- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 30)
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 20, the State Military-Industrial Committee reported that testing of prototypes of Volat-V2 armored personnel carriers (APCs) (MZKT-690003) continued. The APC is designed to transport personnel to the place of combat mission fulfillment, provide fire support, protect them from being hit by small arms, destroy enemy anti-tank weapons, etc. On November 21, the Minister of Defense of Kazakhstan Ruslan Zhaksylykov arrived on a working visit to Minsk. Negotiations with the Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin were held in the framework of the visit. As a result, a plan of bilateral military cooperation for 2024 was signed. On 22 November, a joint meeting of the Councils of Foreign and Defense Ministers and the Committee of Secretaries of Security Councils of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was held in Minsk. The meeting considered issues related to improving the composition of the special-purpose forces of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force, the peacekeeping and national contingents of the Collective Rapid Deployment Force, and the CSTO Collective Aviation Force. On November 23, a session of the CSTO Collective Security Council was held in Minsk. Apart from the standard narratives of anti-Western propaganda, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stated: “Reproaches about the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in our country are simply absurd”. It should be noted that now there is no reliable data that confirms the presence of nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. On November 22, the 174th training range of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces was reported to have hosted a training camp for non-staff training on the use of 23-mm twin ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft systems. Earlier , it was reported that in 2023 ZU-23-2 antiaircraft guns began to be removed from storage for exercises in firing. On November 22-23, a training camp with officials of the territorial defense authorities (TDA) was carried out at the training range “Losvido”. Among others, representatives of the State Inspectorate for Fauna and Flora Protection participated in the training. In 2023, the inspectorate was included in the TDA. On November 24, it was reported about the completion of the fourth training course of the servicemen of the special purpose units of the internal troops. The instructors at the course included mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner”. On November 25, those called up for compulsory military service during the fall draft took the military oath. According to the Defense Ministry, more than 8,000 people called up for compulsory military service and reserve service took the oath. At the oath-taking ceremony, Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Zhuk said that “this year the system of training of servicemen … has been very seriously clarified in order to teach what is necessary in war”. According to the official, the strengthening of border protection with Ukraine will continue in 2024.
On November 21, Russia and Belarus blocked Estonia’s candidacy for rotating Chairmanship of the OSCE. This action not just prevented Estonia from becoming the next country to carry out the Chairmanship role, but also prevented the organization from taking decisions in regard to field missions, events, and adopting the budget. Among other things, this has resulted in blocking all OSCE missions to Ukraine. On November 22, the Lithuanian Migration Department announced it has detected over 2,000 cases of a threat to national security of the country, a year after the questionnaire for Russian and Belarusian citizens applying for residence permits was introduced. The applicants must give certain personal information and explain their stance towards the war in Ukraine in the questionnaire. In total, 1,644 decisions regarding a threat to national security of the country by Belarusians were made, in 562 cases the temporary residence permits were denied, in 343 cases the prolongation of temporary residence permits was denied, in 450 cases the existing residence permits were cancelled. On November 22, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine with the majority of votes adopted sectoral economic sanctions against 300 entities and over 150 individuals, mainly Russian. Among those sanctioned were three Belarusian companies and director of the Belarusian railways Uladzimir Marozau. The sanctions ban all transactions with Belarusian and Russian companies and residents, including through third parties, for goods and services of a military purpose or dual use. Moreover, all transactions and financial obligations with the blacklisted companies will be cancelled, their assets in Ukraine frozen, and a ban on transit of goods produced by the blacklisted companies is imposed. The sanctions came into force after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky signed them on November 24, and will be valid for 50 years. According to President Zelensky, this decision comes as a synchronization of sanctions already imposed by the West. On November 24, the Minister of Justice of Latvia Inese Libina-Egnere stated that Latvia does not give up the intention to restrict the movement of vehicles with Belarusian registration. Latvia will continue to look for mechanisms how to restrict the movement of cars with Belarusian license plates due to the assumption that possibly after the ban of vehicles with Russian registration in Latvia, the owners might easily obtain new license plates in Belarus and enter Latvia again. On November 24, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced her working visits in the upcoming week: in the beginning of the week Tsikhanouskaya will pay a visit to Germany where she will meet Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, attend the Summit of the German party of the Greens in Karlsruhe, meet with members of the Bundestag and discuss visas for Belarusians, support to political prisoners and bringing the Lukashenka regime to justice. As announced, Tsikhanouskaya will be on a working visit in Latvia on November 27-28, where meetings with the Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics, Prime Minister Evika Silina, Mayor of Riga and the members of the parliamentary group “For democratic Belarus” are on the agenda. The topics to be discussed in Latvia are the situation on the Belarusian-Latvian border, legalization of Belarusians in Latvia, among other things. A day before, Tsikhanouskaya issued a video statement in support of the Christmas charity campaign “Christmas post” aimed at giving Christmas miracle to the children of political prisoners. According to Tsikhanouskaya, children of political prisoners can write their wishes in a letter, and every one of us can become a “magician” and fulfil their dream.
