- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2024 edition, issue 03)
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 January 15, a group of Belarusian military servicemen went to Russia for training. They included representatives of the operational commands of the Ground Forces and the Special Operations Forces. After completing the training, the Belarusian military servicemen have already started transferring the gained experience to the units of the Armed Forces of Belarus as instructors in the most difficult subjects of combat training. The training is held in the 333rd combat training center of the Western Military District and will last for a month. It was noted that during the training, emphasis will be placed on the experience gained by the Russian Armed Forces during the war in Ukraine. Earlier, the 333rd center trained mechanized units of the Russian Armed Forces. The work on the creation of fortified areas along the state borders will be continued. This was announced by the head of the main department of combat training of the Armed Forces of Belarus, Aliaksandr Bas, on January 16. According to the official, this year a fortified area will be created in Hrodna Region. “Deeply echeloned defenses are being built on the main road directions or probable directions of enemy actions,” Bas said. Last year, similar facilities were built in the Homel and Brest regions. In the media, these fortifications were named the “Khrenin Line”. On January 16, the Security Council met to review the drafts of the National Security Concept and the Military Doctrine. Both documents will be finalized and subsequently approved by the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly when it will start its work after the “elections” in February. The previous version of the National Security Concept was approved in 2010, and the Military Doctrine – in 2016. One of the novelties of the Military Doctrine is the use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus. On January 19, Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin held a briefing on the adoption of the new Military Doctrine. According to the official, “the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus is considered as an important component of preventive deterrence of potential adversaries from unleashing armed aggression against Belarus”. At the moment, there is still no data that would confirm the presence of nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. On January 17, following an order from the Chief of the General Staff Viktar Gulevich, an inspection of a tank battalion of one of the mechanized brigades of the Western Operational Command began. The 52nd Independent Tank Battalion (military unit 97109) of the 6th Mechanized Brigade was subjected to the inspection. The battalion is armed with T-72B tanks. The inspection took place at the battalion’s permanent deployment point (the city of Hrodna). During the inspection, under the leadership of the Chief of General Staff, the battalion was inspected for readiness to perform its intended tasks. During the inspection, the readiness of the battalion’s personnel and the condition of military equipment for further use were assessed. On January 18, the combat readiness of the 339th Independent Mechanized Battalion (unit 04104) of the 120th Mechanized Brigade was tested at the 227th Combined Arms Training Range The purpose of the inspection was to assess the readiness of the unit to fulfill its intended tasks. The main emphasis was placed on the issues of staffing the battalion with personnel, weapons, equipment, and material resources. On January 17-18, under the direction of the Head of the Department for International Military Cooperation, a methodological training session was held for officers responsible for the implementation of international arms control treaties in the Armed Forces of Belarus. The purpose of the training was to prepare officials of commands and military units for the resumption of the activities of foreign inspection teams in Belarus. The training center of the Interior Troops is hosting the sixth set of training courses for servicemen of special-purpose units. The mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” act as instructors at the training.
On January 18, it was announced that the Baltic States supported including the import of Russian and Belarusian grain into the new sanctions package of the European Union. Lithuania’s Minister of Transport Marius Skuodis discussed the issue with the Climate Minister of Estonia Kirsten Michal and Latvian Transport Minister Kaspars Briskens. The Ministers agreed that it is necessary to coordinate all actions with each other, avoiding individual national initiatives and continuing to exchange information on issues of the transport sector. On the same day, it became known that the government of Czechia decided to waive the demand for the apostilization of Belarusian documents for Belarusians living in the Czech Republic with long-term national visas, long-term residence permits, or permanent residency. This decision will ease the life of many Belarusians, who cannot return to Belarus and apply for apostille in their home country. On January 15-19, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya attended the World Economic Forum in Davos for the second year in a row. The World Economic Forum featured a side event on Belarus. