- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2024 edition, issue 05)
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).
From January 27 to February 2, the Minister of Defense of Belarus was on a working visit to Cuba. Chief of Logistics of the Armed Forces of Belarus, Chief of the Department for International Military Cooperation, Deputy Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces, Head of the General Staff Faculty of the Military Academy, and others were members of the Belarusian delegation. During the visit, talks were held with the Cuban Minister of Defense, which resulted in the signing of documents on bilateral military cooperation. At the military field “Obuz-Lesnovsky” training continued with the 6th mechanized brigade under the leadership of the PMC Wagner mercenaries. Special attention is paid to training in tactical medicine, firearms, reconnaissance training, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Training by the mercenaries and internal troops also continued. Units of the Belarusian Armed Forces continue to fulfill the task of reinforcing the southern border of Belarus. According to the Ministry of Defense, the military are guarding important facilities, including roads and overpasses. Even though the military is officially declared to be performing border protection tasks, Belarusian Armed Forces’ units are also guarding Russian military facilities in Homiel Region. A battalion tactical exercise with one of the units of the 38th Airborne Assault Brigade took place at the Brestsky training range. For five days, the personnel carried out tasks to search for, block, and destroy the conditional enemy in the battalion’s area of responsibility. At the final stage of the exercise, imitation fights were held during the day and night with stages of live firing. Assault aviation was involved in the exercise. Deputy Defense Minister for Armament Andrei Fedin told in an interview about new equipment deliveries to the army. According to the official, Mi-35M helicopters, Tor-M2 air defense missile systems, T-72BM2 tanks, BTR-70MB armored personnel carriers, etc. will be delivered to the Armed Forces of Belarus in 2024. It is also planned to take into service the modernized Buk-MB2 surface-to-air missile system, the V-2 armored personnel carrier, and the Chekan unmanned aerial attack system.
Last week, a story around the former officer of Belarusian police Aliaksandr Matsiyevich evolved in Lithuania. The union of former law enforcement officers BELPOL received information from the Belarusian diaspora in Lithuania that the former police officer, who was actively involved in the suppression of peaceful protests in 2020 in Lida, resides and works in Lithuania. Lithuanian authorities also started to verify the information and the Minister of Defense of the country stated that Matsiyevich came to Lithuania holding a national visa of another Schengen state, therefore his arrival to the country could not be checked as thoroughly as it should have been. Moreover, the Minister said that due to human error or other reasons, the system of verification did not work in this case. Lithuania is closely monitoring the situation in Belarus and keeping track of all those involved in persecution and repression against civil society in Belarus. The Migration Department of Lithuania annulled the residence permit of the former Belarusian officer and stated that an investigation into the case has started and it might happen that, if all the information is confirmed, Matsiyevich will be banned from entering Lithuania again.On February 3, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine appointed Igor Kizim as Ambassador-at-Large for Belarus. He worked as the Ambassador of Ukraine to Belarus from February 2017 to June 22, 2023, when he was relieved from his duties by a decree of the President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky. No new ambassador has been appointed since then. This downgrading of relations between Ukraine and the Lukashenka regime was an apparent reaction by the Ukrainian leadership to a meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the Russia-appointed “head” of the occupation administration of Donetsk region Denis Pushilin in April 2023 which was interpreted in Ukraine as legitimization of the Russian occupation of Donbass. Reportedly, the new appointment of Igor Kizim got slightly delayed, as the former Ambassador was supposed to attend the first meeting of the Special envoys with the Democratic Forces of Belarus held in Warsaw in the week of January 22-28. In a post on Facebook, Igor Kizim noted that among his duties are issues related to the democratic forces of Belarus “as part of the Belarusian society, which opposes the policies of the current leadership of Belarus, in particular concerning supporting Russian military aggression against Ukraine.” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya congratulated Igor Kizim on his appointment, called it “an important and timely decision by the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Dmitry Kuleba” and said that the Belarusian democratic forces “look forward to working together at this crucial moment for our countries.” Last week, the leader of the Belarusian Democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya paid several working visits abroad. On January 30, Tsikhanouskaya spoke at the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg where she focused on many important topics for Belarusian society and highlighted three proposals: continue training Belarusian legal professionals, invest in youth organizations and activists to enable them to reach out to peers within the country, put more efforts into communications about the Council of Europe to promote ideas of a democratic future in the Belarusian environment. The leader of the democratic