- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 22)
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 September 25, Lukashenka signed a decree prohibiting the import, storage, exploitation, and production of unmanned aerial vehicles for individuals. This is only allowed to legal entities and individual entrepreneurs for executing their business and professional activities. Moreover, they have to obtain a permit from the Department of Aviation of the Belarusian Ministry of Transport. On September 26, bilateral complex training of the Belarusian Armed Forces ended. Starting from September 27, military units that were part of the training started to return to their permanent place of deployment. As of September 30, major unit movements have been completed. On September 29, a meeting of the Council of Defense Ministers of the CIS member states took place in Tula, Russian Federation. A delegation from Belarus headed by Viktor Khrenin attended the meeting. As a result, the action plan of the Council of Defense Ministers of the CIS member states for 2024 was adopted. On September 29, Belarusian volunteer soldiers of the First Separate Airborne Assault Company fighting for Ukraine, who showed themselves in the fight against occupants, were awarded medals for combat services from the Rada of Belarusian People’s Republic. The awards were presented by the representative of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus for Defense and National Security Valery Sakhashchyk. It is reported that the unit has been at the front for six months, at one of its most difficult sites. The 38th Airborne Assault Brigade was assigned the task of guarding the Russian military at the Zyabrouka airfield. According to available information, one of the brigade’s battalions was moved to the Gomel district in late August, where it is still stationed. Earlier, the 103rd Airborne Brigade had been guarding the airfield Zyabrouka for a year and a half. Officially, the servicemen are engaged in strengthening the protection of the border with Ukraine. A runway repair is being carried out at the military airfield Machulishchy. This is proven by the latest satellite imagery and aviation activity. The repair started on September 10. A total of 180 meters of runway shall be replaced. Last week, the dismantling of the tents at the military camp of the PMC Wagner mercenaries at the village Tsel was paused. According to satellite imagery, as of September 27, 103 tents, or 35 percent of the initial quantity remained at the military camp. The overall capacity of the tents might be estimated at around 200 people (if there are 20 people in one tent). Initially, there were about 292 tents at the camp. The quantity of tents remains the same starting from September 19. The quantity of military equipment also remains practically the same. Its dislocation to the northern part of the military camp, where tents were located, is recorded. On September 27, the representative of Ukraine’s Border Security Service stated that around 500 PMC Wagner mercenaries remained in Belarus. Part of the mercenaries who left Belarus for Russia signed contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense and returned to their combat duty in Ukraine. In other words, not the PMC Wagner as a structure is involved in combat in Ukraine, but the former mercenaries of the structure. The PMC Wagner mercenaries carried out training with the servicemen of the 38th airborne assault brigade of the Belarusian Armed Forces. It was also reported that an armored vehicle, which might have been captured by the mercenaries from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, was being used during the training with regional troops.
On September 25, it was announced that the Australian government has extended “punitive” tariffs on goods exported from Russia and Belarus for two more years, until October 2025. Australian officials stated that the increase of tariffs should add to the restriction of Russia’s ability to fund its illegal and immoral war in Ukraine. On September 26, one of the leading Latvian news portals announced that Latvia is considering banning vehicles with Belarusian and Russian license plates. The draft law was already prepared by the country’s Ministry of Justice and is to be considered at the Parliament. Moreover, the law not only would prohibit such vehicles from entering the country but also foresees that if the vehicles with Belarusian or Russian license plates are already in Latvia, they could be confiscated, if the owner hasn’t re-registered them three months after the arrival to the country. On September 26, the Customs Office of the Netherlands informed that it uncovered 55 suspected violations of sanctions against Russia and Belarus over the last 18 months. Since the European Union enacted economic measures against both countries over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dutch customs have carried out more than 140,000 checks, including monitoring of freight and courier shipments, and postal items. Starting September 26, the Revenue Service of Georgia’s Ministry of Finance prohibited exports and re-exports of imported vehicles from the European Union to Russia and Belarus as part of the international sanctions imposed against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The prohibition applies to electric and hybrid vehicles, vehicles with engines larger than 1,900 cubic centimeters, regardless of their value. Last week, several EU countries announced intentions to take additional measures in order to tackle increasing migration flows to Western Europe, orchestrated by the Lukashenka’s regime. Germany announced the intention to introduce border control with Poland and the Czech Republic, to avoid endangering the open internal EU borders. The focus will be on smugglers and the control posts will change their location adapting to the routes of traffickers. The Lithuanian Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Ecology, and the Department for Nature Protection agreed upon the plan to build a physical barrier at the frontier with Belarus and Russia in the territories of swamps, rivers, and lakes, where currently the border is open. According to officials, physical barrier in the mentioned places is inevitable, since currently, these are the main entry points for illegal migrants. On September 29, the Lukashenka regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the apology of the Canadian authorities for their “cynical act”, referring to Canadian officials that invited a former SS officer to a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Canadian parliament, and after which the Chairman of the Canadian Parliament resigned, is a step in a right direction. However, the Ministry found it was not enough, because the memory of every third Belarusian, and the feelings of representatives of so many other nations were insulted.