Belarus Review by iSANS — May 9, 2023 

Belarus Review by iSANS — May 9, 2023
Photo: Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment


By popular demand, the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) relaunches its weekly executive newsletter “Belarus Review”. In 2020-2022, our free newsletter has become a go-to source of expertise for researchers, politicians, journalists, and diplomats interested in Belarus after this country entered the most complicated political crisis in its independent history. Today, iSANS team is thrilled to introduce an updated version of “Belarus Review” newsletter that will cover key developments on a weekly basis. The publications will cover four areas of interest: political developments, military activity, propaganda, human rights situation and international response to it. Renewed newsletter will be available to iSANS partners and clients via free email subscription. To join the subscription list, contact our team: archive of newsletter materials will be accessible on iSANS website under “Belarus Review” section.


Three years into a major political crisis, the situation inside Belarus is largely defined by two factors: continuous political terror against internal critics of de-facto puppet regime in Minsk, and its active participation in Russia’s invasion to Ukraine. With Russia’s increasing losses on the battlefield ahead of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Lukashenka finds himself in a growly vulnerable position.On May 1, Belarus-registered locomotive was blown up in Bryansk region of Russia along with a large number of cargo carriages. As a result of sabotage operation, surrounding railroad infrastructure, as well as the locomotive, suffered severe damage. According to Belarusian Hajun (the most prominent civil intelligence firm that monitors the activity of the Russian and Belarusian Armed Forces in the territory of Belarus), the locomotive was operated by Belarusian locomotive engineers and was registered with the Belarusian Railway (BCh), a national state-owned railway company of Belarus and railroad track monopolist.

On May 2, a Russia-owned train with Russian locomotive engineers was blown up in Bryansk region in another act of railroad sabotage. The damage caused to the tracks in Bryansk region decreased the capacity of Russia’s railroad traffic in this area and may potentially challenge Russia’s military logistics in this part of the country that borders Ukraine and Homiel region of Belarus.Although both sabotage acts took place in Russia, the Belarusian Railway (BCh) immediately increased security measures on its infrastructure – similarly to state security response to the 2022 rail war waged by Belarusian underground groups.

Ahead of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive, Lukashenka seems to be concerned about sabotage attacks. His “border guards” introduced temporary entry control on the border with Russia «until further notice» and introduced intensive background checks for citizens of Russia and Belarus. The “border guards” also installed at least one new checkpoint on M1 highway that connects Minsk and Moscow. All that happened just three days after Lukashenka hosted a strategic meeting on border security with his security and military executives.On May 3, “the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus” entered new stage of combat readiness checks that is conducted along with the Russians. In the previous round of drills, Belarusian troops deployed a mechanized brigade to a wartime staff of 6,000 people for the first time in modern history of the country. Although Russia continues its supply of weapons and ammunition to Lukashenka’s army, the delivery of Mi-35M helicopters was disrupted by the Russian side and they have not arrived to Belarus.


In early May, the National Leader of Belarus and the Head of the United Transition Cabinet Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was on official visit to the Republic of Ireland. There, she had series of working meetings with high-rank officials (including the PresidentPrime MinisterMinister for Foreign Affairs, members of the Parliament) and local Belarusian diaspora. In her international work, Tsikhanouskaya is currently addressing five key issues:1. Keeping Belarus and the problem of Belarusian political prisoners a primary international concern.

2. Enforcing sanctions to weaken and split the elites around the authoritarian regime in Russia and its de-facto puppet government in Belarus led by Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

3. Prosecuting Lukashenka and his cronies through application of existing mechanisms of international criminal proceedings and establishment of an international tribunal against Lukashenka and his regime for complicity in war crimes conducted along with Vladimir Putin. This matter is becoming increasingly important given the findings of OSCE Moscow Mechanism report on deportation of Ukrainian children that admitted that Ukrainian children had been transferred from the occupied territories of Ukraine through both Russia and Belarus (for details, see pp. 17, 38, 40, and 48 of OSCE Report on forcible transfer and/or deportation of Ukrainian children).

4. Supporting the underground democratic movement inside Belarus, ensuring international support for Belarusian civilians, media, civil society groups, and Belarusian volunteers who joined Ukraine’s army or other pro-Ukraine formations and fight against Russia’s troops. Belarusian volunteers remain one of the largest national groups in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion and play important role in defense of key positions – including the city of Bakhmut.

5. Creating a positive Transatlantic agenda for Belarusians and promoting the European choice for Belarus as an alternative to the “Russian World”.The latter is particularly important for Belarusians in exile. For instance, on May 4, Lithuania’s “working group on migration and public security” held its first meeting. The group was established as a joint initiative of Tsikhanouskaya and Lithuania’s Minister of the Interior Agnė Bilotaitė to address migration problems of Belarusian diaspora and provide joint response to Lithuania’s public safety concerns. The group was established based on positive experience of similar initiative created in Warsaw to maintain dialogue between Polish authorities and local Belarusian diaspora.


