Your insight into Belarus crisis
This is an update on the ongoing political crisis in the Republic of Belarus prepared for you by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
As of May 30, 449 persons in Belarus are acknowledged political prisoners (+72 over two weeks). 31 of the detainees are journalists and media workers. The list of journalists in detention grew substantially after tut.by, the largest (privately-owned) news website in Belarus, was shut down in an unprecedented attack on independent media. 15 members of tut.by and related companies founded by now-dead entrepreneur Yuri Zisser were detained in relation to this case.
As Belarus is moving towards 300 days of protests against rigged elections and state violence, on May 23 the junta has managed to attract global attention at the scale comparable to August 2020. Last Sunday, Belarus aviation administration engaged a civil Poland-registered aircraft into a hoax bomb threat scenario to support KGB’s kidnapping operation against popular Blogger Raman Pratasevich, one of the founder of Nexta telegram-channel that played key role in protests. The forced landing of the plane under intentionally fraudulent bomb threat was condemned internationally, but it is now clear that the sole condemnation is not enough in response to an act of international terrorism. Non-accountability already brought Lukashenka and Belarus to where they are: the scale of repressions becomes unacceptable as people are systematically getting into jail on hoax reasons, such as «politically wrong» colors of their clothes.
The hijacking of Ryanair aircraft in part resembles two globally known incidents: the attack against MH17 flight in Donbas and the kidnapping of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Lukashenka feels the same impunity under Vladimir Putin’s wing as terrorist groups in Donbas, as he turns Belarus into the largest gray zone in Europe (a development which iSANS forecasted in 2020). Lukashenka has lost the explanatory matrix built by his subordinate Uladzimir Makei («Belarus is maneouvering between East and West»), and is unable to play «multivector» politics card anymore. In his latest publication, iSANS expert Alexander Morozov argues that Lukashenka now builds a matrix that will later be used by Vladimir Putin in Russia. In Morozov’s opinion, Lukashenka is testing measures that the Kremlin will use against its people in the event of a political crisis in Russia. This gives extra grounding for the harshest response to the hijacking of Ryanair aircraft over Belarus.
The hijacking of Ryanair plane is the first precedent of international terror that follows the announcement of the manhunt that was launched by the state security of Belarus against diaspora in early 2021. A manhunt for diaspora activists was first announced by the head of the KGB, and later reaffirmed and endorsed by the head of the Internal Forces (notorious Mikalai Karpiankou / Николай Карпенков, the former leader of GUBOPiK / GUBAZiK unit of the ministry of interior), his protege and Lukashenka’s trusted pro-Russian figure Aliaksandr Shpakouski (Александр Шпаковский), and a vice-chair of «parliamentary commission for foreign affairs» Aleh Gaidukevich (Олег Гайдукевич).
On February 12, 2021, the Head of Belarus KGB Ivan Tsertsel (Иван Тертель) claimed that all «traitors of Motherland» will be found and «brought to justice» despite their location – and even «decades later».
On April 29, 2021, Mikalai Karpiankou, publicly announced that all participants of democratic movement and peaceful protests will face «inevitable retribution». Karpiankou insisted that these civilians (who exercised their political rights by participating in peaceful protests as guaranteed by Belarus constitution and international obligations of the Republic of Belarus) will be «treated as terrorists» and will be fought against «by the laws of counter-terrorist operations».
During a state TV interview, Karpiankou, who acted in official capacity, particularly referred to kill-on-spot U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden and promised to use the same approach to civil activists from Belarus. Prior to that, Karpiankou promised his subordinates no accountability for any use of weaponry during punitive operations against civilians. When referring to «clean sweep» operations against political opponents of the acting regime, Karpiankou referred to Israeli and American operations abroad thus announcing, inter alia, armed extraterritorial attacks on foreign soil against civil activists, their families, and children.
On April 29, 2021, a protege of Karpiankou, Aliaksandr Shpakouski, announced that Belarus state security is considering all politically active groups of Belarusian immigrants abroad as terrorists and «enemies of the nation» and will begin a «clean sweep» operation against Belarusian immigrants in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Shpakouski is one of key pro-Russian figures in Lukashenka’s close circle, a trusted representative of informal pro-Russian state propaganda network, and a member of the so-called «Constitutional Commission» that prepares illegal changes to Belarus constitution to sustain Lukashenka’s military rule and turn Belarus into a sultanistic regime with rule by inheritance within Lukashenka family.
