- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 8)
A weekly update on the ongoing political crisis in the Republic of Belarus prepared for you by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
On June 24, on the second day of the so-called “Wagner mutiny” in Russia, between 17:50 and 18:40 Minsk time, five Il-76 military transport aircrafts of the Russian Air-Space Forces landed at the Machulishchi airfield in Belarus. According to the Belaruski Hajun independent news channel, these planes were empty. The next day, June 25 (from 18:23 to 19:04 Minsk time), empty planes flew back to Russia. It cannot be ruled out that the purpose of their arrival to Minsk was the transfer of a military contingent from Belarus to Russia to participate in the suppression of the «Wagner mutiny». This is indicated by the fact that the planes stayed in Belarus for the whole day without any signs of activity.
Near the village of Saki (the Zhabinka district of the Brest Region, 28 kilometers from the border with Poland), work began on the engineering equipment of firing positions, which includes the construction of trenches and dugouts. Based on the scale of the construction, it can be concluded that we are talking about the construction of at least a stronghold, which may be part of a fortified area. The construction may be related to the plans announced by the Ministry of Defense at the end of May to equip fortified areas in the most dangerous segments of the Belarusian border for potential military aggression.
On June 22 around 13:30, not far from the highway M1 (near to the Lesnaya village in Baranavichy region), helicopter MI-24 of Russian Armed forces crashed. The nature of the damage to the helicopter indicates that it will require long repairs before it can return to flying. The probable cause of the helicopter crash was a technical malfunction. Nothing is known about the condition of the crew.
From June 21 to 23, the 116th Air Assault Base conducted flight and tactical exercises on the topic «Conducting Combat Operations by Air Base». During the exercise, the practical operations of the aviation component of the regional grouping of Russian and Belarusian troops were simulated at the Ruzhansky airfield.
On June 24, in the context of the attempted military coup in Russia by Evgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenary group, the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus issued a statement with important decisions on the matters of security. In the statement, the Cabinet declared that decisions of Lukashenka’s “government” and his Security Council do not have legal force on the territory of Belarus, denounced the agreements on the establishment of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, declared the withdrawal of Belarus from the CSTO, the EAEU, and the CIS, stated that participation of the Belarusian military in the armed conflict in Russia is unacceptable, demanded from the State Border Committee to close the border between Belarus and Russia, announced the creation of an operational-situational headquarters, and called on the national-oriented forces of Belarus to support this decision and join the headquarters. Last week, the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya visited Strasbourg, where she delivered a speech at the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In her statement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya expressed her gratitude to the Rapporteur Paul Galles for producing a report and drafting the resolution “Addressing the specific challenges faced by the Belarusians in exile” and capturing all the main points that had been previously raised by the Belarusian democratic forces during their international visits, and reminded of the situation of political prisoners in Belarus by telling actual human stories. Further, Tsikhanouskaya addressed Ambassadors to the Council of Europe and underlined that the goal of the democratic forces has not changed: “it’s a free, independent, and European Belarus. We stay united in resistance to the Lukashenka regime but also the imperialist Russia”; addressed Women PACE group; and delivered a speech at the meeting of the PACE Committee on Political Affairs. While Tsikhanouskaya was in Strasbourg, it became known, that the Belarusian Supreme Court dismissed her appeal of the 15 years’ imprisonment sentence in absentia on charges of attempting to seize power in an unconstitutional way and creating an extremist formation, among others. Tsikhanouskaya commented that she did not expect a positive outcome but wanted to challenge the lawlessness in the country. On June 21, the EU announced the adoption of the eleventh sanctions package against Russia, which targets 70 individuals and 30 companies and forbids transportation of oil through the “Druzhba” pipeline. The pipeline runs through the territory of Belarus, and the country charges Russia a transit fee. On June 23, 25 Ukrainian lawmakers from different parties, including MPs from the ruling party, submitted to Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine a draft resolution, which declares Belarus an aggressor state for providing its territory to Russia and therefore enabling the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The draft resolution refers to Article 3 of the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 of December 14, 1974.