- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 28)
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 November 8, the Chairman of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich, and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev conducted a working meeting. Deepening cooperation between the special services and the military departments of the two countries was discussed. The meeting resulted in the approval of the plan of bilateral cooperation between the Security Councils of Belarus and Russia for 2024-2025. It should be noted that such meetings are held annually. On the same day, Chairman of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich stated that the project of an Agreement on mutual security guarantees between Belarus and Russia is almost ready and could be presented for signing in the near future. The draft of the Security Concept of the Union State is also being finalized and can be adopted in 2024. On November 9, during the visit to Belarus of the military delegation of Iran headed by the Chief of the Department for International Relations of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran General Mohammad Ahadi, the first meeting of the Joint Belarusian-Iranian Interdepartmental Commission on Military Cooperation took place. During the meeting, the parties adopted an event plan for 2024. The visit of the Iranian delegation to the Military Academy of Belarus was also reported. On November 10, the Western Operational Command held the second stage of a training session with officers from motorized rifle units on firing BMP-2 weapons from closed firing positions. Deputy battalion commanders and company commanders were involved in the training. Earlier, at the first stage, such training was conducted with commanders of mechanized battalions and motorized rifle platoons. On November 10, it became known that two more echelons carrying components of the tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) arrived in Belarus in September. Thus, between September 15 and 24, 26 railcars loaded with TNW components as well as those intended for transportation of personnel and escorts arrived at the Prudok station. Near the railroad station, the 2631st air base for storing missile weapons and ammunition is located. As of now, there is no reliable data confirming the presence of TNWs on the territory of Belarus. On November 12, the Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin left for a working visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The visit includes talks with the UAE Minister of State for Defense Affairs and the signing of a military cooperation agreement. There has been no information about Belarus’ modernization of the tank T-72-T-72BM2, for almost half a year. Despite earlier statements by officials, it is unlikely that 20-30 tanks will be modernized by the end of 2023 as planned. Most likely, the project launch date will be shifted to 2024.
On November 6, during a meeting of the leader of the democratic forces of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya with the Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström in Vilnius, a special envoy for contacts with the democratic forces of Belarus was appointed. The position will be taken by Christina Johanesson, former Swedish Ambassador to Belarus. She noted that the Swedish government understands the need to put Belarus back on the EU agenda. “Belarus plays a central role in our vision of the future of Europe, its security and well-being. And I am very pleased that now there are more and more assurances in the EU that in the future the EU will be ready to support a democratic Belarus. The European Commission even has funds specially designated for this. We hope that if we talk about Belarus more often and work more strategically with the democratic forces, we will be able to establish ourselves more and more in the idea that there is a place for Belarusians in future Europe,” Kristina Johannesson stressed. On November 7, an inter-parliamentary conference “Support of Belarus by the forces of parliaments” was held in Berlin. The conference aimed at creating a coalition of parliamentary groups of friends of the New Belarus from the parliaments of 21 European countries. During the conference, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stressed that investing time, money, and attention into a future democratic Belarus is not charity, but an investment in a safe Europe, in democracy’s victory over Russian imperialism. On the following day, November 8, the German Bundestag held a debate on a draft resolution by the governing coalition of the SPD, Alliance 90/The Greens, and FDP factions, “For a democratic Belarus in the European family”, and a draft resolution by the CDU/CSU faction “Bringing Belarus back into the European family of nations – supporting people’s desire for freedom”. The resolution by the governing coalition was adopted by a majority of votes, while the CDU/CSU faction abstained. The resolution by the opposition didn’t find support in the parliament. While in Berlin, Tsikhanouskaya held a rally with the Belarusian diaspora at the Brandenburg gate, meetings with the German politicians and decision-makers, and stressed the issue of the new Belarusian passport and legalization for the exiled Belarusians; according to the Belarusian democratic forces’ leader, German authorities will recognize expired Belarusian passports for the renewal of residence permits; discussed with the initiative Libereco the development of a solidarity campaign and rehabilitation programs for Belarusian political prisoners. On November 8, after their meeting in Tokyo, the Foreign Ministers of the G7 countries and the EU High Representative called in their