in a high-security colony on charges of creating or participating in an extremist formation, defamation, and high treason. As stated in the materials of the criminal case, the participants of Rabochy Rukh carried out “illegal activities to collect and subsequently transfer to a foreign state and organization, their representatives (including the security services of the United States and Lithuania) official information of a restricted nature concerning Belarusian business entities on ways to circumvent restrictive measures (sanctions), as well as mechanisms for countering such methods.” Rabochy Rukh is an initiative to unite working people to protect their civil and labor rights and freedoms. By the decision of the State Security Committee of September 21, 2021, it was recognized as an “extremist formation”. On August 11, 2023, the Interior Ministry added Uladzimir Zhurauka to the list of persons involved in “extremist” activities.
“Viasna” Human Rights Center has submitted information on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of women to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The information was collected as part of documenting torture and ill-treatment committed by the Belarusian authorities in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections and during the subsequent period. In three years and five months, the stories of 193 women were documented. 106 women reported about the arrest and subsequent detention. All of them faced human rights violations. In addition to information about physical violence, women reported threats of sexual violence and deprivation of parental rights. The evidence provided highlights the urgent need for an international response to the current practices of arrest and detention of women in Belarus.
On December 15, four people were detained in Mahileu in the case of 6ТV.bу and Mogilev.media, recognized on December 6 as extremist groups. Among those detained are former director of the Mahileu Museum of History Aliaksey Batyukou, journalist Barys Vyrvich, former Mahileu State University lecturer Aliaksandr Aheyeu, and PhD in Pedagogical Sciences Ihar Sharukha. Charges and what status they are in now are unknown.
The Homiel Regional Court upheld the verdict of political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk, and her complaint was dismissed. The court session was held on December 15, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. In October, Palina was sentenced to one year in a penal colony on charges of malicious disobedience to the requirements of the colony administration. At the trial, she talked about the beating in the colony. The political prisoner appealed the verdict. In 2021, Sharenda-Panasyuk was sentenced to two years in prison, accused of using violence against policemen and insulting them, as well as insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In April 2022, she received another year in prison under Article 411 of the Criminal Code (“Malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of a correctional institution”). This term was supposed to end on August 6, but another case was brought against Polina for “disobedience.”
Another trial in absentia of Vadzim Prakopyeu, an ex-restaurateur and former founder of the Pagonia regiment of Belarusian volunteers fighting on the Ukrainian side, will begin on December 19. He was already sentenced in absentia to 25 years of imprisonment on June 21, 2023. Presently Vadzim Prakopyeu is accused of inciting racial, national, religious, or other social hostility, participating in an armed formation on the territory of another state, slandering the President of the Republic of Belarus, insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus, and insulting a government representative. The new trial of Prakopyeu will be held behind closed doors.
The International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) issued a report “Challenges in the application of the universal jurisdiction principle in respect of cases from Belarus. Case studies from Lithuania, Germany, Poland and Czechia”. iSANS has researched problems in the effective application of the universal jurisdiction principle to cases of international crimes committed by the Lukashenka regime by studying the situation in the four states where lawsuits from victims from Belarus have been submitted. While many inter-governmental organizations recommended this instrument as an effective way of dealing with the accountability gap, investigation of cases from Belarus in Europe has stumbled and faces various legal, procedural, and institutional obstacles. iSANS has identified several major problems and developed 12 concrete recommendations. The authors of the report hope that these recommendations will be seriously considered by all relevant actors, including government officials, law enforcement personnel, lawyers representing victims, and civil society, and will serve as a basis for further discussion and concrete action.
The UN Human Rights Committee (UN HRC) has recognized a violation of the right to freedom of Viktar Babaryka, banker and public figure, presidential candidate in 2020. The UN HRC opinion refers to the fact that he was detained and imprisoned while his circumstances, including that he was not previously convicted and lived permanently in Belarus, were not taken into consideration. It was also not considered that though two weeks before his detention, Aliaksandr Lukashenka had publicly hinted at Babaryka’s guilt, he did not go into hiding and remained in the country, continuing his election campaign. The reasons for his detention were thus baseless, alternatives to it were not considered by the court at all. The UN HRC also found it to violate Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that the decision to detain Viktar Babaryka was made by a prosecutor who did not have relevant judicial authority. The lack of access to lawyers within 24 hours after the detention and obstruction of communication with a lawyer during a week after the detention were other grounds for recognizing a violation of the ICCPR. On November 16, 2023, the UN HRC communicated to Belarus the necessity to take urgent measures to ensure that Viktar Babaryka‘s life, physical and moral condition are not in danger, as well as to ensure his communication with lawyers, family members, and doctors. Such a requirement was formulated following the receipt by the UN HRC of the information about Babaryka’s admission to the hospital in Navapolatsk with pneumothorax and signs of physical damage, as well as about his stay in the correctional colony No. 1 in Navapolatsk incommunicado since February 6, 2023. The decision of the UN HRC was published on the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was also sent to Belarus authorities and Viktar Babaryka’s lawyers, who are recognized as his representatives notwithstanding the deprivation of their status in Belarus.