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On June 20, Minsk City Court sentenced prominent Belarusian human rights defender Nasta Loika to seven years in a penal colony. She was found guilty of “incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord” (part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code). These accusations are based on the contribution Loika made in 2018 to a report that assessed human rights violations by law enforcement officers during state-sponsored persecution of the anarchist community in Belarus. Loika’s trial was held behind closed doors. The details of the process are unknown. Loika is the founder of the Belarusian human rights center “Human Constanta” which is engaged in the protection of human rights, the promotion of anti-discrimination, human rights education, and digital freedoms. In the summer of 2021, Belarusian authorities shut down Human Constanta as part of an orchestrated attack against civil society in the country. Earlier, 16 international and Belarusian human rights organizations called for Nasta Loika’s immediate and unconditional release. Prisoners of penal colony No. 1 in Novopolatsk believe that political prisoner, former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka suffered a stroke. It is reported that the politician has not yet been returned to the colony from the prison hospital. Nothing is known about his condition for more than a month. Lawyers and relatives are not allowed to see him. Lack of information about Babaryka’s condition raises serious concerns about his health. On the night of April 25, Babaryka was hospitalized in the Novopolatsk hospital after he had been beaten in the colony. The media cited different versions of Babaryka’s injuries: rib fracture, pneumothorax, fluid in the lungs. Prior to participating in politics, Viktor Babaryka headed Belgazprombank. In the spring of 2020, he put forward his candidacy for the presidential election and collected a record number of signatures of voters. In June, Babaryka was arrested in charges of “the organization of a criminal group engaged in the withdrawal of money abroad,” was put in jail and denied registration as a candidate. On July 6, 2021, Babaryka was sentenced to 14 years in prison, allegedly for bribery. On June 19, Polish President Andrzej Duda met with Polish ambassadors to “summarize the current foreign policy directions» of the country. During the event, President Duda spoke about Belarus, its citizens and Lukashenka. As long as Lukashenka controls Belarus, Polish diplomacy should treat it as a state sharing responsibility for the war started by Putin in Ukraine, and, therefore, it is necessary to demand the introduction and strengthening of all possible international sanctions against Belarus, Duda stressed. “At the same time, we should not forget about the Belarusian people, who, unlike the Russians, are not poisoned by the spirit of imperialism, treat Poland and Poles well, moreover, are being terrorized by an autocrat who does not have the support of the majority of citizens and came to power as a result of electoral fraud,” he continued. “We should not forget about more than a thousand political prisoners in Belarus, as well as the repressions directed against Poles who live in this country,” the Polish leader added. “It is in our interests to promote and strengthen the Belarusian diaspora. We must support them – this is our neighbourly, civic duty as a country of “Solidarity”, as a country whose society once managed to defeat communism without a single shot, contributing to the final collapse of the Soviet Union as a result,” concluded Andrzej Duda. On June 20, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution “Addressing the specific challenges faced by the Belarusians in exile”. In the document, the parliamentarians stated that “it is high time to translate the political support that the democratic forces of Belarus enjoy among the member States into concrete actions” and that “measures taken against the Lukashenka regime should not affect the people fighting it”. The resolution includes a number of important specific recommendations to CoE member states, calling on them, in particular, to issue humanitarian visas in all embassies and consulates operating in Minsk and expand the eligibility criteria for such visas to relatives of political prisoners; issue visas to EU states in those member States where a visa is not required for Belarusian citizens, without requiring a residence permit in those countries; issue multiple-entry Schengen visas to relatives of Belarusians in exile to visit their relatives; issue multiple-entry long-term Schengen visas to Belarusians who are at risk of arrest in Belarus; develop tools for legalizing the stay of Belarusians in the CoE member states; solve the problem of travel of Belarusians in the European Union, including by recognizing Belarusian passports which have expired; consider the possibility of the recognition of the “passports of the New Belarus”; abstain from extraditing Belarusians on the basis of Red Notices issued by Interpol at the request of the Lukashenka regime, given the use of criminal prosecutions for political purposes; send referral letters to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court expressing concern for the situation in Belarus and asking him to respond to a Communication entitled “The Situation in Belarus/Lithuania/Poland/Latvia and Ukraine: Crimes Against Humanity of Deportation and Persecution” filed by International Partnership for Human Rights, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Global Diligence LPP and Truth Hounds on 19 May 2021; facilitate the dialogue with the Belarusian democratic forces in exile, including the Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the United Transition Cabinet of Belarus and the Coordination Council; establish working relationships with Belarusian “people’s embassies” and support them; cooperate with and support Belarusian NGOs in exile and Belarusian lawyers in exile; support the creation of Belarusian publishing houses, the study of the Belarusian language and culture.