joint resolution Russia’s irresponsible rhetoric and its announced deployment of the tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus unacceptable and stated that any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by Russia would be met with severe consequences. On November 8, journalist Rikard Jozwiak announced that the Russian oligarch of Belarusian origin, Dzmitry Mazepin, the owner of Uralkhim, lost his appeal at the EU Court of Justice and remains sanctioned. On the same day, it was announced that the General Court of the EU dismissed the appeal of Belarusian businessman Mikalai Varabej, co-owner of the Bremino-Group, for the annulment of his Belarus sanctions designation. The court stated that the EU did not make an error in assessing that Varabej in his position as a leading businessman of key industry areas was benefiting from and supporting the regime. On November 10, the first Estonian-Belarusian conference took place in Tallinn. The conference was opened by the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Markus Tsakhna. The aim of the conference was to discuss Belarusian-Estonian relations, international strategy towards Belarus, means and ways for supporting the repressed Belarusians and political prisoners, and ways to hold the Lukashenka regime accountable. On November 11, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya met with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the sidelines of the meeting of European Socialists in Malaga. Both leaders discussed the recently adopted resolution on Belarus by the German Bundestag, and Tsikhanouskaya expressed her hopes of a smooth and prompt implementation of the resolution. The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces called on the German Chancellor to support the international investigation into the crimes of Lukashenka and, unilaterally, to support the investigations against Lukashenka’s crimes against humanity and illegal deportations of the Ukrainian children to Belarus. On November 12, the International Day of Solidarity with Belarus, the Belarusian president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė issued a joint article, which was published on the leading Lithuanian online media outlet Delfi.lt. The article says that despite the efforts of the Lukashenka regime to turn Belarusians and Lithuanians against each other, “together we defend freedom and democracy against the aggression of authoritarian regimes”. Both politicians underline that Lithuanians and Belarusians are bound deeper together than just by the geographical proximity of the two countries and by their joint history. There is a deep understanding of the problems and dreams of one another and the acknowledgment that the fates of the two nations are bound together.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
As it became known recently, in September 2023, Anatoly Starasvetsky, the husband of political prisoner Vitaliya Bandarenka, was detained immediately after a meeting with his wife on the way out of the women’s colony. He was placed in a temporary detention facility and later transferred to a pre-trial detention center. He is charged with facilitating extremist activities. Vitaliya Bandarenka was detained in March 2021 after returning from abroad. She was sentenced to four years in prison for participating in mass riots. Vitaliya and Anatoly married when she was already behind bars. On November 6, the birthday of the Belarusian journalist, editor-in-chief of the independent media portal Tut.by, Maryna Zolatava, the international organization Reporters Without Borders held an action “Postcards for Maryna”, in solidarity with her. Maryna Zolatava was detained in May 2021 and, in March 2023, sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment on charges of tax evasion, inciting hostility, and harming national security. In October 2022, Maryna Zolatava was included in the list of persons involved in “terrorist activities”, and in August 2023 — in the list of persons involved in “extremist activities”. The human rights community recognized Zolatava as a political prisoner. This is the third birthday that the journalist has met behind bars. On this day, postcards, and letters with words of support were delivered to the embassies of Belarus in Paris, London, Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, Bern, and Washington. Political prisoner, the chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize-2022, sentenced to 10 years in prison, Ales Bialiatski was placed in a cell-type room for far-fetched reasons. Also, the human rights defender is not allowed to see his lawyer for a long time. This was announced by his wife, Natallia Pinchuk, during her speech on November 6 in Strasbourg at the World Forum for Democracy-2023. On November 9, security officers came home to the parents of the famous Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenka with a search. Filipenka announced this in his blog. “My home is being searched. Seven people with machine guns. My father was taken away. ‘Say “thank you” to your son,’ they said to my mother. It is obvious that they are putting pressure on me and want me to stop speaking out in the European press,” he wrote. On November 10, it became known that the writer’s father was arrested for 13 days for reposting an article by the “Zerkalo” media. Sasha Filipenka is a Belarusian writer whose novels have been translated into 16 European languages. Filipenka actively opposes the Lukashenka regime and the war unleashed by Putin in Ukraine. In 2020, he was forced to leave the country and now lives in Switzerland. Since the beginning of the election campaign in 2020, at least 35 doctors have been convicted in criminal politically-motivated