- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 24)
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).
From October 9 to 13, the Edelweiss training center (Kyrgyz Republic) hosted an active phase of the “Unbreakable Brotherhood-2023” exercise with the CSTO collective peacekeeping forces. During the exercise, training and combat tasks were practiced at checkpoints, during the escort of convoys and cargo, the liberation of populated areas, the release of hostages, and the provision of humanitarian assistance. National contingents of peacekeeping forces of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, as well as operational groups of the Joint Staff and the CSTO Secretariat, took part in the exercise. A peacekeeping unit of the 103rd Airborne Assault Brigade and units of the internal troops took part in the exercise on behalf of Belarus. On October 10-12, the 23rd session of the Belarusian-Russian intergovernmental commission for military-technical cooperation was held. The event discussed issues of current interaction and prospective projects of cooperation in the military-technical sphere. The final minutes of the joint meeting, two contracts, and a road map for the implementation of projects in the military-technical sphere in the interests of third countries were signed at the end of the session. The content of the documents is not disclosed. On October 11, the scientific and practical conference “Actual issues of automation of unit management in conditions of active use of unmanned aircraft systems and means of combating them” was held in Osipovichi. The conference included an exhibition of modern robotic systems for reconnaissance and electronic warfare, as well as a practical integrated training session with live firing and the use of attack and reconnaissance drones. On 11 October, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin and Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces Andrei Lukyanovich made a working visit to the Luninets military airfield, where the radio technical center of the 8th radio technical brigade and the 56th anti-aircraft missile regiment are located. During the visit, they heard a report from the head of the radio-technical center, as well as studied the condition of military equipment on combat duty. We would like to remind you that a new anti-aircraft missile regiment was formed in Luninets in 2023. Also, active construction work continues at the airfield. On October 12, it became known, that in the night from October 6 to October 7, two Belarusian volunteer soldiers of the “Volat” battalion of the Kalinowski regiment died in combat exercising a combat task in Bakhmut direction in Ukraine. The situation with the field camp of PMC “Wagner” mercenaries has not changed. In the camp, there are 99 tents left or 34% of their original number. At the same time, around 1,040 units of equipment (mainly passenger cars) remain in the camp. A battalion tactical exercise with units of the 120th Mechanized Brigade took place at the 227th Borisovsky Combined Arms Training Range. During the exercise, servicemen practiced countering sabotage and reconnaissance groups.
On October 9, the Leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus (UTC), Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, received a “Women for Peace and Security Award” from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Denmark. Tsikhanouskaya dedicated this award to the political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk and all courageous Belarusian women. On October 10, a year after the Council of Europe launched its Contact Group on Relations with Belarus, the Office of Democratic Belarus was opened in the building of the Council. The Office will be used for the Contact Group meetings and consultations as well as inter-parliamentary cooperation. On October 10, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya held several meetings during her working visit to Denmark: met with the Speaker of the Parliament, members of Parliament, and the Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to discuss the situation of Belarusians in Denmark, mainly due to the recent decree of Lukashenka; proposed to consider expired Belarusian passports valid, to extend the validity of residence permits and begin issuing foreigner’s passports. The leader of democratic forces also presented the project of a new Belarusian passport and asked for Denmark’s support for it. Issues such as holding the Lukashenka regime’s representatives accountable in the framework of the universal jurisdiction, closing loopholes in sanctions, and lifting visa restrictions for Belarusians were also discussed. In a meeting with the newly elected President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Michal Szczerba, Tsikhanouskaya proposed to hold a debate focused solely on Belarus, appoint a special rapporteur, and send delegations of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to Vilnius and Warsaw to meet with the families of the repressed and civil society members. The Head of the UTC also met with the Ambassadors of Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Lithuania, and Croatia in Denmark to discuss the support to political prisoners, international strategy vis-à-vis Belarus, and coordinated actions in international organizations. On October 11, it was announced that Poland stopped stamping Belarusian passports at border crossing checkpoints while entering the country. In this way, Poland seeks to spare Belarusians living in Poland from having to change their documents due to the ending of empty pages in passports. On October 12, Belarusian Ambassador to Israel Yevgenij Vorobyev