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke about the challenges for Belarusian democratic forces and “elections” that will take place in 2024. The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces attended the discussion “Defending Europe’s United Front” along with President of Poland Andrzej Duda, President of Hungary Katalin Novak, Prime Minister of Croatia Andrej Plenkovic, and Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emphasized that Russia’s propagandistic narratives are gradually infiltrating the democratic world. The Head of the UTC also held meetings on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum: she visited the House of Google in Davos and met with the company’s Vice President Anette Kroeber-Riel. The meeting parties discussed the issue of prioritization of Belarusian content over Russian for users in Belarus, localization of Google services for Belarus, support for Belarusian-language content, and launch of a Belarusian interface for Gmail, among other things. Tsikhanouskaya met with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, and spoke about holding the Lukashenka regime accountable for crimes against humanity and complicity in the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children, asking him to bring the issue before the ICC; with the Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar with whom she discussed further steps that Ireland can take to assist democratic Belarus; with the former Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin with whom she talked about possibilities of cooperation between the Blair institute and the democratic forces of Belarus. During her participation in the forum, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya gave interviews to several foreign media, including Associated Press, Reuters, Skynews, and Deutsche Welle. Politico included Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the list of “do-gooders” of the Davos Forum, along with President Zelensky, Bill Gates, and former US Vice President Al Gore. On January 19, at the meeting of the Defense Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, an agreement was signed to establish a joint “Baltic Defense Line” to strengthen the eastern borders of these countries, The EU and NATO. According to this agreement, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will construct anti-mobility defensive installations on their borders with Russia and Belarus. The construction will be aimed at deterrence and, if needed, defense of the three Baltic States. On January 21, in the framework of the visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda to Lithuania, a ceremony to commemorate the leaders of the 1863 uprising took place at the Rasos cemetery in Vilnius. Among the speakers and participants of the commemoration, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was present and delivered an address emphasizing the meaning of the uprising and especially the role of Kastus Kalinouski as the leader of the uprising and the national hero for many Belarusians.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On January 15, the Ivatsevichi district court decided to change the prison regime of Ryhor Kastusiou, political prisoner, and chair of the BPF (the Belarusian People’s Front) Party, liquidated by the authorities, to a more stringent one. Kastusiou has serious health problems – he was diagnosed with cancer. In September 2022, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced him to ten years in prison for allegedly “attempting a coup d’etat to overthrow the government unconstitutionally.” Ryhor Kastusiou pleaded not guilty. In December 2022, he was transferred to Correctional Colony N 22, where he has been held until now. His relatives had previously stated that in the colony he “spends a lot of time in a punishment cell”. On January 17, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” published a statement by the human rights community of Belarus on the death of political prisoner Vadzim Khrasko. It notes that at the moment, the cause of his death and other circumstances are not known with certainty. However, according to preliminary information, Vadzim Khrasko’s death could have been caused by untimely provision of medical care to him. His death is the fourth recent death of a political prisoner in Belarusian correctional institutions, after the deaths of Vitold Ashurak in May 2021, Mikalai Klimovich in May 2023, and Ales Pushkin in July 2023. In this regard, the human rights community reminds the authorities of their international human rights obligations and, in particular, of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that the right to life is an inalienable right of every human being. Despite Vadzim Khrasko’s serious illness and the existence of alternative types of punishments in the Criminal Code of Belarus, the Minsk City Court sentenced him to imprisonment for three years, and the Supreme Court upheld this sentence. The statement emphasizes that serving a sentence in isolation should not deprive prisoners of access to specialized medical care, as indicated by General Comment N 36 of the UN Human Rights Committee to Article 6 of the Covenant. Failure to provide medical care, meanwhile, is used by the authorities as a form of pressure on political prisoners, which can be considered torture. The signatories of the statement demand that the authorities inform the public about the results of the investigation into the deaths of political prisoners in Belarusian prisons, investigate all cases of violations of the right to health in places of deprivation of liberty and take appropriate measures to bring those responsible to justice, as well as ensure proper medical care to those deprived of liberty, compliance with the Constitution by prison staff, promptly respond to health-related complaints and take urgent measures to address them. They urge Belarusian judges to take into account the state of health of the accused when imposing punishment and not to sentence them to imprisonment when circumstances require it. On January 18, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the musicians of the Tor Band without changes. The musicians were accused of inciting hostility, creating an extremist formation or participating in it, discrediting the Republic of Belarus, and insulting Lukashenka. In October 2023, the Homel Regional Court sentenced