On May 23, Shpakouski and a vice-chair of «parliamentary commission for foreign affairs» Aleh Gaidukevich (Олег Гайдукевич) explicitly confirmed on their social media that the plane hijacking was organized by Lukashenka’s state security. Both Shpakouski and Gaidukevich who enjoy full support of state-owned media and «presidential administration» urged to kidnap more activists living abroad and bring them to Belarus in a «vehicle trunk», against international and national laws. Just like Shpakouski, Gaidukevich is closely tied to Russian political elites. He is accused of the coordination of torture and crimes against humanity at the time of his work as chief of police in one of areas in Minsk in 2000s before being assigned a position at the «parliament».
In given circumstances, Belarus diasporas abroad – especially in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine (and, likely, Latvia), but also in other countries, including the Unites States – now face immediate risk of physical attacks and kidnappings on foreign soil, and may be targeted by Belarus state security employees with lethal weaponry, poisons, or other means of murder. After the hijacking of Ryanair plane, the state terror that the Lukashenka regime was imposing mostly internally now spills over the state borders of Belarus as Lukashenka proves the nickname coined by Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, «the Slavic Muammar al-Qaddafi» in a sense that he has no internal limits, and will seek new victims of his revenge. International response to his actions would be a signal to both people inside Belarus, and autocrats globally who may now be considering the plane hijacking over Belarus as a precedent that they can use from in the future.
The hijacking of the plane by Minsk junta requires change in terminology applicable towards Lukashenka and his subordinates. «Describing what the regime is doing domestically, and now internationally, as terror is fully appropriate» argues Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund in his speech at an online event of our partner project Visegrad Insight. Notably, many media, policy makers, and activists, have already accepted the use of term «state-sponsored terrorism» and «state-sponsored air piracy» in relation to the hijacking of the Polish plane in Belarus airspace. Similarly, there is growing use of term «terrorist» in relation to Lukashenka in both the EU and the United States.
In his latest piece for Politico, Forbrig argues that the West has to give the harshest response to stop Lukashenka’s growing need for new violence. «Besides growing its individual sanctions list to a few hundred names, the EU should finally move against the sources of this repressive regime’s income, by sanctioning key enterprises in the oil and chemical sectors, among others».
Why is this important? Since late 2020, Belarus is run under de-facto Martial Law with complete ban on political manifestations. For that reason, the West should not expect the same protests as those that took place in August-December 2020 without cutting the junta’s access to finances and foreign currency. The protest moods remain where they were in late 2020, but now since all political events are under de-facto ban, the nation shows growing demand for underground practices and the growth of nationwide underground Resistance movement. The forms of protest are transforming into underground action of thousands of autonomous dissident groups. In that sense, state terror inside Belarus resembles the Martial Law era in Poland in the 1981-83, but the scale of political repressions and arrests in modern Belarus is a lot higher – and it will keep growing unless Lukashenka is stopped.
To limit public access to information and demotivate the civilians in the nearest months, the junta will focus on achievement of domination on the web by shutting down and blocking access to more and more independent media outlets that work on the web. Since Lukashenka regime has fully monopolized television, radio, and politically-related print press by early 2000s, the new trend is to entirely burn down web-based information resources. This practice will be challenged by expansive growth of Resistance and protest content on messengers (foremost – Telegram) and social networking apps (most likely, Instagram and Tik Tok). Belarusians may require broader access to VPN and anonymizers to access online information freely.
Last week, the junta in Minsk has introduced new legislation to maximize the pressure on independent journalists and a handful of remaining non-state media outlets. New regulations will enter into force in late June, and will make it easier to prosecute journalists for spreading «extremism» and creating «threat to national interests» (as both legal definitions are made extremely vague). The latest orders (such as co called «Media Law») equate journalistic live streams from unauthorized mass events to extremism, make journalistic polls illegal (including so called «Vox pops» recorded in the street), and de-facto ban all existing types of journalistic work without immediate coordination with Belarus state officials.
The so called «vice minister of interior» Yuri Nazaranka has already explained in an official commentary that journalistic coverage of unauthorized mass events is equaled to participation in «illegal» manifestations. The journalists will also be banned from using original quotes of people if this information is «creating threat to national security» (which has no legal definition and threshold).
The details of new «media and extremism regulations» recently introduced by the junta, can be found here.