- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2024 edition, issue 04)
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 23, Aliaksandr Lukashenka approved decisions on the protection of state borders by state border security services and in the airspace of the country in 2024. It was noted that the construction of new border infrastructure facilities and the equipping of maneuvering groups with modern equipment will continue in 2024. These documents are approved annually. Belarusian military delegation took part in the international exhibitions of unmanned aerial vehicles UMEX-2024 and SimTEX-2024, which were held in Abu Dhabi from January 22 to 25. Members of the delegation familiarized themselves with the latest equipment and advanced solutions in the field of unmanned aviation and took part in a conference dedicated to the development of unmanned systems in the defense sector. From January 23 to 26, a joint staff training session was held at the command posts of the Armed Forces of Belarus under the leadership of the Chief of General Staff. During the training, the issues of planning the use of troops following the training situation developed based on a forecast of the development of the situation on the European continent, as well as issues of the experience of the use of military force in modern conditions, were practiced. The training was attended by representatives of the military enlistment offices of the Minsk region, internal affairs and emergency bodies, and internal troops. On January 23, the First Mechanized Battalion of the 19th Mechanized Brigade (military unit No.14398, v. Zaslonovo, Lepel district) was put on alert for combat training tasks. It was also reported that the servicemen made a multi-kilometer march to the designated area for an exercise. On January 25, the mechanized battalion of the 11th Mechanized Brigade was placed on standby to perform its assigned tasks in peacetime status. After the combat readiness check, the battalion carried out a march to its permanent place of deployment. During the week, the training course for servicemen of special-purpose units continues at the training center of the internal troops. The mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” act as instructors. Deputy Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of Belarus Leanid Davidovich talked in an interview about plans for the modernization of the fighter aviation fleet. According to the official, “In the foreseeable future, we will finish modernization of our fighter aviation fleet, because MiG-29 aircraft … is approaching the point when its resource will be exhausted. And, accordingly, we need new aircraft to perform the tasks of fighter aviation”. Earlier, it was reported that the Belarusian Air Force would receive a new batch of Russian Su-30SM fighters in 2023, but the delivery did not take place.
Last week, a significant cyber-attack was carried out against websites and social media profiles of Belarusian pro-democratic politicians and initiatives: it is known about an attack against the Instagram profile of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Instagram, and other accounts on social networks of Pavel Latushka, the Instagram account of the initiative for the support of women political prisoners “Palitvyazanka”, and the website of BySol Foundation. The attack consisted of sending multiple claims to the profiles. BYSOL reported that the attack was carried out ”at a high technical level and with the use of new methods”, but despite that, it was successfully repelled. Lukashenka’s law enforcement structures claimed that they obtained access to the list of donors of the BYSOL Foundation. On January 23, it was announced that the European Union would prepare a new sanctions package against Russia, which could be adopted already next month, on the anniversary of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The three Baltic States and Poland urge the EU to align sanctions against Belarus with those against Russia. Reportedly, the sanctions could target the aviation sector and ban imports of LNG and aluminum from Russia. On the same day, a weekly update of the UK sanctions was announced. Regarding Belarus, the document stated that Petr Aleksandrovich Orlov, a judge at the Minsk city court, remains subject to an asset freeze. The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security announced on Tuesday, January 23, that it imposed additional sanctions against Russia and Belarus under the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and refinements to existing controls. The sanctions target especially the production and exports, reexports of UAVs and their parts, add new restrictions for licensed goods, and add new items to the existing list of restricted goods. Last week, NATO started military training Steadfast Defender, which is said to be the biggest one since the end of the Cold War. The drills are carried out in Lithuania, gathering over 90 thousand military personnel, and will continue until May 2024. During the military training, NATO troops will train maneuvers in a simulated situation of a military confrontation between Russia and NATO. The official Minsk didn’t leave the announcement and start of NATO military training without attention. The Ministry of Defense of Belarus accused NATO of not complying with the Vienna Convention, as Belarus was neither informed nor invited to attend the drills in the neighboring country. The Special Envoys of European Countries for cooperation with the Belarusian Democratic Forces, Asta Andrijauskiene (Lithuania), Christina Johannesson (Sweden), Marko Koplimaa (Estonia), and Artur Michalski (Poland) held a first meeting with representatives of the United Transitional Cabinet (UTC) Pavel Latuskha, Valery Matskevich, and Alina Koushyk. The parties discussed plans of the democratic forces for 2024, holding the Lukashenka regime accountable for its crimes against humanity, and harmonization of Western sanctions. Visas for Belarusians, a new passport, a wave of repression, and practical steps to hold the regime accountable were also discussed at a meeting by the special envoys with the UTC representative for foreign affairs, Valery