Last week, the Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania saw a decrease of illegal migrant’s influx from Belarus. The Latvian Minister of Interior stated on November 24 that the decrease of migration flows at the Belarusian borders with the neighboring EU countries is due to the increase of the migrants influx on the Russian-Finish border. According to the Latvian official, the migrants that arrive at the Russian-Finnish border have Belarusian visas. The current situation at the Russian borders to the Baltic and Nordic countries resembles the similar situation of Russia and Belarus orchestrated migration crisis at the Polish border in 2021 and is most likely aimed at destabilizing NATO.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus is the leader in Europe in terms of the number of prisoners per capita. According to the Wisevoter statistics, Belarus ranks first in Europe in terms of the number of prisoners per capita (and 11th in the world) – 345 prisoners per 100 thousand population, in total – more than 30 thousand people, according to assessments by Belarusian human rights NGOs. Over the past five years, this indicator has hardly changed, although the authorities declare a decrease in crime in the country. Lawyer of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Pavel Sapelka, draws attention to the fact that Belarus last published data on prisoners openly in 2018. Even when reporting to the UN, Belarusian representatives hide statistics. Therefore, analytical information is obtained from individual statements of officials, testimonies of former prisoners, their defenders, employees of the penitentiary system, as well as in the analysis of registered crimes and sentences. Over the past five years, there have been indeed fewer murders, grievous bodily harm, robberies, and hooliganism. On the other hand, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, over the past three years, more than 16 thousand crimes of an “extremist nature” have been registered, which had been rare before the 2020 elections. The KGB and the Investigative Committee do not hide that such cases are now a priority. According to estimates of human rights activists, more than 60% of the defendants in “political” cases were sentenced either to imprisonment or restriction of freedom in Belarus. Article 369 of the Criminal Code “on insulting government officials” is a leader in the prosecution of those who disagree with the regime, as well as article 342, punishing for participation in protests. Until 2020, in most cases, people detained for these violations were given administrative penalties – fines or arrests for several days, while since 2021, mass criminal trials have begun. In some cases, people are convicted under a more serious article 293 of the Criminal Code, “participation in mass riots”, up to 8 years in prison. According to human rights activists, as of August 2, 2023, there are 11 political prisoners in the country who celebrated their 18th birthday behind bars, or are now minors. All of them were minors at the time of detention and were sentenced to imprisonment. According to international standards of human rights protection, the deprivation of liberty of a minor is allowed only in exceptional cases, clearly spelled out in international treaties, and is allowed only for a short period of time. On November 21, Aliaksandr Kaneusky, the son of political prisoner and activist Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, was supposed to be released after 15 days of administrative arrest, however he wasn’t released. It became known that on November 24, the court of the Central District of Homel considered an administrative case under part 2 of Article 19.11 (Distribution of extremist materials) against Aliaksandr. The results of the hearing are unknown. 48-year-old political prisoner Dzmitry Sonchyk, sentenced to 3 years in prison for comments, can be forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital. Sonchyk had a heart attack, and then a stroke in November 2021. He spent about a month in the city hospital, handcuffed to a bed, under the supervision of guards and a video camera, and then he was returned to colony, where he was cared for by his cellmates. The political prisoner allegedly has mental health problems, under this pretext colony doctors give him some medications and plan to transfer him for examination to Homel psychiatric hospital despite his refusals. Former prisoners who were held together with Dzmitry Sonchyk are concerned about his condition after his “treatment” in the colony. They also said that he had problems receiving correspondence. On November 22, another Catholic priest was detained – 48-year-old Vyacheslau Pyalinak from Brest. He is a priest of the Diocese of Vitebsk, but now serves in the Brest parish of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He has been in the priesthood for 21 years. In 2011-2015, he was the first personal secretary of the Apostolic nuncio, permanent representative of the Roman Pope in Belarus, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. According to the parishioners, Father Vyacheslau Pyalinak was detained after the morning service, the security forces took his phone and laptop from him. The reasons for the detention are unknown. According to unofficial sources, he was accused of “extremism”. Such accusation is a broad concept in Belarus and means any actions or statements in public or on social media that are considered critical of the current regime. This is the second Catholic priest to be persecuted by the Lukashenka regime in a week. On November 17, Valozhyn’s parish priest, Henrikh Akalatovich, was arrested. From now on, to leave Belarus for permanent residence in other countries, it will be necessary to obtain a special permit from the migration authorities. The resolution of the Council of Ministers from November 20, introducing these changes, was published on the National Legal Portal on November 23 and came into force on that day. Previously, the permit was issued at the Belarusian consulates abroad. Now the application will need to be submitted in the territorial division of the Department of Citizenship and Migration (OGiM). Together with it, it is necessary to submit a questionnaire on education, specialization, tax obligations, alimony, as well as contacts of relatives. After submission of the application, the OGiM will check whether a person