- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 11)
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).
July 17, 2023
On the evening of July 11, a business jet carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin landed in Belarus. It cannot be ruled out that other representatives of PMC “Wagner” could have arrived with him. After arriving in Belarus, Prigozhin was taken by a helicopter to the area of Osipovichi, where he spent the night of July 11-12. On the evening of July 12, Prigozhin’s business jet left Belarus. It can be assumed that Prigozhin paid a visit to the village of Tsel where a large camp had been previously deployed. A possible purpose of the trip was to inspect the camp to accommodate mercenaries of the PMC «Wagner». On July 11, mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” started their organized movement in convoys to the territory of Belarus. So far, at least two convoys are known to have arrived in Belarus. The first one arrived on the morning of July 11, while the second arrived on the morning of July 15. The route convoys passed from the border with Russia along Highway R-43 (Mogilev region) and then to the highway M-5. The convoys consisted mainly of cars, buses, and trucks; no military equipment was seen. The final destination of the convoys is currently unknown. Most likely, it was a field camp in the village of Tsel in Osipovichi district, as evidenced by satellite images. A total of 350 to 600 mercenaries could have arrived in Belarus in two convoys. The arrival of other convoys of the PMC “Wagner” can be expected. This is indicated by the fact that on July 13-16, several Russian propaganda telegram channels published a video with the movement of PMC “Wagner” equipment on the territory of Russia. It should be noted that before July 11, a small number of mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” (up to 100 people) could already have been deployed around Osipovichi, as reported by a number of sources. On July 12, Commander of Internal Troops of Belarus Nikolai Karpenkov announced that currently negotiations with the PMC “Wagner” are being held on joint combat training with the special operations troops. Already on July 14, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” started combat training with the territorial troops. Moreover, the Belarusian MoD also announced that it was drafting roadmaps for cooperation with the PMC “Wagner”. In this connection, it can be stated that one of the directions of mercenaries’ activities in Belarus has become training of the security bloc of the Republic of Belarus.
On July 11-12, NATO Summit in Vilnius attracted global attention. Despite Belarus not being a frontline of the topics discussed at the Summit, the final version of the Communiqué adopted by the participants after the first day of the event mentions Belarus seven times. Article 8 underlines that “Belarus’ support has been instrumental as it continues to provide its territory and infrastructure to allow Russian forces to attack Ukraine and sustain Russia’s aggression”. In the same article, Belarus is urged to end its complicity with Russia and comply with international law. Article 15 highlights the deepening military integration between Russia and Belarus and states that NATO is closely monitoring the developments, especially with the deployment of the Russian private military companies, and urges Belarus to stop its “malign activities against its neighbors, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to abide by international law”. In Article 16, the NATO Summit participants “condemn Russia’s announced intention to deploy nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable systems on Belarusian territory, which further demonstrates how Russia’s repeated actions undermine strategic stability and overall security in the Euro-Atlantic area”. The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya attended the NATO Public Summit and NATO Women’s Forum of the main NATO Summit program. During the Summit, she met with the Portuguese Foreign Minister João Cravinho and discussed the deployment of TNW in Belarus, threats to Belarus’ independence, and the EU strategy on Belarus. Special attention was given to sanctions, especially the unacceptability of softening the restriction on potash exports as the repression against Belarusian people continue. Tsikhanouskaya met with the Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib directly after the women’s event on the sidelines of the main NATO Summit’s program and raised the most pressing issues on sanctions relief (which she deemed unacceptable), support for the Mission of Democratic Belarus in Brussels, and keeping Belarus on the international agenda during the Belgian EU Presidency, which starts in six months. Also on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, she met with the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn, with whom she discussed the expected outcomes of the NATO Summit, among other pressing issues. On July 12, directly after his public speech at Vilnius University, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The leader of the democratic forces conveyed the position of Belarusians and assured the U.S. President that the “people continue their struggle for a free country”. After the meeting, she underlined that Belarusians “can count on the support of the United States”. Moreover, during the NATO Summit, the Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya organized two side events “The Sovereignty of Belarus and Transatlantic Security” on July 11 and “The Deployment of Nuclear Weapons in Belarus and its Implications for Regional Security” on July 12.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On July 11, the imprisoned Belarusian artist, Ales Pushkin, died in hospital intensive care. A renowned Belarusian artist, restorer of churches, and author of famous political artistic performances, Ales Pushkin was an ardent advocate of the protection of the Belarusian language and freedom of expression in Belarus for over 30 years. He was actively involved in political protests and repeatedly persecuted by the authorities. Last time, he was arrested in March 2021 and convicted a year later on charges of “desecrating state symbols” and “rehabilitation of Nazism.” Pushkin was sentenced to five years imprisonment in a high-security penal colony. In August 2022, the administration of the penal facility placed the imprisoned artist in a cell-type room for five months. On November 11, 2022, Pushkin’s imprisonment regime was tightened to a high-security prison for 18 months. The official cause of death and circumstances of this tragedy are unknown. However, preliminary information suggests that Ales Pushkin’s death could have been caused by a failure to provide timely and appropriate medical assistance. Pushkin is the third political prisoner in Belarus who has died in prison since the start of the current wave of repression. On July 11, the leader of the Belarusian democratic movement «Young Front» Dmitry Dashkevich was not released after fully serving his term for participating in a protest march in August 2020. A new criminal case was brought against him under the article on “malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony”. Since the early 2000s, Dashkevich has been