informed that three Belarusians died as a result of the HAMAS attack on Israel. Earlier, it was stated that a woman and her son were severely injured during the attack on the Israeli city of Ashkelon as they were attempting to get to the shelter. According to the diplomat, over 500 calls requesting assistance or information have been received in the Embassy. Starting from October 11, Lithuanian Bank Šiaulių bankas completely discontinued payment card operations on the territory of Belarus. Until this date, the card payments for goods and services of this bank were restricted in Belarus. Previously, the SEB Bank and Luminor Bank discontinued their card operations in Belarus. Following the Šiaulių bankas, Bank Revolut announced on October 13 blocking all card operations in Belarus immediately. Up until October 13, Revolut allowed customers traveling to Belarus to make payments and withdraw cash, but only limited amounts.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On October 9, consideration of the third criminal case against political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk ended. She was found guilty of malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony and sentenced to one year in prison. Previously, she had already been sentenced to one year imprisonment under the same charges in April 2022. If not for the new case, she would have been released on August 6, 2023. Prior to these two sentences, in June 2021 Palina was tried and convicted for two years of imprisonment for “violence against a police officer” for scratching a policeman during a search of her apartment as well as for slandering the President and a representative of the authorities. On the first day of the latest trial, Sharenda-Panasiuk complained about the harsh conditions of detention and the pressure she was subjected to in the colony. She said that for the entire time, she was in detention, she spent more than 200 days in a punishment cell, and in the Rechitsa temporary detention facility, where she was held while the trial was going on, she was not given bedding and had to sleep on the floor. Palina also mentioned the beating in the colony by other convicts. According to Sharenda-Panasiuk and her relatives, the beating was organized by the administration. On October 11, a new trial was held over political prisoner and former leader of the unregistered youth opposition movement the Young Front, Zmitser Dashkevich, who was supposed to be released in July after 16 months of imprisonment. He was left behind bars in connection with charges of malicious disobedience to the requirements of the colony administration. Dashkevich faces up to one year of imprisonment. In detention, Zmitser Dashkevich has been repeatedly placed in a punishment cell. He was put on the list of “extremists”, which imposed certain restrictions on him. His wife Nasta Dashkevich was also tried for gross violation of public order and sentenced to three years of imprisonment with a referral to an open-type correctional institution. The State Security Committee of Belarus included human rights activist Nasta Loika, founder of the Belarusian human rights center Human Constanta, in “the list of terrorists». Human Constanta is engaged in the protection of human rights, the promotion of anti-discrimination and human rights education, digital freedoms and rights. On June 20, 2023, the Minsk City Court sentenced Nasta Loika to seven years’ imprisonment on charges of incitement to hostility for a report on the persecution of anarchists in Belarus in 2017-2018, in which she criticized the actions of Belarusian security forces. The trial was held behind closed doors. Apart from Nasta Loika, psychologist Andrey Russkich, IT specialist Aliaksandr Leonovich, PhD Anna Skrigan, Aliaksei Kavaliou, Sergey Rudenkou, and musician Aliaksei Kuzmin were added to the list. A case against a citizen of Ukraine, Ekaterina Bryukhanova, was considered this week in Brest. Bryukhanova moved to Belarus in 2016, she worked as a translator from Chinese. She was accused of facilitating extremist activities by sending two videos with Russian military equipment to the Zerkalo media (successor of TUT.by), recognized as an “extremist formation”. The videos were found in Bryukhanova’s phone on July 25, 2023, when she was passing the Belarus border. She was detained the same day. The prosecutor requested two and a half years of penal colony for her. The verdict in her case is not yet known. On October 11, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, which regulates the religious sphere and obliges all religious organizations to undergo re-registration. Earlier this year, all opposition parties were liquidated the same way. The situation of religious organizations will become much tougher, should the law be adopted. For example, in places of worship, it is planned to prohibit the use of any symbols other than religious and to demonstrate texts or photos that, according to the authorities, are aimed at inciting hostility. Communities whose activities are “directed against the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus, its constitutional system and civil accord” will be banned. The Belarusian authorities often recognize criticism in their address as such prohibited activity. They will be able to liquidate a religious organization if its work “does not correspond to the internal and foreign policy of the Republic of Belarus”, “discredits the state” or “engages in extremist activities”. The new version of the law has already been adopted in the first reading. On September 26, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the Government of Belarus in violation of international