Kavaleuski. Last week, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, called on them to develop a “roadmap” for accession of Belarus to the organization, and invited its members to include democratic Belarus into PACE events; and met with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović-Burić, and the new President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Theodoros Rousopoulos. With the Secretary-General, she discussed the work of the Contact Group for Belarus. In her conversation with the PACE President, she proposed appointing a permanent rapporteur on Belarus and establishing a delegation for relations with democratic Belarus. Also, last week, Tsikhanouskaya met with Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis to discuss the issues faced by Belarusians regarding the legalization of stay in Lithuania and potential new restrictions to be discussed in the Lithuanian Seimas in spring. The Head of the UTC met with the Ambassador of Germany, Cornelius Zimmermann, at her Office in Vilnius. The parties discussed their stances regarding the sham election scheduled by the regime for February, and cooperation between the EU, Germany, and Belarusian democratic institutions. The conversation also focused on mechanisms for holding Lukashenka and his accomplices accountable.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On January 22, the Minsk City Court began considering in absentia a criminal case against members of the former security officers’ organization BYPOL. Six people are being tried, including the head of the organization, Aliaksandr Azarau. All of them are presently outside Belarus. The defendants are charged under 12 articles of the Criminal Code, including high treason and an act of terrorism. The maximum penalty under one of these charges is the death penalty. On January 23 and 24, security officers conducted mass searches of the homes of relatives of political prisoners and former political prisoners throughout the country. According to the latest data, at least 182 people have faced persecution. The search at the home of the mother of Maryna Kasinerava, co-founder of the Dissidentby initiative, lasted 10 hours – from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It was conducted by the local KGB officers, who exerted psychological pressure on her to get the information they needed. It is not known what criminal case the search was related to. After searches and interrogations, many were released with non-disclosure or non-departure orders. 76-year-old activist Barys Khamaida was detained for two days in a temporary detention center and later released pending trial. An administrative protocol on the distribution of “extremist” materials was drawn up against him. Some of those who were visited by the security officers were not released. Administrative protocols were drawn up against them under charges of distribution of extremist materials, disobeying police demands, etc. In particular, Maryna Adamovich, wife of political prisoner, former presidential candidate, and 2020 Sakharov Prize laureate Mikаlaj Statkevich, was detained on January 23, and on January 24 was charged with “petty hooliganism” and arrested for 15 days. Criminal cases were opened against some of the detainees for participation in extremist formation and assistance to extremist activities. The raid of the security forces is associated with the recognition a few days ago of the INeedHelpBY project, which provided food assistance to the repressed, as an “extremist formation”. Philip Gauryshau, the head of the project, stated that “there were no system hacks or information leaks.” He noted that the project is conceived in such a way that no one receives help directly from the initiative. Persons who find themselves in a difficult financial situation receive help from other persons who are ready to help and buy food for them. “Therefore, all the assistance received was directed and received not from the INeedHelpBY organization, but from private individuals — from friends, buddies, acquaintances, and fellow countrymen”, Gauryshau underlined. According to the latest reports, searches and interrogations of relatives of political prisoners and former political activists have continued throughout the week. The lawyer of “Viasna” Human Rights Center, Pavel Sapelka, notes that it is not yet clear exactly how many people were affected by the mass searches and detentions, as Belarusians have recently been afraid to even report the facts of their persecution. “The attack on initiatives that support political prisoners and show solidarity continues. If only those who donated were punished at first, now a new trend is emerging – to punish those who potentially need such help. The construction of a wall between the structures which support political prisoners and have left the country, and those who have remained in Belarus, continues,” he states. Andrei Stryzhak, co-founder of the Bysol Foundation, suggests that the activity of the security forces relates to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus. “The authorities need to show another successful special operation. In 2024 we will see more than one big case like this, when the system of repression will begin to move even more,” he predicts. In this regard, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of Belarusian democratic forces, called on the international community to “respond decisively” to the mass detentions. “I am shocked by the raids by the Belarusian regime on the families of political prisoners. I call on the international community to respond decisively to this atrocity,” she said. On January 23, the Investigative Committee launched an investigation within the framework of special proceedings (“criminal proceedings against the accused, who is outside the Republic of Belarus and evades appearing before the body conducting the criminal process”) against Ivan Krautsou, an executive secretary of the Coordination Council and a former member of the staff of Viktar Babaryka’s electoral campaign. Ivan Krautsou is accused of deliberate actions aimed at inciting other social hostility, and discord based on other social affiliations, committed by an organized