forces of Belarus also requested to develop a roadmap for Belarus’s accession to the Council of Europe, which she sees as crucial for the democratic future of Belarus. During the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya recorded a video in support of Belarusians who continue to support each other. The address was a response to the recent actions of the Lukashenka regime, which criminalized the initiative INeedHelpBY supporting families of political prisoners and persecuting the Belarusians, who made donations to different initiatives. At the end of the week, upon the invitation of the European Greens, Tsikhanouskaya attended the EPG Congress in Lyon, France, where she delivered a keynote speech. She recalled her path from an ordinary housewife to the person she is today, after putting her name on the list of candidates instead of her husband’s. She said that thinking about those imprisoned in Belarus for their beliefs and striving for freedom, activists, and Belarusians, who continue to struggle for freedom, is her motivation to go on. While Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was negotiating the future of democratic Belarus in the Council of Europe, the self-proclaimed head of state Aliaksandr Lukashenka gave up yet another batch of the sovereignty of the country to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed a series of economic and technological agreements on January 29, advancing the Kremlin’s efforts to further integrate Belarus into the Union State structure. Putin and Lukashenka approved three agreements on the implementation of the Union State Treaty, joint scientific and technological development, and the coordination of both countries’ foreign policies during a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State in St. Petersburg. Putin reiterated claims that Russians and Belarusians are “fraternal peoples,” united by a common history and values. Lukashenka highlighted Russian and Belarusian cooperation in Africa, claiming that he coordinated his December 2023 trips to various African countries with Putin, and stated that Russia and Belarus have not yet resolved the issue of creating common markets for gas, oil, and petroleum products under the Union State framework.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
The Belarusian authorities continue calling on those who left the country after the 2020 protests to return home. In return, they promise to commute the punishment or even stop criminal prosecution for opposition activities. However, dozens of Belarusians who followed this advice ended up not at home, but in prisons – some were detained right at the border. Last year alone, security forces arrested more than 200 people who tried to return to Belarus. Given that many political cases become known after the fact, the real figure is probably higher. Any information related to the 2020 presidential election can be a reason for persecution – from photos from protests to comments on social networks and pictures of white-red-white flags.
The security officers visit the relatives of political emigrants who have left the country and ask to persuade them to return home. At least three such cases are known from the last week. There are also at least three cases when security forces “made deals” with relatives, but after the emigrants’ return, criminal cases were initiated against them.
According to updated data from “Viasna” Human Rights Center, as a result of the raid that security forces conducted last week on former political prisoners and relatives of political prisoners, more than 200 people faced persecution. Several persons have been detained within the frame of criminal charges of “participating in an extremist formation” and “facilitating extremist activities.” Several persons were convicted under Part 2 of Article 24.15 of the Administrative Code – “the use of foreign gratuitous aid to carry out terrorist and other extremist activities or other actions prohibited by law.” This article has not been used in Belarus before. Now it is used to persecute those who have benefited from assistance within the framework of the initiative to support the families of political prisoners. “This is an arbitrary persecution of people who did not violate any legal rules, namely, they did not have an illegal purpose of spending support funds for “carrying out terrorist and other extremist activities or other actions prohibited by law,” comments Pavel Sapelka, a lawyer at “Viasna”.
According to information received from correctional colony N 15 (Mahilou), the administration of this colony continues to put pressure on political prisoners, former officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and chair of the United Civil Party Mikаlai Kazlou. For the past two months, he has been held in a cell-type room, after which he was transferred to a punishment cell. Currently, materials have been fabricated against him to initiate a criminal case for “malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of a correctional institution.” These charges provide for punishment in the form of imprisonment for up to two years. They are often used as an instrument of pressure on political prisoners. The trial of Mikаlai Kazlou is planned to be held in a “secret mode”. He was not provided with a lawyer, which was justified by his alleged refusal to have one. Additional pressure on him is exerted by banning the receipt of letters and parcels.
The pardoned ex-editor-in-chief of the NEXTA TV channel Raman Pratasevich was excluded from the list of “extremists” maintained by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The new edition of the list does not contain his name. He was included in the «list of extremists» two months ago with the note “criminal record has not been extinguished.” Earlier, the KGB excluded him from the list of “terrorists”.