cases in Belarus; 15 of them are still in custody, reported the Human Rights Center “Viasna” on November 11. In addition, dozens of doctors have been subjected to arbitrary detention, trials, heavy fines, and administrative conviction for several days in inhuman conditions in isolation cells throughout Belarus. Reasons for persecution include participation in protests in 2020, support to families of political prisoners, disclosure of information about the mistreatment of political prisoners, etc. The authorities are trying to silence doctors in various ways and intimidate them. Many doctors are detained right at their workplaces, after which they are tried for “petty hooliganism”, “disobeying police officers”, “unauthorized picketing” or “extremism” for reposts of independent media news. Many doctors are fired because of “wrong” political beliefs and contracts for others are simply not renewed. Hundreds of qualified specialists have been forced to leave Belarus, due to difficult working conditions or political persecution, “Viasna” notes. As of November 11, there is a lack of 4,825 specialist doctors in the country, therefore, doctors are forced to take on additional burden. On November 12, leading Belarusian human rights organizations issued a joint statement on the International Day of Solidarity with Belarus. In the statement, they condemn the “inexplicable brutality” used by the Lukashenka regime to suppress peaceful protests in 2020. “Thousands of detained and beaten people, hundreds of people injured as a result of the use of weapons became victims of criminal actions by representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and special operations forces of the Armed Forces.” The authors of the statement recall the tragic death of Raman Bandarenka on November 12, 2020, and call it “one of the iconic symbols of sacrificial nonviolent resistance to totalitarianism in Belarus.” “Lack of investigation into this case has repeated the fate of about 5,000 cases of torture and other prohibited acts against protesters and dissidents, left by the authorities for three years without investigation. The executioners have gone unpunished, and victims and civil society forces who supported them have been subjected to unprecedented repression and persecution, including imprisonment.” Human rights defenders insist that “impunity is criminal because it has given rise to new crimes.” “The result of impunity was the weakening of state sovereignty, which led to the involvement of Belarus in the criminal support of the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” Authors of the statement demand that the authorities abandon intimidation and persecution of political opponents and dissidents; release all political prisoners and overturn politically motivated sentences. Human rights defenders insist that ensuring accountability for crimes against humanity is necessary to prevent their recurrence in the future and call on international organizations and democratic states to take more effective measures to end impunity. The statement was signed by the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Human Rights House named after Barys Zvoskau, the Legal Initiative, and the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities. On November 7, a regular meeting of the working group on the situation of Belarusians in Poland at the Polish Interior Ministry was held. On behalf of the Belarusian side, Volha Dabravolskaya, head of the Legal Support Department of the Belarusian Solidarity Center, and Kristina Rikhter, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s adviser on legal affairs, took part in the meeting. The participants of the meeting discussed a number of issues concerning Belarusians who moved to Poland. The first important topic was the legalization of children of Belarusian citizens born in Poland. Some families cannot legalize their children, as they do not have documents confirming Belarusian citizenship after their passports have expired. The Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that they receive appeals on this issue from Belarusians and assured it is a priority. The Polish travel document for foreigners was also discussed. The parties agreed to recognize it as an identity card. The working group will return to discussing the issues of extending the validity of the Polish travel document, obtaining a travel document before the expiration of the Belarusian passport, and extending the deadline for submitting applications for the issuance of a Polish travel document to Belarusians with a temporary residence permit (except for one issued on the basis of a humanitarian visa) after December 31, 2023, after consulting with relevant departments and officials. Representatives of the Polish Interior Ministry assured that the working group will continue to exist outside the political format at the level of consultations and exchange of expertise, which will allow the development of professional and practical solutions to improve the situation of Belarusians in Poland. The EU4Belarus – SALT II program, funded by the European Union, has announced a call for applications for fellowships to Belarusian lecturers, scientists, and PhD students, who have been under threats, suffered from persecution, or face risks of persecution on political grounds. The global objective of this action is to reinforce the resilience and capacity among the Belarusian people affected by the political crisis to achieve democratic changes in Belarus. The scholarship is intended for academic internship or dissertation research in European universities. Applications are accepted until December 15 and can be submitted in all fields of science. On November 12, the International Day of Solidarity