The main topic of the news coverage (or the news silencing) last week was the “armed rebellion” and the interrupted “March of Justice” to Moscow by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private mercenary group (PMG) “Wagner”. At the beginning, the reaction of the state-controlled Belarusian media was restrained; they followed the line of their colleagues in Russia and did not report anything or limited themselves to briefly covering news in the first hours of the “mutiny”. It lasted until the “peacekeeping mission” of Lukashenka was announced, who allegedly convinced Prigozhin to suspend the march. The news that Lukashenka “helped resolve the situation with PMG Wagner” immediately appeared on the front pages of all major state media (BelTA, ONT, STV, Belarus Segodnia and others). Private Telegram-channels reacted much more actively to the events. From the very beginning of the “mutiny”, they took a pro-Russian and pro-government side.authorities for me personally,” and continued: “Taking sides of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation or the PMG Wagner is complete nonsense which leads to a civil conflict. It is necessary to support only Russia and the restoration of the constitutional order. The conflict must be resolved by the intervention of the President, while he still possesses the unconditional authority.” At the same time, propagandists have been utterly confused: in the beginning, after Putin’s televised address, they condemned the Wagner mutiny, but then did not dare to criticize Lukashenka who had allegedly brokered an agreement with Prigozhin to end his advance on Moscow in exchange for dropping all legal charges against him. There have been many contradictory statements as regards the fate of Prigozhin and the future deployment of Wagner mercenaries. Officially, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that thanks to the agreement reached with the mediating role of Lukashenka, Prigozhin will “leave for Belarus” while the Wagner troops will “return to their field camps”. These are located on the territory of Rostov region of Russia and the occupied Donbas. Lukashenka’s press-service did not mention Belarus as the destination of either Prigozhin or his troops at all in its statement. At the time of writing this issue of Belarus Review, Prigozhin’s whereabouts are not known after he left Rostov at the night of June 24. There has been also no evidence of Wagner troops arriving in Belarus. However, media and propagandists in both Belarus and Russia have entertained the idea of possible deployment of Wagner in Belarus. The most radical of them found a good sign in the departure of Wagner troops to Belarus. For example, Grigory Azarenok, propagandist at the STV channel, stated “Russian tactical nuclear weapons and now Wagner. This is how Belarus is slowly becoming the most powerful military power in the world.” At the same time, the Russian segment of the pro-Kremlin propaganda, especially the ultraradical bloggers, the so-called “war correspondents”, were skeptical about this idea and condemned the “strengthening of Belarus by the Wagner group.” In any case, if Lukashenka will ultimately agree to “host” in Belarus the Wagner troops, recognized as a criminal organization by a number of states, this would constitute a further destruction of the rule of law, sovereignty, and the very statehood of the Republic of Belarus. Last week, the issue of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus has continued to be exploited by propaganda. “Russia has placed nuclear weapons in Belarus indefinitely, but under certain conditions it can take it back,” said Aleksey Polishchuk, director of the CIS department of the Russian MFA. “These conditions could be the abandoning by the US and NATO of their course to undermine the security and sovereignty of Russia and Belarus.” In his turn, Lukashenka declared: “About 80 percent of Belarusians “definitely support” the course that I have determined.” He also called for the creation of a “self-sustainment” plan that would allow the country to forego Western imports. “We need to understand that they will pressure us. We need to develop a common plan for our actions, primarily in the economy. This plan should unite us all”, Lukashenka said. Following this story, the state agency BelTA reported that the first Belarusian laptop H-book had been sold in 18 countries. In addition, the state Belarusian media are optimistic about the Iran’s export exhibition which is to be held in Minsk in August 2023. At the exhibition, among other goods, Iranian cars Khodro Company and Saipa will be demonstrated that are planned to be exported to Belarus. Chair of the Council of the Republic of Belarus, Natalya Kochanova, while speaking at the meeting of the Belarusian Women Union in Brest, thanked Lukashenka for suppressing peaceful protests in August 2020. “I have always clearly understood, both in 2020 and earlier: our president will be able to keep the country together,” she said. “The fact that today we live in a peaceful country is his accomplishment.” The Secretary General of the Belarusian Red Cross Dmitry Shevtsov announced an increase in “aid” for Ukrainian children transferred to Belarus. “Families that raise children from Ukraine will receive additional financial assistance this year,” he said. According to Shevtsov, more than 700 Ukrainian children in Belarus will receive it, the state agency BelTA reports. The Belarusian MFA presented its annual report entitled “The Most Resonant Cases of Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries of the World” which bears clear propagandist goals aimed at derogating Western democratic values. Examples of “human rights violations” in the Western countries reported in this report are of the following nature: in Latvia, decrease of the purchasing power of the population, dismantling of the monuments and memorials of the Soviet era, high inflation, lack of medicines and school teachers, trials and charges against “Russian-speaking” journalists, etc.; in Lithuania, introduction of a questionnaire for applicants for a visa or residence permit among Russian and Belarusian citizens, which includes questions about their attitude towards the war in Ukraine, the status of Crimea etc. Best regards,iSANS teamAlexander Shpakovsky, pro-government Belarusian political analyst and propagandist, stated: “In any incomprehensible situation, we must focus on our President. There are no other