has debts or a ban on leaving, and in the case of conscripts a request to the military enlistment office will be sent. Government agencies process application within 20 days, and the drafting of a decision on registration of departure for permanent residence outside Belarus takes about 15 days. The application may be denied. On November 23, the Belarusian Solidarity Fund BYSOL launched a Christmas campaign for children of political prisoners. “Many Belarusian children have one of their parents (and sometimes both) in currently custody for political reasons. Many families are forced to celebrate New Year’s holidays in a foreign country, separated, unable to make traditional gifts to their relatives,” the BYSOL webpage says. To receive assistance, relatives of political prisoners or released political prisoners can fill out an application until December 9, 2023. It is intended to pay 100 Euro to each child. The declared amount to be collected is 20 thousand Euro. By the day of November 25, 11,243 Euro had been collected. The total amount of donations that the Belarusian Solidarity Fund BYSOL attracted in 2022 from private and institutional donors to help those repressed amounted to about two million Euro. This was announced by the co-founder of the organization Andrey Stryzhak. The fund is now finishing payments within the framework of the solidarity marathon “We care!” (BYSOL was instructed to distribute 100 thousand Euro), which took place in the summer of 2023, and is preparing to conduct an audit on the use of these funds. “After all payments are made and the audit is carried out, we will start considering options for requesting the next tranche, because people are constantly addressing us with requests for support,” Stryzhak said. On November 23, the Minsk City Court sentenced 58-year-old Yury Yurenya to five years in colony on charges of financing activities of an extremist formation. The reason for the case was that from August 2020 to March 2021, he allegedly made more than 100 money transfers in the amount of USD 1,885. Yury Yurenya pleaded not guilty, saying that he transferred money to charitable organizations. In July 2023, his son, Vitaly Yurenya, was sentenced to three years in colony on the same charges. The trial was held behind closed doors. In October, the Ministry of Internal Affairs added Vitaly Yurenya to the list of “extremists”. Blogger Uladzimir Tsyganovich, who was sentenced to 15 years in the case of leading opposition activist Sergei Tsikhanousky, will be tried on charges of “malicious disobedience to the colony administration.” In April this year, he was already tried under these charges and was sentenced to an additional year in a colony. Now he is facing yet another trial — and again for disobedience. A new case will be considered in the court of the Valkavysk district on November 30. Uladzimir Tsyganovich faces up to two more years in prison. A draft amendment to the visa regulations, which will allow changing the marks on the visas of the holders of the Pole’s card is being prepared in Poland. Currently, visas issued on the basis of the Pole’s card are marked with the purpose of issuing “18”. It is proposed to change this and indicate “23” as the purpose of issuing – the same number is stated on visas issued for several other reasons, for example, to participants of the Poland Business Harbor program and those traveling for “other purposes”. The amendments are introduced because in Belarus citizens are obliged to notify the internal affairs bodies or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of a foreign state documents (including the Pole’s card) that give the right to any benefits and advantages. Therefore, the amendments aim at preventing the identification of the fact that the visa was issued based on the Pole’s card. Due to the special mark “18” on the visa, the regime could easily identify holders of the Pole’s card and, as a result, put them under pressure or persecute them. In a number of cases, the authorities required the holders of the Pole’s card to refuse the document under the threat of dismissal from work. More than 2,400 children from Ukraine aged 6 to 17 years who were taken to various institutions in Belarus allegedly for recovery, have been identified, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a briefing in Washington on November 20. He commented on the report of the Humanities Research Laboratory of the Yale School of Public Health on the transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus from February 24, 2022 to October 30, 2023. According to Miller, the report showed “close coordination between Russian and Belarusian officials” in organizing these movements. “Belarus is an accomplice of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine. This is not a disinterested third country that provides asylum to children in the conflict zone,” the State Department official stressed. They mainly take out children from vulnerable groups, he said, including alleged orphans, children with disabilities, children from low-income families and from families of Ukrainian military servicemen. According to Pavel Latushka, deputy head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus and head of the National Anti-Crisis Management (NAU), “there are documents signed by Lukashenka himself. This is his order on the allocation of funding to take children out of the occupied territories. Lukashenka himself publicly confirms this. The most interesting thing is that Lukashenka signed these documents in Moscow, they have a number and date on them.” According to Latushka, indoctrination and “re-education” of these children is carried out in Belarus based on ideology, culture, history, and propaganda that meets the interests of Russia and the Lukashenka regime, as well as military training of these children. The NAU team has submitted two communications with materials on the deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus to the International Criminal Court. According to the international law, this is a war crime. Earlier, the European Parliament asked the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Lukashenka on suspicion of illegally deporting Ukrainian children. Answering the journalist’s question about “whether it is time for the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Lukashenka,” Matthew Miller said that this issue is within the competence of the court.
