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).
At least 876 acknowledged political prisoners (+7 over the last week) and at least 29 media workers remain in captivity. The number of political prisoners in today’s Belarus is higher than the overall number of such people in the 1980s USSR.
Acting civil administration in Minsk is using international attention to border crisis to maintain internal repressions. For instance, some of the journalists who have been detained earlier, are now charged under absurd «extremist legislation» and face up to 7 years in prison for running a news agency. In another case, nearly 200 civilians who were illegally put into detention centers across Belarus for their comments on social media, were not allowed to receive any items or mail for more than 6 weeks.
Following rumors that Poland will open the border to let Middle Eastern citizens into Germany, the migrants from field camp near Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing (about 2,000 people) took off last Monday and went to the border crossing. The rumor turned out being a forced fake, but no clashes with the Polish security forces occurred that day. Foreign citizens spent the whole day at Belarusian border checkpoint in violation of Belarus national laws), set up tents and spent the night at Belarusian checkpoint. Lukashena’s «border guards» did not interfere despite obvious violations of nearly a dozen national laws (both administrative and criminal).
The second major attempt to storm the border took place on Tuesday (although, migrants carry on with their efforts to illegally – and often violently – cross the border on a daily basis). Last Tuesday, hundreds of foreign citizens (who were illegally located in border zone of Belarus) were throwing stones at the Polish police officials who were provoked to respond with water cannons and stun grenades. A few hours later the attack ended as unexpectedly as it had started: Lukashenka’s military brought foreigners back to their makeshift camp. Almost immediately, the so called «investigation committee» arrived at the scene and opened a criminal case against the Polish border guards under the article 128 of Belarus Criminal code «Crimes Against the Security of Mankind.»
The border crisis is widely used by pro-Russian and pro-Lukashenka propaganda to promote its anti-Western narratives. On November 21, one of the most scandalous politicians from Russia, Vitaly Milonov, was granted access into the border zone to meet migrants and provoke them with anti-European rhetorics.
A few hours later, the tourists from the Middle East were removed from the makeshift camp and transferred to logistics warehouse near Polish border. Not surprisingly, the warehouse is owned by Bremino Group – a company sanctioned by the Unites States and related to tycoons known in media as «Lukashenka’s moneybags». Legal foundations of why «a private company» hosts hundreds of Middle Eastern travelers within its logistics terminal remain unknown.
On Monday evening, Lukashenka and Merkel spoke over the phone for around 50 minutes (including interpretation for both sides). It was Lukashenka’s first phone call with a Western leader in 15 months. According to Lukashenka’s spokesperson Natalia Eismant (who is generally known for misinformation), Lukashenka and Merkel discussed the creation of a «humanitarian corridor» between Belarus and Germany for 2,000 migrants currently in a border camp. Eismant claimed that Belarus agreed to send the remaining 5,000 migrants back home in exchange.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert denied that there has been an agreement on such a deal, but noticed that it is useful to speak with Minsk «to improve this humanitarian situation» even if the talks are with a leader whose legitimacy is not recognised by both the EU and Germany. In its official publications, Germany referred to Lukashenka as «Herr» thus underlining that a call with Angela Merkel does not mean recognition by default.
Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the contact between Belarus and Germany, calling it «very important». However, the Polish government doesn’t seem to share Russia’s and Germany’s enthusiasm. Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said the call between the Belarusian and German leaders was «not a good step». Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, too, criticised the appearance of a «separate negotiating track with the dictator, the illegitimate president». He added that at least one EU government wants to remove Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, from a sanctions list agreed to by EU foreign ministers earlier this week. According to Politico, Germany and Italy promoted this step.
Although the EU preliminary agreed new sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, it remains unclear what the final list would be. The EU sanctions should include terminating current leasing contracts with Belavia – however, there is still a lot ambiguity on the details. According to Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, the planes will have to be returned, otherwise the company will face legal action. Out of 30 planes in Belavia’s fleet, 17 are leased from Ireland. Media activist Anton Matolka reports that Minsk-based regime is minimizing its costs in advance and has already transferred 10 planes over the past 3 weeks.
Biden administration said it was preparing new sanctions targeting Lukashenka’s regime in coordination with the EU over the «inhumane facilitation» of migrants, but no details were available at the time of this publication.
Apart from sanctions, the European Commission has decided to allocate €700,000 to help migrants on the border. Funding will be channeled through the International Committee of the Red Cross to purchase food, blankets, medicines and hygiene products. In 2020, Belarusian Red Cross Society (БOKK) was accused of systemic participation in election fraud. БOKK representatives worked as team members at 362 polling stations where falsifications were proven by verified digital exit polls).
On Wednesday, Lukashenka and Merkel had another telephone call. Both contacts were widely disapproved by Belarusian activists and politicians and seriously hurt public trust in EU integrity as repressions continue.
CYBERATTACKS AGAINST NATO
U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a report on the involvement of Minsk-based regime in hacking and disinformation campaigns targeting CEE NATO members since at least 2016. Hacking operation, known as Ghostwriter, included attempts to instill conflict in NATO and obtain confidential information and spy on dissidents and independent media.
The targets included Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. Belarus’ independent media outlets and political opponents of Lukashenka were targeted along with NATO member states and their partners. Mandiant’s experts cited compelling forensic evidence in support of their argument that Belarus played a key role in the hacking, and wrote that there has been no uncovered proof that Russia was also involved in the operation.
The report notes that since the elections, Ghostwriter disinformation operations have been more closely aligned to Lukashenka’s political agenda, attempting to create tensions in Polish-Lithuanian relations. Among the false narratives, Belarus-backed group promoted false claims that NATO was planning to withdraw from Lithuania in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and that nuclear waste from Lithuania was threatening Poland.