Dzmitryi Halavach to nine years, Yauhen Burlo to eight years, and Andrei Yaremchyk to seven and a half years in a high–security colony. On January 18, the Qualification Commission of the Ministry of Justice conducted another appraisal of members of the Minsk City Bar Associations and decided to terminate the licenses of Sviatlana Birylava and Anton Navitski due to “insufficient qualifications”. Aliaksei Sakalou lost his license due to “committing a misdemeanor incompatible with the title of a member of the bar”. The Commission’s decision also says that lawyers Natallia Konada and Ihar Ryzhy are unable to fulfill their professional duties “due to insufficient qualifications”. Sviatlana Birylava previously defended political prisoners and journalists. In the summer of 2023, her husband, a member of the bar, Aliaksandr Birylau, was deprived of his license. On January 19, the Ministry of Internal Affairs updated the list of persons involved in “extremist” activities. 37 people have been added to it. There are now 3,723 people on the list. The list includes Tor Band musicians Dzmitryi Halavach, Yauhen Burlo, and Andrei Yaremchyk. Several restrictions are imposed on people included in the list, including bans on teaching, publishing, holding government positions, and military service. Additional financial control measures are also being taken concerning them. In 2023, Belarusian courts sentenced 324 defendants under the charges of insulting Lukashenka. In total, at least 1,603 people were convicted last year under the so-called “protest articles”. 863 people were convicted for organizing or actively participating in actions grossly violating public order. For insulting a representative of the authorities, 187 people were convicted. 162 people were sentenced for inciting discord. Almost all the money collected at the marathon of solidarity with political prisoners “We care” has been distributed, the United Transitional Cabinet reports. Of the 545,740 Euro collected at the marathon, 509,800 Euro have been transferred to various organizations, and about 12,000 Euro are stored in cryptocurrency. Recent transfers were made to the Dissidentby initiative for assistance to political prisoners (14,000 Euro), the Country for Life Charitable Foundation (28,500 Euro), and the Razam Foundation for assistance to Belarusians in Lithuania (8,800 Euro). In the near future, the marathon’s Supervisory Board will check how the funds are distributed between political prisoners and their families by the organizations Razam, Anarchichny Chorny Kryzh — Belarus, and the Medical Solidarity Fund of Belarus. Aliaksey Biagun, the Head of the Citizenship and Migration Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, said that in 2021-2022 more than 200 thousand citizens left Belarus. “There are various reasons: either a residence permit, or the relocation of IT specialists and their family members, and so on. It is not always correct to say that it was a departure for political or non-political reasons,” he said, – “Of course, it is a lot. Because this is a working–age population”. According to him, Belarus is always open to these people. “We have never put obstacles in the way of the return of our citizens,” he stated. The authorities plan to introduce administrative liability for failure to comply with the obligation to inform government agencies about having a second citizenship or a foreign residence permit. The corresponding document is planned to be introduced this year. This was announced on the state TV channel by the Head of the Citizenship and Migration Department, Aliaksey Biagun. “Border guards and internal affairs agencies constantly record when citizens do not want to inform the competent authorities about a foreign citizenship”, he commented. “Free Belarusian University” issued a statement in connection with the fact that on January 19, the Ministry of Internal Affairs added it to the list of “extremist formations”. The statement notes that the University is engaged in “exclusively educational activities for the dissemination of modern knowledge about economics, politics, society, and history among Belarusians.” “Our courses have been and will remain open to all Belarusians of goodwill in all countries with appropriate security measures and anonymous participation. The persecution of the FBU by an archaic and increasingly powerless regime will not stop us in fulfilling our mission to develop academic freedoms in Belarus, and the formation of European and national values among Belarusians,” it says. “In today’s conditions, the safety of people has been and remains our number one priority,” FBU underlines. It provides several recommendations for Belarusians who remain in their homeland or return there: unsubscribe from FBU public accounts on social networks; delete the history of visiting FBU information resources on Facebook, as well as messages in correspondence. Political prisoner Zmitser Dashkevich, the former chair of the Young Front, has been held in a punishment cell for six months. “Zmitser stayed in Zhodzina for six months in a concrete cage. All the time in the punishment cell: from July to January. Now he has been transferred back to Navasady. The same place where he was prosecuted. Now he is back in the pre-trial detention center, where he complains of the wild cold. He says that he must get up to exercise 8 times a night to keep warm. And for this, reports are being made against him that he does not lie down after the lights are out,” his wife wrote on her Facebook page. Zmitser Dashkevich, along with his wife Anastasia, were accused of participating in protest action, and on July 14, 2022, Zmitser was sentenced to 1.5 years in a colony, Nasta – to 3 years of restriction of freedom with referral to an open–type correctional institution (the so-called “home chemistry”). On July 11, 2023, Zmitser was supposed to be released but was charged with “persistent