human rights law by imprisoning journalist Igar Losik. The Working Group concluded that “the arrest and detention of Losik were based solely on his journalistic activity and his exercise of the freedoms of expression and of association.” Prior to his arrest, Losik worked as a consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and ran Belarus of the Brain, a popular Telegram channel. Around the time of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, it was the second-most viewed Telegram channel in the country. On June 25, 2020, he was arrested and initially charged with “violating public order,” for using Belarus of the Brain to create public disturbances ahead of the 2020 election. During his detention, Igar Losik was held incommunicado and was reportedly pressured, under threat of physical violence to him and his family, to confess to the charges. On December 15, 2020, a second charge was brought against Losik for “organizing mass disturbances.” On March 11, 2021, authorities brought two additional charges against Losik for preparation for “inciting social discord” and for “illegal use of signs prohibited by international law.” After five months of a closed-door trial, Losik was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. His appeal was rejected. Following his conviction, Losik was transferred to a high-level security prison where he was allowed to receive correspondence only once a month and receive visitors, other than his lawyer, only twice a year. In January 2023, a court sentenced Losik’s wife, Darya, to two years in prison on the charge of facilitating extremist activity. The politically motivated charges were related to Darya’s attempts to petition for her husband’s release. Pavel Latushka, the head of National Anti-Crisis Management, announced on October 9 that the Polish prosecutor’s office decided to put on the wanted list a number of Belarusian security forces officers suspected of acts of violence on the territory of Belarus. They can be detained and brought to justice under the universal jurisdiction in accordance with the national legislation of Poland or other countries. Victims of violence in Belarus have submitted applications to the prosecutor’s offices of several countries to initiate criminal proceedings on the facts of crimes related to violence committed against them during detention or imprisonment. Applications were submitted in Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, and other countries. The Leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya endorsed the Reporters Without Borders campaign for the release of Maryna Zolatava, the chief editor of TUT.by. The campaign “Postcards for Maryna” is running until the 6th of November. The project aims to support Maryna and all politically imprisoned journalists in Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya joined the campaign and recorded a video in support of Maryna: “You always upheld the highest standards of journalism and set an example for your colleagues. No matter how difficult the situation, you always found a way out and inspired those around you with your determination. Now, every day for you is a marathon. A marathon of fighting for your life, your health, and your dignity. I have no doubt that you can withstand this trial”. The UN Human Rights Committee registered an individual petition of human rights defender and former political prisoner Leanid Sudalenka. In September 2021, he was sentenced to three years in prison on the charges of organization and financing of actions that grossly violate public order. The human rights defender served his full term and was released a month ago. Leonid Sudalenka notes the UN mechanisms of human rights protection are important as they provide an opportunity to document human rights violations in detail, even when Belarus refuses to comply with the Committee’s resolutions. “The human rights situation in Belarus should remain on the agenda and remind the community of the need for solidarity initiatives, support for prisoners and those who are persecuted, and holding the Belarusian authorities accountable,” said Leanid Sudalenka.
On October 9, the Director General of the state film company Belarusfilm, Yuri Aleksey, said in an interview with the propagandist Grigory Azarenok for the STV that he wants to make a film about Aliaksandr Lukashenka: “You know, I think this needs to be done (a film about Lukashenka). This is the man who made this country, the man who leads Belarusians along their path. We live in unique times. I believe that the time is approaching when we will discuss the possibility of this film.” In the same interview, Aleksey stated that “there is no place for oppositionists at Belarusfilm.”. On October 9, the TV channel Belarus 1 (a division of the state media holding BTRC) released a propaganda film about Italy. The film included interviews with residents of the city of Alghero (Sardinia), from which state TV journalists took only negative assessments of the situation, for example, complaints about rising prices, taxes, and the lack of tourists from Russia. In their report, journalists have constantly led respondents to the conclusion that if there were no military assistance to Ukraine, the economic situation in Italy would be better. The film crew managed to come to Italy despite sanctions against the BTRC by the EU, the U.S., and Ukraine. On October 9, the state newspaper Minskaya Pravda published an interview with the chairman of the Jewish Religious Association of Belarus, Artur Livshits. An interview entitled “HAMAS attacks continue unabated. What do Jews in Belarus and Israel think about this?” was published after an international