On January 30, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of Belarusian democratic forces, addressed the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. She informed the ministers about the current state of affairs in Belarus, including the latest wave of repression, and described the situation with political prisoners. She stressed that Belarusians are fighting for the values that are important to the Council of Europe – the rule of law, equality, democracy, and free elections. At the same time, “Belarusians have never had the advantages of membership in the Council of Europe, which may seem so obvious to you. Belarusians did not have the opportunity to defend their rights in international courts. There was no access to the best expertise in the field of lawmaking. There was no opportunity to develop human capital, create partnerships and alliances, and connections between people… And we see the result – Belarus is one of the poorest countries in Europe. State and social institutions have been destroyed. People live in conditions of terror. Sovereignty is under threat. And finally, my country has been involved in a criminal war against neighboring Ukraine,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said. She suggested discussing and developing a roadmap for the early accession of the future democratic Belarus to the Council of Europe after democratic and legal reforms take place. The mentioned document can become a framework for cooperation from a strategic perspective. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, who was present at the meeting, spoke about the work of the contact group in Belarus over the past year, and, together with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, presented its work plan for the next two years. They referred to several areas of cooperation: continuing the training of Belarusian lawyers, “investing” in youth organizations and activists, and promoting European values among Belarusians.
On January 31, the Center for New Ideas presented its study “Barometer of Repression in Belarus”, which analyzed the repressive practices of the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in 2023. Among the new trends identified are detentions at the border. Last year, more than 200 people were detained at the border, and checks were introduced at the Belarusian-Russian border for the first time. There has been an increase in so-called “grabbers” (one-time mass repressive measures such as searches, detentions, and arrests). The number of administrative prosecutions grew in 2023, almost four thousand court decisions were issued. If this trend continues, it will be possible to say that the tactics of the authorities have changed “to greater intimidation using administrative prosecution instead of criminal”. The lists of “extremists” and “terrorists” continued to be expanded. 1,400 persons were added to the “extremist” list, or 117 persons per month; 172 persons were added to the “terrorist” list, or 14 persons per month. Among other repressive trends, the study notes the destruction of opportunities for self-organization and self-government in society, “cleansing of the information space”, whipping up anxiety and fear, and “political segregation” – the Belarusian regime clearly distinguishes between loyal and disloyal citizens and discriminates against the latter. And finally, the transition “from individual responsibility to collective responsibility” is recorded. “Not only your status and your connection with a foreign state affect the pressure on you from the state, but also the status and actions of your relatives,” the report explains.
According to “Viasna” Human Rights Center, as of February 1, there are 1,416 political prisoners in Belarus, and their number is increasing almost weekly. At the same time, every month several dozen political prisoners leave their places of detention either after serving the term, or after the trial which sends them to an open-type correctional institution (“chemistry’) or “home chemistry”. According to “Viasna”, at least 35 people were released in January, after fully serving their sentences, two of them spent more than three years behind bars. Two more women were sentenced to “home chemistry” and released from the pre-trial detention center.
On February 2, at a press conference on human rights violations in Belarus, BELPOL presented information about politically motivated repression. Of the 85,375 criminal cases initiated in 2023, at least 6,419 are politically motivated. Moreover, there may be dozens of defendants in one criminal case.
Evidence of Lukashenka’s crimes was handed over to the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. The People’s Anti-Crisis Management experts met with representatives of the Commission at the UN headquarters in Vienna. They handed over materials about the involvement of Lukashenka and others in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus. Additionally, a meeting with members of Friends of Democratic Belarus in the OSCE group was held. The parties discussed the use of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, within the framework of which a potential rapporteur could be given a mandate to analyze the situation in Belarus according to the norms of international criminal law.
On January 31, members of the European Parliament reacted to a new wave of repression in Belarus, in particular to a raid by security forces on former political prisoners and relatives of political prisoners. In their joint statement, the Chair of the Delegation for Relations with Belarus, Juozas Olekas, and the European Parliament’s Standing Rapporteur on Belarus, Petras Auštrevičius, strongly condemned the ongoing wave of repression by the Lukashenka regime against democratic opposition, human right defenders, political prisoners, as well as the constant persecution of their relatives and lawyers, and note that the majority of the arrested are women, wives and mothers of political prisoners, including Maryna Adamovich, wife of political prisoner, former presidential candidate, and 2020 Sakharov Prize laureate Mikаlai Statkevich. “We are appalled by such gender-based targeting and call upon immediate and unconditional release of arrested women and other family members of political prisoners”, MPs stated. They stressed that additional charges were added to the case of 20 Belarusian political scientists, journalists, and experts, the so-called Tsikhanouskaya’s analysts, who are being charged in absentia and could even lose their Belarusian citizenship if convicted. “These latest criminal acts must be met with a complementary response from the EU and the West in the form of increased pressure on the regime in the form of sanctions. The extent of human rights violations in Belarus has been so substantial that according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, some of these actions might constitute “crimes against humanity”. We therefore urge Belarusian authorities to immediately cease all repression, persecutions, and arbitrary detentions of Belarusian people, to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and their family members, and to abide by its international obligations. We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus and will continue to support their legitimate aspirations for a democratic and European future. We remain committed to working tirelessly with representatives of democratic forces, civil society, and independent media for the benefit of the people in Belarus,” they stated.