disobedience to the administration of the colony” and sentenced to an additional year of strict regime imprisonment. On January 22, the consideration of the “BYPOL case” begins in Minsk. Association employees are charged with “extremist” crimes and terrorism. It follows from the court schedule that the trial will take place in an open mode. The collection of materials on BYPOL took the Investigative Committee only two months. The head of BYPOL, Aliaksandr Azarau, commented that he admits he will be sentenced to death in absentia. “The Belarusian courts are now working not according to the law, but at the request of one person. Therefore, any sentences in absentia should not be taken seriously, it simply does not mean anything. Thousands of Belarusians are suffering in prisons right now and are being persecuted — that’s what’s important. Therefore, no sentences will stop me, and I will continue the fight against the regime,” he said in a message on the BYPOL telegram channel. The Human Rights Committee which is a treaty body of the United Nations that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its States parties, has recognized a violation of the right to privacy of the human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka in the form of excessive border searches and the existence of a “political list”. The cases of violations that Sudalenka complained about occurred in 2015. He was driving his car from Lithuania to Belarus at the time, and at the Kamenny Log checkpoint his car was thoroughly searched, and he was forced to take off even his trousers and socks. At the same time, other people who crossed the border were not forced to do so. Another incident occurred on the Vilnius—Minsk trains the same year. At the Gudagai checkpoint, during the passport scan, the border guard called the chief and pointed at the monitor, then the document was taken away without any explanation. When Sudalenka arrived at Maladzechna station, he was violently seized by border guards and customs officers and taken out of the train for inspection. The Human Rights Committee’s decision states that the Belarusian authorities must pay the victim full compensation for the damage and any expenses he incurred. Belarus is also obliged to take measures to prevent such violations in the future. Leanid Sudalenka called this decision a precedent, as it is one of the first that concerns the secret modification of personal data of Belarusians in the computer systems of government agencies.
On January 15-16, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. Belarusian State mass media were hesitant to comment on the issue but used all resources to diminish the significance of the event. The propagandist of ONT Gleb Lavrov dedicated the issue of his project Za granyu (Behind the limit) and stated that this year the event was “not satisfying”, the forum “failed”, and the representatives of the West couldn’t find an agreement. Yuri Uvarov, the columnist of Minskaya Prauda, called the WEF “one of the gatherings of globalists, who over a glass of champagne imposingly share their painful thoughts about the need to utilize humanity”, and the main result was “an increase in the degree of Russophobia and hatred against Belarus”. High school students in Belarus will be taught a new course, military translation. According to the resolution published on the National Legal Internet Portal on January 16, the Ministry of Education approved the program of the corresponding elective course in the subject “English language”. As a result of the program, students should learn, among other things, how to extract information from the text on military topics, read the content of combat documents, convey their essence in Russian, determine by insignia of the US and British military personnel their membership in certain ranks and categories and, which draws special attention, to carry out bilateral translation of a conversation or interrogation of a prisoner of war. The Lukashenka regime took an active role in defending the “blogger” Wojciech Olszański, who is now on trial in Poland. In his home country, Olszański is a founder and leader of the radical nationalist party, which makes antisemitic and fascist statements regularly; he often appears in a uniform with the SS symbols and calls for violence. On January 17, the propagandist of the SB Lyudmila Gladkaya defined his situation as follows: “Entrenched supporters of fascist ideology in the Polish top brass judge a Pole – a true patriot of his country”. He was also supported by the communist and MP Sergei Syrnikov. According to him, “the guilt of Olszański is that he dared to tell the truth in the face of the anti-nationalist Polish government”. Opening the meeting of the Security Council devoted to the draft Concept of National Security and Military Doctrine, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said on January 16 that military force has become the main argument for building interstate relations. According to Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, the draft of the updated doctrine considers the changed situation and contains several innovations, but as a whole retains continuity and the main message about the peace-loving nature of the Belarusian people: “We clearly emphasize and say in it that Belarus does not see any nation as its enemy. This is the key message, the spirit of the Military Doctrine”. A few days later, at the briefing on January 19, Khrenin noted another “important innovation of the military doctrine” – “adequacy of measures taken by the state following the level of military danger”. He claims that in this regard, the deployment of Russian TNWs on the territory of Belarus is seen as “an important component of preventive deterrence of potential adversaries from unleashing armed aggression against Belarus.” “This is our forced measure,” stated the Minister of Defense. Igor Tur on ONT picked