scandal caused by the publication in Minskaya Pravda of an openly anti-Semitic article by RT columnist Igor Molotov, in which he demanded to drop a thermonuclear bomb on Israel and called the initial successes of HAMAS “a victory for Minsk and Moscow.” A day later, the outlet deleted Molotov’s article. It is obvious that the interview with the head of the Jewish community was published in order to mitigate the negative effect of his piece. On October 9, the Ambassador of Belarus in Moscow Dmitry Krutoy met with the First Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Alexei Gromov, who is responsible for relations with the media and is considered the coordinator of the Russian propaganda machine. At the meeting, the creation of a “Union media holding” between Russia and Belarus was discussed, as well as the expansion of broadcasting of the Belarusian state media in Russia and the Russian media in Belarus. On October 10, a talk show on the state STV TV channel discussed Belarusian media. “Political scientist” Vadim Gigin, in an interview with propagandist Grigory Azarenok, said that the Belarusian propaganda should not stop at the local level: “Lukashenka often goes out into the big world, and it is time for us to correspond to this, and not just repeat “what a wise policy the Head of State pursues.” What are we doing to ensure that the President’s wisdom is realized in concrete actions? Which Belarusian journalists went to African countries (after the intensification of relations with Belarus in September 2023) to make reports from there? What do we know about Equatorial Guinea? Lukashenka told Putin after his meeting with Kim Jong-un “Let’s do something for the three [states]” – who of us went to Pyongyang to cover the situation there? Our citizens get information about North Korea from YouTube, created by the American intelligence”. Noteworthy, Gigin has been under EU sanctions since 2010. On October 11, Ksenia Lebedeva, a journalist for the state channel Belarus 1 (BTRC), expressed a conspiracy theory on her Telegram channel that Israeli intelligence was behind the HAMAS attacks on Israel. “There are emerging versions that the war between Palestine and Israel was provoked by the Mossad (the Israeli secret service) in order to resettle the Israelis to Ukraine,” she wrote. In August 2023, Lebedeva came under EU sanctions for spreading Russian narratives about Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition and inciting hatred. On October 11, the Telegram channel “Zheltye Slivy” which is believed to have close ties to the Belarusian law enforcement agencies, called the story about 40 children killed by HAMAS terrorists whose heads were cut off, a fake. The message was picked up and re-posted by other media and private channels of Belarusian propagandists. Along with other anti-Israeli publications last week, this trend could not go unnoticed in Israel. On October 11, the Israeli broadcasting corporation KAN stated: “Anti-Israeli propaganda in Belarus continues. One of the resources associated with the apparatus of Aliaksandr Lukashenka states that the massacres of civilians, including children, in the south of Israel are “fakes by Israeli journalists” … It is worth noting that the Belarusian press takes a clear anti-Israeli position, and in one of its editorial articles, one author even called for dropping nuclear bomb on Israel,” says the KAN in its statement. On October 12, the “international” forum of the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO) “History for the Future. Russia and Belarus” was held in Minsk. At the forum, the patriotic education of youth and new history textbooks were discussed, as well as a discussion named “Russia and Belarus: Facing New Challenges and threats” was held. Aliaksandr Lukashenka sent a greeting to the forum, in which he said: “Exposing unreliable facts, filling in the unknown, understanding the controversial pages of the general chronicle, and mass education work are the main tasks for the patriotic forces of the two countries.” During the forum, it was stated that Russia and Belarus are discussing the creation of a “joint historical commission”. RVIO is known for its pseudo-historical and pro-Kremlin statements, in particular, the one claiming that instead of victims of political repression in mass graves in Karelia, the Red Army soldiers were buried. On October 13, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka again spoke out about accusations against him of the deportation of Ukrainian children. While speaking on the topic of a joint declaration of inter-governmental relations in a multi-polar world at a meeting of the Council of Heads of States of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Bishkek, he questioned the institution of International Courts and asked “why do we need those at all in our relations? We understand why it is being done”, (implying on issuance of international arrest warrants). Further, he stated that some of the CIS leaders have not yet been affected by international arrest warrants and tried to justify himself: “Someday, you will want to help children, give them a little childhood, save them from bombings and explosions, and for this you will be put on the international wanted list.” On October 14, the state-owned propaganda media outlet Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA) launched the Polish version of its website, as a part of a state information project targeting Poland. The iSANS team published a recent monitoring report on the Trends in the System of Education in Belarus for the period of October 2-8. The report is in Russian, an English version will follow soon. Best regards,iSANS team