On December 10, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, reaffirmed support for the civil society of Belarus and continued sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. In an open letter to the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, on the eve of her meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels, he expressed the hope that the official authorities of Belarus will be eventually elected democratically and representing fully the Belarusian people. Until then, he promised to continue sanctioning the regime and supporting civil society and democratic forces. To confirm this statement, Borrell announced an extra financial support of thirty million euros for Belarusian civil society and democratic forces. Josep Borrell also used this opportunity to call on the regime to release all political prisoners, stop the repression, engage in inclusive national dialogue, and organize democratic elections.
Following the prolonged incommunicado detention of former presidential candidate and 2020 Sakharov Prize laureate Mikalaj Statkevich, about whom there has been no information for more than 300 days, the European Parliament approved the resolution “On the unknown status of Mikalaj Statkevich and the recent attacks on Belarusian politicians’ and activists’ family members (2023/3023(RSP))”. Even though the resolution is dedicated to one person, it indicates that other prominent Belarusian political prisoners, including Ales Bialiatski, Maria Kalesnikava, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, Maksim Znak, Pavel Seviarynets, Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, Andrzej Poczobut and Ihar Losik, have been subjected to similar isolation. The resolution strongly condemns the unjustified, politically motivated sentences and continued repression of Belarusian democratic forces, civil society, human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, clergy, political activists, and their family members; and demands the immediate, unconditional release of Mikalaj Statkevich and all 1 500 political prisoners; calls for the withdrawal of all charges against them, their full rehabilitation and financial compensation for the damage suffered as a result of being deprived of liberty; insists that the prisoners must receive proper medical assistance and access to lawyers, family, diplomats and international organizations, which can assess their condition and provide aid. It also calls for the EU and its member States to support the political prisoners and their families by seizing every opportunity to demand their immediate release, summoning the regime’s remaining diplomatic representatives to ask for proof of their condition and location, granting humanitarian visas to effectively respond to the issue of statelessness, providing rehabilitation and practical and financial support, and increasing pressure on the regime through new sanctions; and on the EU Member States to ensure the continuing documentation of international crimes and demand accountability at UN level, through the OHCHR examining the human rights situation and through preserving the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
The new Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski confirmed the support of the Belarusian democratic forces. “The Belarusian Democrats will always be our brothers, whom we will one day welcome into the family of free European nations. Long live Belarus!” he wrote in response to congratulations from the Chair of the People’s Anti-Crisis Management (NAU) and deputy head of the United Transitional Cabinet Pavel Latushka.
In 2023, Belarus became one of the three leading countries in terms of the number of journalists in prison. This conclusion was made in the Reporters Without Borders annual report. “Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, with its increasingly repressive policies, is now one of the trio of countries detaining the most journalists: 39 persons (seven more than in 2022). Belarus is also the country with the second highest number of detained female journalists (10), coming in right after China (14)”, stated the report.
On December 14, the European Council reiterated its urgent call on Russia and Belarus to immediately ensure the safe return to Ukraine of all unlawfully deported and transferred Ukrainian children and other civilians. This was stated in the European Council’s conclusions on Ukraine, enlargement, and reforms. The conclusions also stress the European Council condemns the continued military support for Russia’s war of aggression provided by Iran, Belarus, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It urges all countries not to provide material or other support for Russia’s war of aggression.
Pavel Latushka, the chair of the People’s Anti-Crisis Management (NAU) and deputy head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, held meetings with Permanent Representatives of Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and of the EU in the Council of Europe. He spoke about the Lukashenka regime’s war crimes and discussed possible mechanisms for bringing Lukashenka and his accomplices to justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression. The parties discussed the release of political prisoners and preparations for the meeting of the CoE Committee of Ministers, at which it is planned to adopt a roadmap for cooperation with the Belarusian democratic forces. It was stressed at the meeting that the Council of Europe is ready to continue and develop institutional cooperation with the Belarusian democratic forces.