Human rights situation continues to deteriorate. In 2023 «Press Freedom Index”, Belarus lost four positions compared to last year (now 157th out of 180). According to Reporters Without Borders, the situation in Belarus is worse than it is in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kuwait or Oman. Belarus is identified as «the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists before Russia invaded Ukraine.” As of early May, at least 33 journalists remain jailed in Belarus as independent media face persecution.

In April 2023 alone, 62 people were designated as political prisoners in Belarus with total number of designated political prisoners reaching almost 1,500 people. Many other inmates are yet expecting a review of their status by human rights lawyers. The process is very slow since Belarusian human rights groups and activists were among the first victims of repressions. For instance, the leaders of Human Rights Center Viasna (including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski) are long under illegal detention. On May 2, Bialiatski was transported to Penal Colony No. 9 in Horki. His colleagues Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich were transported to, respectively, Penal Colony No. 15 in Mahilioŭ and Penal Colony No. 17 in Škloŭ. Earlier, on April 21, “Minsk City Court” left the appeals of Viasna members and their defenders unsatisfied. Instead, it supported the «prosecutor» who asked to change the wording of their verdicts.

On May 3, the leaders of the most popular Telegram channel, NEXTA, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Stsiapan Putsila who still runs the project from Warsaw was sentenced to 20 years (in absentia) and editor Yan Rudzik was sentenced to 19 years (in absentia). Former editor Raman Pratasevich (who became internationally famous after his flight was hijacked by the Belarusian KGB in 2021), was sentences to 8 years in a penal colony.

Last week, human rights defenders sent an appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Belarus about the serious condition of Belarusian political prisoners Viktar Babaryka and Maksim Znak. A few days ago, it became known that on April 25 Babaryka (a former presidential candidate who was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony) was taken from the colony to a civilian hospital in Navapolatsk with pneumothorax and traces of beatings. Babaryka last spoke with his family and lawyer on February 6 and since then no one has seen or heard from him. The family of Znak last heard from him on February 9.The situation of Babryka and Znak is becoming increasingly concerning in the light of recent death of a 61-year-old political prisoner, activist and blogger Mikalai Klimovich. In February 2023, Klimovich (bio) was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for reacting to cartoons about Lukashenka on social media.


Last week, Lukashenka’s propaganda changed its focus from aggressive to “peaceful” narratives. With growing fails of Russia’s military in Ukraine, Lukashenka’s propaganda changed its tone from belligerent to somewhat conciliatory. Such changes were first noticed in Lukashenka’s speeches as he addressed the topic of war. On April 29, at a meeting with “regular people” (who were later exposed by Belarusian independent news outlet as members of local authorities), Lukashenka refers to southern regions of Belarus as the “frontline” and admitted that this “does not mean that someone is going to go to war with us.” He added that nobody, “including Ukrainians” is going to attack Belarus. In the same meeting, Lukashenka made up several excuses to explain his need to transport Russia’s nuclear weapons to Belarus.

On the «internal front» the campaign to discredit the opposition continues. State-controlled Belarus-1 TV channel released a story about Belarusian Nobel laureates to discredit and mock Ales Bialiatski and Svetlana Alexievich. The propagandists accused Viasna Human Rights Center and Bialiatski of financial fraud and showed «sincere confessions of members of the organization” who were impersonated by unknown individuals in hoods. The actors who impersonated the members of «Viasna» were interviewed in a darkened room and their voices were changed.

On May 3, ONT showed a program about the first meeting of “the commission on the return of Belarusians who had gone abroad”. Fake “oppositionist” and Lukashenka’s stooge Yuri Vaskrasenski described «miserable» living conditions of those who have left Belarus. In his words, the life of Belarusian diaspora is “not sweet abroad: a modest life, a modest table, a constant struggle for survival” while foreign “political elites and officials create obstacles for those who have a Belarusian passport.” The “Prosecutor General of Belarus” Andrei Shved (who is one of the most influential pro-Russian executives in Lukashenka’s elite) mentioned that exiled Belarusians submitted “more than 70 applications” to an inter-agency “return commission” that intends to identify exiled citizens of Belarus who are willing to return home. Shved, however, refused to provide any details on who the applicants were “because these people are actively targeted abroad”.

In connection with the OSCE findings on the role of Belarus in deportation of Ukrainian children, Minsk-based propagandists directed their efforts to whitewash this practice. For instance, (a local branch of Russia’s «Sputnik» agency) published an interview with hardline pro-Russian activist and the chairman of the newly-created «Belaya Rus» party Oleg Romanov who argued that “helping children” is “a good, interesting area” of cooperation between Belarus and Russia after “several new regions have become part of the Russian Federation.”Best regards,iSANS team


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