group, which entailed other grave consequences; fraud committed on a particularly large scale; conspiracy committed to seize state power unconstitutionally; creation of an extremist formation. On January 25, the Investigative Committee launched an investigation within the framework of special proceedings against 20 experts, who were named as “Tsikhanouskaya analysts.” According to the Investigative Committee, they “joined a conspiracy to seize state power” and joined an “extremist formation” that was created to “ensure the effectiveness of criminal activity.” Allegedly, the analysts participated in the “development and implementation of the concept of destructive activities” aimed at harming national security and contributed to “inciting social hostility and discord in society.” Special proceedings have begun concerning Rygor Astapenia, Philip Bikanau, Aliaksandr Dabravolski, Yury Drakahrust, Andrei Kazakevich, Hanna Krasulina, Yauhen Kryzhanouski, Dzianis Kuchynski, Veranika Laputska, Aliaksandr Lagvinets, Hanna Lyubakava, Vasil Navumau, Maryia Rohava, Piotr Rudkouski, Alesya Rudnik, Natallia Ryabava, Pavel Usou, Tatsiana Chulitskaya, Aliaksandr Shlyk, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina. This way, the Investigative Committee united journalists, publicists, sociologists, economists, and others, representing different organizations in one case. It does not name the “extremist formation” to which these people belong. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya commented: “The regime is trying to drive the country into an information bubble. Cleans up the information field so that the truth about the complete failure of governing the country does not come out. The wave of repression against political scientists and experts is the desire to take revenge on those who soberly assess the situation in Belarus, and offer real ways out of the crisis into which Lukashenka drove the country. Every time someone points out the true state of affairs in the country, it causes fear. And apart from repression, the regime has nothing to offer.” Musicians of the Nizkiz band Aliaksandr Ilyin, Siargei Kulish, and Dzmitry Khalyauin were transferred to a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. This means that a criminal case has been opened against them. Charges against them are currently unknown. The members of the band were detained in early January and tried twice on administrative charges. The European Union condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent wave of repression against former political prisoners remaining in Belarus, as well as relatives of political prisoners, declares the statement of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, of January 25. The Lukashenka regime continues its deplorable tactics of intimidation and repression against its critics and potential political opponents ahead of the “elections” in February. EU urges Belarus’ authorities to refrain from any further repression and violence directed against the Belarusian people and to comply with Belarus’ international human rights obligations, including by releasing immediately and unconditionally all those arbitrarily detained and ceasing abusive prosecutions. “The EU stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus and will continue to support them on their way to an independent and democratic country. Belarusian citizens deserve the right to be represented by those they freely choose through transparent, free, and fair elections”, concludes the statement. On January 25, the Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić condemned the raids by security forces targeting relatives of political prisoners and former political prisoners in Belarus. “I am particularly concerned by the deliberate targeting of individuals who have already suffered significant human rights violations because of political repression. The Council of Europe reiterates its call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. We also remain committed to strengthening cooperation with representatives of democratic forces, civil society, and independent media, based on our shared values, and to the benefit of all Belarusian people. This cooperation includes our important Contact Group,” she said. On the same day, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution “A democratic future for Belarus”, which states that over the past few years, the Lukashenka regime has begun to further disregard the norms of democracy and international law, tightening repression against dissidents inside Belarus and taking part in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The repression by the Lukashenka regime against the Belarusian people is so serious, widespread, and systematic that it may amount to crimes against humanity. In this regard, PACE decided to strengthen its support for the Belarusian opposition led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and allow the representative delegation of the country to participate in the work of the Assembly. Presently, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe (CoE), as it has not ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Back in 1992, the country was granted the “special guest” status, which allowed it to participate in the work of some CoE bodies. Since then, the political situation in Belarus has been a topic for PACE resolutions more than once. In March 2022, the CoE Committee of Ministers decided to cut off all ties with the Lukashenka government due to its active support for the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. The resolution “A democratic future for Belarus” says that the activities of the Lukashenka regime have begun to “pose a threat to international peace and security.” PACE believes that to preserve its sovereignty and independence, the Belarusian authorities must immediately and unconditionally stop any support for Russia in the war against Ukraine, stop political repression, release all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections. After that, the document says, the Lukashenka regime must ensure a peaceful transfer of power. PACE calls on the CoE member states to support the Belarusian opposition in exile and appoint their representatives for relations with the democratic forces of Belarus. In addition, European countries should increase diplomatic pressure on Minsk, but not to forget to “distinguish between the Lukashenka regime and the people of Belarus”. The resolution emphasizes that the CoE is ready to “welcome the future democratic, independent, sovereign, peaceful and prosperous Belarus” as a full member of the organization. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that the response to the new wave of repression in Belarus should be the adoption of a new package of sanctions against the Belarusian authorities. “The mass detentions of former prisoners of conscience, as well as families of political prisoners, carried out by the Belarusian authorities, require a decisive reaction. The adoption of the next package of sanctions against Belarus should take place as soon as possible,» the Polish Foreign Ministry wrote. The United States condemned the new wave of repression in Belarus and promised to continue the sanctions pressure on the Belarusian authorities. “The United States condemns the recent raids, and detentions by the Lukashenka regime, as well as the regime’s broader ongoing attacks on human rights and attempts to thwart the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus. We will continue to hold the regime accountable through sanctions and other means for its harsh internal repression, as well as for its continued support for Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine,” stated the Spokesperson for the United States Department of State Matthew Miller. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN instrument that has the mandate to investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or inconsistently with the international standards outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the international legal instruments accepted by the States concerned, reviewed the case of political prisoner, Vitali Braginets, a lawyer who defended political prisoners, including the chair of “Viasna” Human Rights Center, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ales Bialiatski. It concluded that Belarus violated Vitali Braginets’ rights. It admitted that Braginets’ imprisonment was discriminatory and based on his political views and his status as an “opposition lawyer”. The detention was arbitrary also since he was arrested for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. In addition, his right to a fair trial was grossly violated. The Working Group agreed that there is no independent judicial system in Belarus and noted that Belarusian judges hold “indictment” proceedings, violating the presumption of innocence; close court proceedings from the public; access to lawyers is often problematic for the defendants, while lawyers who work on such cases are often under a non-disclosure agreement. The Working Group called for the immediate release of the lawyer and ensuring his right to compensation, as well as the search and punishment of those responsible for the arbitrary detention of a political prisoner. Information about the case has also been shared with several UN special rapporteurs so that they can respond to the situation.
On January 22, State Secretary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev told reporters that a draft decree on the creation of a single media company of the Union State had been prepared: “It is planned to create a single media company of the Union State, which will take over coordination and ensure the release on the pages of printed publications, TV channel and Internet resource area (much attention will be paid to it) of the content, information that will be related not only to interaction in the formats of the Union State. About our history, about our plans, about how we respond to the pressure, including mental pressure. We want this to be a very interesting, powerful set of tasks, which will be under the power of the renewed team.” Pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian expert Aliaksandr Shpakouski thanked all participants of the process of creating a future media holding for “joint successful work”: “As for now, we are at the beginning of our path. Possibly, years will pass, and we will be able to proudly tell the people how the information shield of the Belarusian-Russian Union State was forged”. At the same time, the odious propagandist of Russia Today Konstantin Pridybailo criticized the current product of the “united” TV and radio company on the air of Grigory Azarenok: “…sometimes I get angry because the content we see now does not stand up to any criticism! In this situation, I act as a “fighter” or a liberal. I just want to spit and say, “Guys, where is the public money going? I mean Union State money.” During a meeting with generals on January 23, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that the Polish fence on the border with Belarus did not work and traditionally attacked the neighbors: “…we have a special situation: in the south, there is war, in the west – Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic states – and even worse. He emphasized that “nothing can be missed on the border,” urged the military to be vigilant, and advised them to “keep in their sights” the U.S. and German units that are conducting exercises in Lithuania “near the border.” The Head of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus Vladimir Gusakov stated that Lukashenka could be a good candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he has almost no chance of winning as the Nobel award ceremony is “highly politicized and even privatized by the Americans” and that mainly the “nominees are Americans”. The scientist disclosed having initiated the publication of Collected Works of the First President of the Republic of Belarus. On the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the authorities of the Republic of Belarus are sticking to their previously chosen line, expressing condolences for the losses suffered by Russia, and ignoring the casualties and destruction in Ukraine. Thus, the chairwoman of the upper house of parliament, Natalia Kochanova, expressed condolences to her