repeatedly brought to administrative and criminal responsibility. In December 2006, Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. On July 11, the law «On Citizenship of the Republic of Belarus» came into force. It provides that the authorities can deprive the citizenship of Belarus of those convicted under extremist articles and for causing “grievous harm” to the state, those who got a job in the authorities and law enforcement agencies of other states, and volunteers who went to fight on the side of Ukraine. Experts note that the rules regarding the deprivation of citizenship target significant figures of the Belarusian opposition who have emigrated and who have received — or will receive — sentences for extremism. In particular, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushka were sentenced in absentia to 15 and 18 years, respectively. The law goes contrary to international norms on the prevention of statelessness as it concerns persons with single citizenship. On July 13, the second trial of Mikalai Vasilevicz began in the court of the Pershamayski district of Minsk. Now he is accused of “financing terrorist activities”. On June 6, 2023, he was sentenced to six years in prison for “financing an extremist formation” and “financing extremist activities”. At the beginning of January, the KGB added his name to the “list of terrorists.” On July 14, the Central District Court of Minsk sentenced to 3 years in prison a citizen of Poland, Robert Tompala, who lives in Belarus and has a family there. He was found guilty of insulting Aliaksander Lukashenka. What exactly Tompalu said or did is not specified. On the same day, Tompala was included in the official “list of extremists.” On July 14, the prosecutor requested six years in prison for ex-lawyer Yulia Yurgilevich. She defended Ales Pushkin and other political prisoners. Yurgilevich is accused of assisting “extremist activity”. According to the investigation, from February to March 2022, Pavel Mozheiko, the second defendant in this case, handed over to “unidentified persons” for publication in Belsat information received by him from Yurgilevich about “the withdrawal of her lawyer’s license and expulsion from the Grodno Regional Bar Association.” On July 14, 2023, the appeal of Alyaksandr Danilevich, lawyer, Ph.D., associate professor, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on April 10, 2023, was scheduled to be heard in a closed session at the Supreme Court. The outcomes of the appeal are still unknown. The lawyer was accused of “assisting in calls for sanctions” by athletes Aleksandra Herasimenia and Aleksandr Apeykin, who had been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison, and “facilitating extremist activities”. Danilevich pleaded not guilty and insisted that he was fulfilling his professional duties. On July 13, at the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council, a discussion and vote on the resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus took place, following a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin. The resolution (A/HRC/53/L.20) on the Situation of human rights in Belarus, adopted by a vote of 20 in favor, 6 against, and 21 abstentions, gives a highly critical assessment of the situation, makes a set of recommendations to the authorities, provides for the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for one year and calls on the authorities to return to dialogue with her, as well as to give her the opportunity to visit Belarus and communicate with the government and civil society. On July 14 two years ago, mass arrests of human rights defenders, civic activists, and journalists took place throughout Belarus. The chair of Human Rights Center “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovich and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich were detained on charges of “smuggling” and “financing group actions that disrupted public order” and subsequently sentenced to 10, 9, and 7 years in prison, respectively. On July 14, 2023, the Vice-President of the European Parliament Nicola Beer made a speech on the second anniversary of their detention. She called for access to comprehensive medical care and lawyers for Belarusian political prisoners, to speed up the establishment of embassies of New Belarus in European countries, and to introduce broad sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. “Our call is clear – we will not leave you and we will remain resolutely by your side,” she said.
Belarus and Russia will launch a common media holding in 2023, as announced on July 11 at a joint meeting of the Board of the Belarusian Ministry of Information and the Russian Ministry of Digital Development. For the first time, Alexander Lukashenka announced the need to create a holding in January 2023. Experts believe that he needs media outlets covering Russian territory as “his powerful mouthpieces for promotion in the Russian media sphere.” On July 10, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoI) offered the Belarussian relocates (persons in political exile) to return and serve their term in prison to keep their Belarusian citizenship. This announcement was made by the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration Alexei Begun. According to the new law on citizenship that came into force on July 11, new grounds are introduced to deprive the Belarusian citizenship of those convicted for participation in extremist activities or causing “grievous harm to the interests of Belarus”. “He (a relocate) always has a choice: to return to Belarus and fulfill the court decision, serve his sentence, or remain outside the country (…) Then how he can be a citizen of the Republic of Belarus if he actually evades the implementation of a legal court decision?”, asked Begun. On July 10-12, “Days of Crimea” were held in Belarus. The following events took place: presentation of the project «Republic of Crimea — Southern Sea Gates of the Union State»; exhibition in the House of Moscow in Minsk on the 240th anniversary of the manifesto of Catherine II on the annexation of Crimea, and other propaganda events. On July 13, the Secretary General of the Belarusian Red Cross (a division of the International RC) Dmitry Shevtsov visited the Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia and posed for a TV report by Russian propagandists with a Z chevron (a symbol of support for the occupiers). The video was published by the state propaganda agency Sputnik.by. In the report, Shevtsov condemned the war, without addressing anyone in particular, and supported the pro-government Foundation of Aleksey Talai which illegally transfers Ukrainian children to Belarus. On July 14, while speaking at the opening ceremony of The International Festival of Arts “Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk”, Alexander Lukashenka stated the performers from Ukraine should be present at the festival: “Let the best melodies and voices always sound not only of Belarusian masters of art but also Russian, Ukrainian and other neighboring Slavic peoples close to us.” “From year to year… we are together – both Belarusians and Russians, and, I am sure, there are many Ukrainians here, and our guests – we create peace! And this is the main mission of Slavianski Bazaar”, Lukashenka said. Best regards,iSANS team