with Belarus, public events were held by Belarusians in exile and their supporters in various places across Europe, including Vilnius, Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Gdansk, Lublin, Bialystok, and other cities in Poland, to commemorate the tragic death of Raman Bandarenka three years ago, support political prisoners, and express commitment to democratic change in Belarus. Raman Bandarenka came to the “Square of Changes” in Minsk on November 11, 2020, to stop the destruction of protest symbols by pro-Lukashenka thugs. He was brutally beaten and then taken to the Central Police Department, and from there to a hospital, where he died the next day. No one has been brought to justice for the murder of Raman. The criminal case initiated more than four months after his death was suspended “due to the lack of clarity of the person to be brought as an accused.” In Warsaw, the Belarusian Solidarity Center held the Raman Bandarenka Memorial Day on November 12. The event was attended by representatives of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus Pavel Latushka and Alina Koushyk, representatives of the Belarusian Solidarity Center, and the Polska 2050 party. The European Union issued a statement on the International Day of Solidarity with Belarus, on November 12. In the statement, EU member states and eight other states who joined it, reiterate their support for Belarus’ sovereignty and independence, express their solidarity with the will of the Belarusian people to live in a free and democratic country and condemn human rights violations in Belarus. They reiterate their call for the immediate and unconditional release of all arbitrarily detained persons, including political prisoners, lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers such as Ales Bialiatski, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, Maria Kalesnikava, Nastya Loika, Ihar and Darya Losik and Andrzej Poczobut. Further, they strongly condemn artificially created migratory pressure on the EU borders, the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, its participation in spreading propaganda and disinformation, and any involvement and assistance in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children. The EU member states support the right of the Belarusian people to choose their own future and will continue to speak with one voice in support of their democratic aspirations. They state that they will continue to stand by the Belarusian people in these difficult times and confirm their readiness to continue joint work with representatives of Belarusian democratic forces and civil society. A number of states and international organizations marked the International Solidarity Day with Belarus by issuing statements. The Polish Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to start an open dialogue with society and speaking about “the drama taking place in Belarus about thousands of innocent prisoners and hundreds of thousands of people seeking escape from repression abroad. Repression is systemic and widespread, affecting a significant part of society. They are also applied very harshly against the numerous Polish minorities, depriving them of the right to freely study the Polish language, develop their culture and cherish historical memory,” the statement says. The Latvian Foreign Ministry expressed in its statement “solidarity with all those people who, despite constant repression, continue to fight for a democratic and free Belarus in Europe” and said that Belarusians “can count on Latvia’s support for as long as it takes.” “The United States has the honor of #StandWithBelarus, while Belarusians around the world continue to fight for a bright future. #DayofSolidarity,” the US Embassy in Minsk said. NATO PA Chair Michal Szczerba said in his post “We are inspired by the struggle of the courageous people of Belarus for democracy and devastated by its victims. They remind us that democracy is valuable and must be constantly protected. Our Assembly continues to support Svetlana Tikhanouskaya and all those who fight for democracy and freedom, against autocracy and repression #StandwithBelarus.” The Minister for European Affairs and Defense of Ireland, Peter Burke, called for the release of political prisoners. “On this Day of Solidarity with Belarus, I reiterate the Council of Europe’s support for the democratic forces of Belarus and political prisoners fighting for freedom and justice,” wrote Maria Pejcinovic–Buric, Secretary General of the Council of Europe. In his statement, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel, assured of continued support for the Belarusian people on their path to democracy. The Special Representative of the Polish Foreign Ministry for Cooperation with the Democratic Forces of Belarus Artur Michalski said in his statement: “Belarusians are eager to have a free Homeland. They are thrown into prisons, they seek refuge abroad from persecution, or they close themselves out of fear. Some, like Raman Bandarenka, who was killed 3 years ago, gave their lives for the dignity of the people. Their sacrifice will not be in vain.” On November 8, just before the announced International Day of Solidarity with Belarus, the Council of Europe issued a statement condemning the Lukashenka regime’s complicity in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, condemning the involvement and assistance in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, urging to hold new free and fair elections according to international norms without intimidations and fear of persecution, stating the fact of a deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and ongoing ill-treatment, torture and incommunicado detention of many political prisoners.