Russian counterpart Valentina Matviyenko in connection with the victims of the shelling of Donetsk, condemning the Ukrainian side for “continuing attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in the Russian Federation” (i.e. indirectly recognizing Donetsk as Russian territory). And after the crash of the Il-76 military transport plane, the Belarusian state media retransmitted practically without changes the version of events presented by the Kremlin (for example, the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry accusing Kyiv of committing a terrorist act and calling the Ukrainian authorities a “neo-Nazi dictatorship” and “the criminal regime of Zelensky, nurtured by the USA and its NATO satellites”). The pro-government authors offer to the attention of the Belarusian reader articles, which state that the true culprits of the tragedy are Ukraine and Western countries. Dmitry Shamko: “The inhuman atrocity once again confirms that for the Ukrainian regime and its curators in the West, there are no borders on the way of committing heinous crimes, murders, terrorist attacks and violence <…> In the current situation, so far the West is silent, apparently again developing their unified version of what happened and their tactics of reaction to the undeniable facts.” On January 24, high-ranking officer Andrei Bogodel said on ONT that Russian TNWs deployed on the territory of Belarus are a “deterrence tool,” but also noted the possibility of a preemptive strike: “Another important aspect, which was not in the previous doctrine, is the immediate threat. This is the point that gives us all the right to launch a preemptive strike against the enemy when war is already inevitable. As Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin used to say, if a fight is inevitable, strike first. And we are responsible for this, first. But I say once again: we do not consider anyone to be an enemy, not any nation. This is all to make everyone understand what we are ready for. We are ready to defend our country.” In an interview for SB. Belarus Segodnya, he was echoed by the State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, Aliaksandr Volfovich, who called the decision to deploy Russian TNWs on the territory of the country “the most important element of the strategic deterrence system” “correct and timely”. On January 25, the Republican Council on Historical Policy under Lukashenka’s administration and the Interdepartmental Commission on Historical Education under the President of the Russian Federation signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which provides for the establishment of a Joint Russian-Belarusian Commission on History. State Agency BelTA reports that the parties “will promote coordination of efforts to protect historical truth, preservation of the memory of the common history of Belarus and Russia, reflected in educational literature, as well as the development of educational, expert, consulting, socially significant humanitarian activities in the field of history.” “This is not just the study of joint history, but the protection of historical memory and the truth about the stages we have passed and are passing through together,” commented the head of Lukashenka’s administration Igor Sergeenko. Against the background of another wave of arrests of family members of political prisoners and former political prisoners in Belarus, Lukashenka suddenly recalled the departed Belarusians and their relatives, who remained in the country: “We have some fugitives sitting in the West, while here their relatives and others are doing what they were doing before. Only in secret. The situation is not easy. We can’t lose the country. Belarus should be a sovereign, independent state, not to create problems for its neighbors. And this is a country where our children, grandchildren, and so on should live”. However, despite the disparaging remarks about “fugitives”, this week it became known that the authorities would still like to bring back their fellow citizens who went abroad to their homeland, as well as attract culturally similar migrants from other countries. To this end, the Concept of Migration Policy for 2024-2028 was approved, which, among other things, prescribes simplified access to the labor market for specialists in demand in Belarus. Besides, the regime proposes to take additional measures to stimulate the return of Belarusians to the country; a special information campaign is supposed to be organized. On January 26, Lukashenka signed a decree, which extends the work of the so-called “commission on return” until December 31, 2024. According to the decree, citizens of Belarus, who wish to return to their homeland, and who committed “administrative offenses or crimes related to significant socio-political events” between January 1, 2020, and February 8, 2023, can apply to the commission. Those who are afraid of returning to the country due to their possible involvement in the commission of such offenses and crimes can also apply,” reports the press service of Lukashenka.
On January 27, Aliaksandr Lukashenka went on a visit to the Russian Federation. Speaking at the concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad, he once again recalled the disasters during WWII, drawing parallels with the present day. He noted that Belarus and Russia are inhabited by “peaceful people” who don’t want war, but who “again face the question of the right to live in our civilization, the preservation of native values, national cultures,” and stressed that the two countries are “open to any friendly steps towards us”. At the meeting with Vladimir Putin on January 28, Lukashenka said how much he could get from the Russian Federation and expressed bewilderment why some neighboring countries do not want to do the same: “If Russia has, and Russia has a lot of things, please come, work, let’s work together, take, earn, act. No other country would be able to treat Belarus the way you treat Belarus. Again, I am projecting, but what prevented Ukraine, the Baltic countries from working with us like this? This is our world; we have been building it for several decades. We won this terrible war together.” Best regards,iSANS team