The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, at a session in Geneva on January 29 – February 2, considered the case of Maryja Kalesnikava, from whom there has been no news for 350 days since February 12, 2023. Maryja Kalesnikava has been held in complete isolation and incommunicado for almost a year. The administration of colony N 4 in Homiel, where she is being held, blocks her correspondence, does not allow relatives and lawyers to see her, and does not provide any information about her health. Complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Department of Punishment Execution did not bring any results – they did not find violations of Maria’s rights and refused to assist in obtaining information about her health condition. Kalesnikava ‘s sister, Tatsyana Khomich, submitted a communication about Maryja Kalesnikava’s disappearance to the UN Working Group with a request to take urgent measures, request Belarus to disclose Maryja’s whereabouts, and allow her father to visit her. The decisions made by the Working Group during the session will be reflected in its next post-sessional report.
On January 29, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Sergei Aleinik once again said that the government of Belarus is ready for dialogue with the EU, but implied that the sanctions should be lifted: “We are open for dialogue. We have spoken and talked about this topic more than once. We were not the initiators of the rupture of relations, we were not the initiators of illegitimate economic sanctions that were imposed on our countries. It will largely depend on the European Union – on the political and economic line that they will continue to pursue.” During the last week, high-ranking officials repeatedly raised the topic of the deployment of Russian TNWs, calling it a “forced measure” or “strategic deterrence”. Dmitry Ryabikhin, Deputy Head of the Department of International Cooperation of the Ministry of Defense: “I would like to emphasize two key points. The first is that this was a forced measure. The second is that this is not a deployment, but the return of TNWs to the territory of Belarus. This should be viewed as a complex. We, the military, view this as a measure of strategic deterrence. But it is a guarantor of our national security and collective security within the framework of the Union State”. Deputy Defense Minister Viktor Gulevich: “In any case, nuclear weapons are one of the main factors of strategic deterrence of those leaders who are hatching plans against Belarus <…> We do not treat any nation as our enemy. And those leaders who maintain negative rhetoric against our country should study our Military Doctrine after its publication”. Their words echo the opinion of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who links this measure to the activities of NATO and the “collective West”: “The deployment of TNWs on the territory of Belarus was carried out in the framework of countering the increasingly aggressive and increasingly threatening activities of the North Atlantic Alliance led by the United States, the alliance’s pursuit of a line of strategic defeat against Russia, the expansion of NATO’s joint nuclear missions, and much more. Our joint decision with Minsk to deploy TNWs in Belarus owes to the line of the collective West”. At the same time, Viktor Gulevich says that the authorities are open to cooperation in the military sphere with any states, including NATO countries: “We are ready to resume pragmatic dialogue on condition that they stop their aggressive rhetoric and actions against us”. The topic of NATO hostility was deepened by the colonel of the Armed Forces of Belarus Andrei Bogodel, who suggested that “Lithuania is occupied” because “military bases are being built there for NATO troops”: “…additional military camps are being built in Pabradė and Rukla and everywhere to accommodate Americans and Germans. Well, let’s see – sometimes you look in Tiktoks and they show [road signs that] say “Minsk (occupied by the Kremlin).” But what makes them think we are occupied? We have a Union State. Let’s read the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, and it is written that military bases of foreign states are prohibited on the territory of Lithuania. So, who is occupied by whom? Or is the Constitution for them a document that is lying somewhere in Lithuania, just to have it? We can already start talking about the occupation of Lithuania,” he said to BelTA. The upcoming elections on February 25 remain the top topic promoted by pro-governmental experts and propagandists in the state media. Aliaksei Bialiayeu, dean of the Faculty for Journalism of the Belarusian State University, said on the air of the agency Minsk-Novosti that the task of political parties in Belarus is “not a power struggle” but “constant laborious work”. According to him, those who strive for positions of power should understand it’s not an easy walk or additional privileges, but first “the toughest work,” while those who think otherwise, “life will quickly put them in their place”. On January 31, at the meeting of the board of the Main Department of Ideology of Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee, Minister of Information Uladzimir Pertsou noted that the state media operate “in the conditions of information warfare” and “the information field is full of opponents”, and therefore “the activity of editorial offices in general and of each journalist, in particular, should be verified, clear and prompt”. “We are now considering not only traditional websites but also social networks, new means of mass communication – Telegram and Viber channels, which are increasingly gaining