The week was marked by an increase in the anti-Ukrainian statements in Belarusian and Russian propaganda apparently caused by the rise in the triumphal sentiments in Russia (and Belarus) associated with the shifting of the international focus from Ukraine to the Middle East.the “president” of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that due to the worsening situation in the Middle East, “Ukraine is shifting to the background.” “Ukraine will still be ours. Nobody needs Ukraine, only Russia and Belarus need it. Therefore, this region is our region. In the sense that we will be together,” said Lukashenka. On the same day, Lukashenka’s words were picked up by the official propaganda. At the political talk show “SASS is authorized to declare” on the state TV channel STV, a representative of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus Andrei Bogodel said that Ukraine belongs to the “Russian world”: “The war will be lost by Ukraine as a sovereign state — this is beyond any doubt. Maybe it [the war] will be frozen, unfrozen, and will take decades, but still, Ukraine will belong to the “Russian world.” Because it belongs to the ‘Russian world’ already,” Bogodel said. On November 8, a member of the Hungarian Parliament, leader of the radical right-wing “Our Home” political movement, László Toroczkai, stated on Belarusian television that “the Ukrainian regime oppresses the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia.” “The Hungarians gave up part of their territory for the sake of peace throughout Europe. And we don’t understand why the EU never talks about peace, about the possibilities of a peaceful settlement. They only talk about weapons, about military operations”, he said. On November 8, several propagandist Telegram channels spread a fake that the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, “is selling Ukrainian children to pedophiles in the West.” For example, the channel Nevolfovich, which is associated with the Security Council and the Ministry of Defense of Belarus, stated that according to an investigation “The Olena Zelenska Foundation, under the guise of a noble mission to save children from the Ukrainian conflict, took dozens of boys and girls outside Ukraine, and most of them fell into the networks of pedophiles.” The Olena Zelenska Foundation organizes treatment and rehabilitation in countries in Europe for Ukrainian children who suffered from Russian full-scale aggression. It is obvious that this anti-Ukrainian slander was invented in response to accusations against Russia and Belarus of the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children. Belarus remains the only country where the Day of the October Socialist Revolution of November 7, 1917, is officially celebrated. While speaking on this day on the Soloviev LIVE channel, propagandist and minister-counselor of the Belarusian Embassy to Moscow Aliaksandr Shpakouski said about Lukashenka’s role in Belarus that “history will remember those who took the country without a nuclear power plant and left with it” (referring to a famous expression attributed to Winston Churchill about Stalin’s role for the USSR: “Stalin took Russia with a horse and a plow and left with an atomic bomb”). On November 7, one of the most notorious propagandists Grigory Azarenok appeared on the STV channel with a pompous pamphlet that begins with the words “I want to find myself in a country where…” and is filled with myths about the “good life” in the USSR. The conclusion is: “Do you know many of such countries? I do. I look around and see it — this is Belarus of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Many people call this country “the last island of the Soviet Union”. They think they are insulting us. But we read the Gospel — and the Last will become the First.” On November 8, at a meeting of secretaries of the security councils of the CIS member states in Moscow, State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich stated that “the United States is behind the activation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Instead of cooling their heads and stopping this, the Americans are adding fuel to the fire.” At the same meeting, Volfovich said that Belarus is open to dialogue “on all issues,” but neighboring countries are preventing this. “All our messages and appeals to Poland and the Baltic countries – ‘Let’s talk constructively, including on the topic of migration, to find ways out of this situation, to find ways to solve it’ – remain unanswered.” He emphasized that “the migration threat does not come from Russia or Belarus.” Earlier, Aliaksandr Lukashenka blamed the migration crisis on the Belarusian border on the EU and said that he is “ready to step over this and start negotiating.” On November 8, Prosecutor General of Belarus Andrei Shved, speaking in China at a meeting of prosecutors of member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, said that the investigation into crimes of genocide against the Belarusian people during WWII started in 2021, is necessary to “prevent the glorification of Nazism.” “The events of 2020 [referring to the peaceful protests of the summer and autumn of 2020 that were bloodily suppressed by the police] showed that our society is not sufficiently aware of the crimes of Nazi Germany,” said Shved. He also stated that “in the policy of the countries of the collective West towards Russia and Belarus, continuity with the ideas of Nazi Germany is seen.” On November 10, Lukashenka said that Belarus should remain a “presidential republic”: “Belarus is a young state. The model that we have chosen for governing the country, a presidential republic, is optimal for our society, considering historical traditions and geopolitical situations. People should not only understand it but accept it as an axiom. Unfortunately, for a long time, under the guise of “democratic forms of political participation,” extremist groups actually operated to undermine our statehood,” said Lukashenka. On November 10, the Russian “president” Vladimir Putin awarded the Order of Friendship to the Belarusian pro-government Paralympic athlete Alexei Talay “for services in strengthening friendship and cooperation between peoples.” The Alexei Talay Foundation illegally brings Ukrainian children from the occupied territories of Ukraine to Belarus. Talay commented on the award: “We will continue to work in order to strengthen the United Fatherland from Brest to Vladivostok.” On November 11, Lukashenka congratulated Poland on the National Day of Independence. In his address, which was conciliatory in its nature, he made several mitigating statements: “Our common past includes a centuries-old common Christian and cultural heritage, broad and friendly contacts between the citizens of the two countries. I hope that Warsaw will listen to the voice of its citizens with a call for a life in peace and harmony with representatives of all nations and religions and will accept the hand of friendship and cooperation extended by Belarus.” Best regards,iSANS teamOn November 6, at a meeting with employees and constructors of the Belarusian nuclear power plant in Astravets,