On November 18, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka congratulated Latvia on the 105th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia. In his address he stated: “Belarusians have always sincerely rejoiced at the success of their Latvian friends; they had idols among the figures of Latvian cinema and entertainment. And they never dictated to you who should be a leader of your country and which way you should develop… I sincerely wish the Latvian people peace, prospects, and opportunities to strengthen statehood, not at the cost of relations with their neighbors”. Two weeks before, on November 3, the Investigative Committee of Belarus (SK) opened a criminal case under the article “Crimes against the security of humanity” against “unnamed officials” of Latvia in connection with the migration crisis at the border. In the official commentary of the SK, propaganda expressions, such as “mercenaries in uniform”, “followers of Eurofascism”, “punitive battalions of the European Union” were used. “Anarchy at the border is due to the tacit consent of the officials of the Republic of Latvia, who are promoting the ideas of racial superiority and authoritarianism,” says the statement. On November 21, the Vice Speaker of the Polish Senate, Maciej Żywno, in an interview with Wirtualna Polska, said that Warsaw needs to start negotiations with Lukashenka. According to Żywno, “Warsaw has no choice” and “Poland cannot afford to maintain relations with a neighboring country at the current level.” Warsaw “must stop resistance” and start “difficult negotiations with Belarus,” he said. On the next day, the Belarusian state media outlet Belarus Segodnya (SB) published a comment on Żywno’s statement by a deputy of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, Sergei Klishevich. In his comment, Klishevich never mentioned the reason for freezing of the Polish-Belarusian relations, namely, complicity of the Lukashenka regime in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. He said that Mr. Żywno “sees that Poles want to live normally [with Belarus]. They want to communicate, make friends, trade, visit each other – as we did before. There is no other choice. It is necessary to sit down at the negotiating table with Belarusians, resolve issues and coexist normally,” said Klishevich. On November 21, Sputnik.by (the Belarusian branch of the Russian propaganda state agency Sputnik) held a “video-bridge” entitled “Digital proxy wars: how social networks manipulate the consciousness of citizens” with the participation of pro-Kremlin experts from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The speaker from Belarus, Head of the pro-government Belarusian Union of Journalists, Andrey Krivosheyev, said that “relations between Belarus and Russia are the essence, the meaning of our President’s policy”. He also spoke out against NGOs: “Non-governmental organizations, “Sorosians”, carried out information counteraction targeting our allied relations. These NGOs disguised themselves as media but in fact they were propagandists… Now, after the events of 2020, the information space has been cleansed,” said Krivosheyev. On November 22, Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Piotr Parkhomchik, during his speech in the “parliament”, which was broadcast by the state media, said that “European businessmen are looking for opportunities to return to the markets of Belarus.” According to Parkhomchik, the departure of Western companies and the impossibility of cooperation with them due to sanctions “will end someday.” Parkhomchik noted that the return of Western companies to the Belarusian markets is already taking place in accordance with “slick schemes” and with the assistance of certain “neighboring countries.” On November 22, one of the most notorious Belarusian propagandists, Grigory Azarenok, on his stream, together with another propagandist Pyotr Petrovsky, said: “An empire is the broad-minded people. These are the people like Aliaksandr Lukashenka.” “There will be no Europe [in the future], because it is destroying itself,” said Azarenok. Pyotr Petrovsky said: “They tell us: ‘You have a post-imperial complex, a post-colonial complex.’ They do not separate empire from imperialism. The Empire is big people. These are people with a broad soul. But in Europe, they are small, miserable.” On November 23, speaking at a session of the Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Minsk, Lukashenka said that the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is not a threat, but a “diplomatic gesture”: “We, I repeat this for the hundredth time, do not threaten anyone. We are simply learning “diplomatic etiquette” from those who made the language of force a global trend.” “Only the presence of powerful weapons guarantees security in the region and gives us the right of the voice in the international arena,” said Lukashenka. On November 23, the Belarusian propagandist Alexey Dzermant stated that “Russia is a global country, therefore, must have a global ideology.” This is how Dzermant commented on the statement of the chair of the Russian Investigative Committee’s Alexander Bastrykin about the need to create a state ideology for Russia. “Russia has several exceptional features, such as Cosmism and Eurasianism. Their existence determines that Russia must not only develop an internal ideology, but also bring a certain idea to the world, just as the USSR once brought the idea of socialism to the world,” said Dzermant.
iSANS teamBest regards,