popularity, especially among the young, socially active population of the country. Where we are not present, there will be our opponents. The main topics of their speculations, twists, and fakes are social problems: housing and utilities, health care, education, and issues that concern people in everyday life. During the election campaign, they will try to take advantage of any situation informationally and ideologically to bring their “alternative” information to the citizens, twisting it to their advantage”. On January 31, Aliaksandr Shpakousky, Minister Counselor at the Embassy of Belarus in Russia, told TASS that the Union State media holding should become operational by early 2025, and now the specialized ministries of the two countries should prepare the charter of this structure and register it. “In parallel, the process of preparing an interstate agreement is being launched, which will detail the structure of this media holding and will provide for the procedure of annulling the previous interstate agreement, under which the Union Television and Radio Broadcasting Organization was established in 1998. I.e. the pool of allied media that exists now and which, as “President” Aliaksandr Lukashenka noted, does not suit the heads of state, the authorities of our states, and probably does not meet the information challenges of our time, which Belarus and Russia are facing”. The holding will create three editorial offices: print media, TV channel, and digital editorial office, he added. In Marat Markou’s program Nichego lichnogo [Nothing Personal] (ONT), pro-government political analyst Andrei Lazutkin voiced expectations that the union holding should “work more on the external circuit.” “Conditionally, we set the task to work on Ukraine, on Poland, on the U.S., and then our TV channels work it out”. On 1 February, the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, said that the 27 EU member states had agreed to allocate 50bn Euro in financial aid to Ukraine. “Historian” Vadym Gigin expressed the opinion that by doing so, the United States decided to shift the responsibility for supporting Ukraine to the EU, which “due to lacking its agency” cannot oppose it. “The question is: who decided this? Scholz? Macron? Meloni? It was decided in Washington. They decided that there would be Europeanization of the Ukrainian conflict. The responsibility will be shifted to Europe. They say, ‘You Europeans will pay for this war. We, Americans, will continue quarrels, we have our kitchen. In the meantime, go ahead and finance it, Zelensky’s regime will suffocate without you. Come on, put your money in the furnace. And Hungary will get a kick in the brain if it behaves like that.’ This is Washington talking, not the EU. The EU has no agency, there is no sovereignty there, even for such independent politicians as Orban,” Gigin said on the air of Alfa Radio. Propagandists of the Lukashenka regime continue to closely follow the news about the recent “non-crash” of the Il-76 military transport plane in the Belgorod region, retranslating the version of the events maintained by the Kremlin. They are actively reposting messages from Russian colleagues and government officials on their social media accounts. Ksenia Lebedeva: “Volodin said that the State Duma will consider today an appeal to the U.S. Congress on the Il-76 crash: “Today we will appeal to U.S. congressmen: they should know into whose hands the American weapons sent to Ukraine by President Biden are falling and how they are being used.” Grigory Azarenok is quoted by TASS as saying: “The data from the black boxes exclude all possible versions of the Il-76 crash and confirm that the plane was subjected to an external impact, that is, it was shot down in the air. Everything is obvious.” On February 1, the state channel ONT reported that KGB representative Konstantin Bychek flew to a conference in the UAE, established “broad contacts” with law enforcers of Western countries, and outlined areas of cooperation in the fight against “extremism and terrorism”. Footage shows Bychek’s behind-the-scenes meetings with, for example, British detective Andrew Meeks, who allegedly complains about the poor performance of British law enforcement in respect of the man who carried out the Manchester bombing in 2017: “This 23-year-old guy was associated with ISIS, and we regretted that we had not taken him two years before the explosion. He was already in our field of view then, but human rights and all that”. It is worth noting that the story gives a translation of his words, so it is not known exactly what was in the original. ONT claims that law enforcers from Western countries (USA, France) allegedly offered their Belarusian colleagues to “cooperate directly”. The notorious Telegram channel Zheltye slivy [Yellow leaks], in turn, used this material as a threat to the opponents of the regime who are abroad: “Taking this opportunity, we would like to send warm greetings to Pan Shchigelsky, Kulazhenko, Prokopiev, Azarov and all those who are on the extremist and terrorist lists of the KGB. Did Tertel promise you back in 2021 that all of you, like the police officers after the war, would be caught?” On February 1, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov said that Belarus and Russia had agreed to create unified history textbooks for schools and universities. According to him, “this topic is very important because there are still differences in the understanding of very important events in the history of the Soviet Union and the history of the Russian Empire,” but now the parties have agreed that they will “consider these events from a single point of view”.
iSANS teamBest regards,