up the topic of justifying the deployment of nuclear weapons: “I will say one important thing, in my opinion: Russia’s delivery of nuclear weapons to us is even more of a political event. Because our ally, which, let me remind you, is the world hegemon, demonstrates by this exceptional step that it sees guarantees of preserving the current Belarusian course, i.e., the course of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. And not for a year or two, and not even for three or five years, but for, perhaps, decades – it is very important”. On January 18, during his annual press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia and Belarus would stand together against the “NATO aggression”: “God forbid, of course, but if the West’s suicidal logic prevails, I assure you that the Russian and Belarusian peoples will defend their independence and their interests shoulder to shoulder. There is no doubt about it. We have all the necessary means for this purpose”. On January 18, Lukashenka held a meeting with the leadership of the Council of Ministers, during which he emphasized that all decisions in the framework of the Union State of Russia and Belarus should be made by state bodies of Belarus because “Russia and Belarus are sovereign, independent states,” and “when any changes, innovations are introduced, we should remember first of all about our sovereignty and independence.” “The system is common, similar, but there should be two sovereign, independent states,” Lukashenka said. He also said about the absolute groundlessness of “certain statements” that Belarus is allegedly losing its independence. “All sorts of yapping and writing (I’ve just read a review that “that’s it, Belarus is losing sovereignty”) … We are not losing anything. You see that on this sovereign territory, which belongs to our people, only we make decisions and act only in conditions that are favorable for us,” he was quoted by the press service. On January 18, when the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Aliaksei Begun was speaking on the air of ONT about the Belarusian authorities’ plan to introduce liability for failure to notify them about the presence of a second citizenship or residence permit of a foreign state, he said that “the Pole Card is detrimental to the national security of Belarus, it’s unacceptable to receive it”. The talk show “Po sushestvu” (On the merits) on STV channel discussed cultural issues. The host Kirill Kazakov criticized those who left Belarus and who believe that they are the ones who created real culture, while the figures associated with the authorities of Belarus are terrible retrogrades who still live in the Soviet past. The guests of the program supported him, arguing that the “escapees” do not need arts, but “swaying the regime.” Kazakov, for his part, accused the diaspora representatives of acting following the non-existent “Dulles Plan” and cited what he called “a quote from CIA director Allen Dulles from 1945” on the air: “What will they do? Literature, theaters, movies – everything will reflect and glorify the lowest human feelings. We will support and glorify in every possible way the so-called artists who will plant and indoctrinate into human consciousness the cult of sex, violence, sadism, and betrayal – in a word, all immorality. We will create chaos and confusion in the governance of the state.” It can be stated, that in recent months propaganda and people close to the dictator have been doing their best to create an aura of “holiness”, “destiny”, and “messiahship” for him. During the period under review, this line was continued by the pro-government priest Fyodor Povny. In the program “Skazhi ne molchi” (Say and don’t be silent) on Belarus-1 on January 18, he compared Lukashenka with prophets: “All of us should learn from Aliaksandr Grigorievich. What he says today is often like a prophecy. I may be reproached at some points for what I’m saying now, but his life experience, his experience as a leader of the country – is his gift, you can’t learn it. You can feel it. And the Lord, seeing the sincerity of what he is doing, reveals to him also those moments that many people who communicate with him (I mean politicians) pay attention to today because the words he said are not just populist phrases, they are a deep understanding of the processes that are taking place in the world. In his program “Taynye Pruzhiny politiki” (Secret Springs of Politics) (STV) propagandist Grigory Azarenok gave the following recommendation for the Orthodox holiday of the Epiphany: “But this year’s Epiphany frosts are strong. The ice of our statehood is strong. Bind all sea creatures in it. And sanctify the water. Turn to the West and say – I renounce you, Satan, all your deeds, your lying lust, your abomination, your democracy, all your servants, your demonic pride, your dirty intrigues, your filthy luxury, your bloody money, I am not afraid of all your creeps, I believe in the Lord and the President. And dive in. The lizards will crawl to the bottom.” On January 21, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the missile attack on Donetsk, condemning the “neo-Nazi Kyiv regime”, which “with the support of the United States and its satellites has once again committed a barbaric act of terrorism against the peaceful population of Russia”. Belarusian pro-government experts and propagandists in their statements duplicate the rhetoric of the Kremlin: Alexander Shpakovsky described the tragedy as “another barbaric act of terrorism of the Zelensky regime”; Grigory Azarenok warns that if it were not for Lukashenka, such events would have happened in Belarus; Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Dmitry Krutoy expressed his condolences to the head of the so-called DNR Denis Pushilin (it should be noted that the Lukashenkaites do not express condolences to the Ukrainian authorities in such cases). Best regards,iSANS team