On December 8, propaganda of both Russia and Belarus celebrated the 24th anniversary of the creation of the so-called “Union State of Russia and Belarus” (on December 8, 1999, the Treaty on the creation of the “Union State” was signed). Around this date, a series of ideological events took place. For, on December 6, Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov announced that a “united lesson about the Union State” would be held in schools of both countries. This idea has already been supported by the Belarusian Ministry of Education.
On December 13, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Belarus “Russia’s closest strategic partner and ally.” He also said that within the framework of the “Union State,” the integration of Belarus and Russia is deepening: “The key objectives of the Russian foreign policy are to build up strategic partnership and alliance with Belarus and neighboring countries.”
On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus hosted a festive meeting of the pro-government Advisory Council on the Affairs of Belarusians Abroad, which was attended by representatives of national organizations of Belarusians from different countries, the majority of them coming from Russia. Foreign Minister Searhei Aleinik, in his speech at the meeting, said that he “appreciates the contribution of Belarusians abroad in conveying truthful information about Belarus.”
On December 10, Rodion Miroshnik, “ambassador-at-large on the crimes of the Kyiv regime” (a position established under the Russian Foreign Ministry in August 2023), in an interview with the Belarusian state TV channel STV, said that Russia is using a certain “Minsk platform” for the transfer of the Ukrainian deported children back to Ukraine: “Very often it was at the “Minsk platform” where the process of transferring these children to Ukrainian parents or relatives took place,” Miroshnik said, thereby confirming the previously revealed fact that Russia is using Belarus as a neutral site or “third country” for transferring Ukrainian children to their homeland. In the same program, Miroshnik stated that “Donbas is very grateful for the actions taken by the government of Belarus to organize the Minsk negotiations” (the formal name of the peace process in Ukraine).
On December 13, the Head of the KGB of Belarus, Ivan Tertel, said that CIA agents had been identified in Minsk. He noted that during counterintelligence work, “the arrival of foreign diplomats, sometimes intelligence officers, for various purposes” was recorded. “They have an interesting reaction when they visit Minsk and various objects,” said Tertel, meaning that “CIA employees were surprised by the high welfare situation in Belarus, which did not correspond to the imaginations prevailing in the West”.
One of the goals of the West is “the destruction of integration and fraternal ties with Russia”, said Tertel at this meeting. He also stated that the Belarusian “diaspora in Poland is preparing to commit terrorist attacks in Belarus,” and the KGB knows the names of the Polish intelligence officers allegedly supervising this activity.
At the same time, Tertel made a mitigating statement saying that “Belarus is ready to turn the page”. “We did not impose sanctions against Poland or close checkpoints. On the contrary, our head of state [Lukashenka] gave instructions to the government to establish good and reliable neighborly relations, as well as to discuss problematic issues without preconditions. Unfortunately, there was no response [from the Polish side].”
On December 13, the exhibition “Ordinary Nazism” (referring to a 1965 Soviet film Ordinary Fascism) about the “crimes of the Ukrainian Nazis,” organized by the pro-government Russian Historical Society, was opened at the “House of Moscow” in Minsk. The Belarusian propaganda TV channel ONT reports that the exhibition contains “evidence of crimes committed by the Ukrainian army and militants of neo-Nazi formations against the residents of Donbas.” The Head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, spoke at the opening ceremony.
Lukashenka again raised the topic of peace negotiations in Ukraine. On December 14, at a meeting of the heads of security agencies and intelligence services of the CIS countries, he said that “Russia and Western countries are ready for it [negotiations], but [the President of Ukraine Volodymyr] Zelensky remains the main obstacle.” Lukashenka repeated the Russian propaganda narrative that Zelensky is “fighting until the last Ukrainian” by the order of the United States.
On December 15, another propaganda event took place in Minsk, namely a meeting of heads of state news agencies of the CIS countries. Usually, at such meetings, ways of closer cooperation between propaganda media and the state are discussed. Speaking at the meeting, Deputy Secretary General of the CIS Leonid Anfimov said that “the rampant democracy in Telegram channels is unacceptable.” “If we talk about Belarus, 2020 taught us a lot [meaning peaceful street protests of 2020]. We allowed this freedom with rampant democracy, where everyone could say in Telegram channels whatever they wanted, whatever came into their head. And 99.9% of it was not true,” Anfimov said.
The second issue of our monthly report Propaganda Update is already online. Best regards,iSANS team