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On September 25, political prisoners Vyachaslau Lazarau and his wife, Tatyana Pytsko, were sentenced to five and a half and three years imprisonment, respectively. The man was accused of facilitating extremist activities, and his wife – of creating an extremist formation or participating in it. The trial was held behind closed doors. Vyachaslau will serve his sentence in a high-security colony, and Tatsyana – in a general regime colony. The couple has three children, the youngest of which, a one-year-old daughter, was placed under state care in the Vitebsk Regional Children’s Hospital for one month after her mother’s detention, later the girl was taken by Tatsyana’s relatives. The woman’s two children from her first marriage now live with their father. On September 27, the trial of the editor-in-chief of the Regional Newspaper, Aliaksandr Mantsevich, began. He is accused of spreading “deliberately false information that discredits Belarus and its authorities.” According to the case materials, defamatory information was contained in newspaper articles published from January 1, 2020, to March 15, 2023. The journalist is held in the investigative prison in Zhodino. The Brest Regional Court sentenced psychologist Alesya Lyantsevich to three and a half years in a penal colony. She was found guilty of financing extremist activities and insulting Lukashenka. The accusation of insulting Lukashenka concerned four comments. The statute of limitations has expired for two of them, but they still remained in the indictment. Also, according to the prosecution, in 2020, Lyantsevich transferred about USD97 to the By_help and BYSOL foundations, which were later, in 2021, recognized as extremist formations. Two years ago, on September 28, 2021, IT specialist Andrei Zeltser and KGB officer Dmitry Fedosyuk were killed in a shootout in a Minsk apartment on Yakubovsky Street. According to Belarus’s KGB, its officers came to the apartment in the course of “working out addresses where persons involved in terrorist activities could be located,” they were fired at with a shotgun to kill, and returned fire, as a result of which the shooter was killed. After this incident, there was a wave of arrests for comments on social media. As of today, human rights defenders are aware of at least 125 detainees, against which criminal cases were initiated under Articles 369 (insulting a representative of authorities) and 130 (inciting other social hostility) of the Criminal Code. At least 124 people were convicted. The absolute majority of them were deprived of their liberty. Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, together with human rights NGOs, developed a draft Concept of compensation for victims of repression of Lukashenka’s regime. The Concept covers the entire period of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s stay in power since July 20, 1994, and is aimed at compensating the victims through the restoration of their rights. It provides for cash payments or benefits if the restoration of rights requires it, which concerns not only persons who have suffered from repression but also their close relatives. The Concept describes the mechanism for the release of political prisoners during the transition period, which implies the termination of criminal cases, acquittals, and corresponding changes in legislation, including the decriminalization of certain articles of the Criminal Code. The document is based on the recognition of the status of innocence of repressed persons. It can be claimed not only by convicts recognized as political prisoners but also by citizens who have been tortured and have been deprived of the right to professional activity. Posthumous rehabilitation of the victims and compensation to their relatives is provided. On September 28, the decision of the Swiss court in the case of Yuri Garausky, the ex-fighter of the Belarusian SOBR (Special Rapid Response Unit), was announced. The trial became possible in the framework of universal jurisdiction. Three Human rights organizations, Belarusian Viasna Center, FIDH, and Trial International, for the first time in history, managed to initiate an investigation and a trial in case of forcible disappearance of Lukashenka’s regime opponents in Belarus. Garausky was acquitted on both charges: of the enforced disappearance of people, namely former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktor Gonchar, and businessman Anatoly Krasousky, as well as of misleading justice. The judge recognized some of the testimony of the ex-fighter of SOBR as “implausible”. The court concluded that Yuri Garausky may have served in the SOBR, but his role in the abductions remains unclear; he could have learned about it from colleagues. “Perhaps he wanted to influence the decision to grant him asylum,” the judge said. The court summed up that the circumstances of the case are not considered proven. Explaining the verdict, the judge said that this is a special case in which “the authorities are involved, and they are responsible for enforced disappearances and deaths of Yuri Zakharanka, Viktor Gonchar, and Anatoly Krasousky.” Yuri Garausky has been acquitted, but the representatives of the regime in Belarus are not.” According to Pavel Sapelka, lawyer of the Viasna Center, the possibility of Garausky’s acquittal had not been ruled out, since the trial took place in a democratic state — unlike in Belarus or Russia, the accused has a chance to be acquitted. This may be a consequence of the insufficient work of the prosecution or due to procedural reasons, but the verdict does not necessarily call into question the very events of the crime.” Zakharanka’s daughter, Elena Zakharanka, noted that despite the verdict, which she will appeal, she is glad that the court provided the opportunity to tell the world about what is happening in Belarus. Krasousky’s daughter Valeria Krasouskaya is also going to appeal. The relatives of both hope for a different verdict in the next trial since there is sufficient proof. On September 15, before the world premiere of its newest production King Stakh’s Wild Hunt (Dzikae palyavanne karal Stakha), the Belarusian Free Theater, which is banned by the Belarusian state for political reasons and is currently working in exile, held a panel discussion on the impact of war and dictatorship on children from Belarus and Ukraine. The discussion was moderated by renowned Australian theater and film actress, UN Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees, Cate Blanchett. The discussion took place at the Barbican Centre in London. During the event, the start of the charity event “Letters of Hope” was announced. The name comes from the name of the main character of “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt” — Nadezhda, which means “hope” in Belarusian and Ukrainian. Every spectator of the Barbican Theater found a letter of hope on his or her chair. In each letter, there was a drawing and a message from the children who had to flee the war and dictatorship. These drawings and messages are one of the therapeutic tools used to encourage children to express their hopes and dreams for the future. The panel, moderated by Cate Blanchett, was attended by Oksana Lebedeva, founder of the Gen.Ukrainian Charitable Foundation, which helps children facing the horrors of war to overcome psychological trauma; Elena Nedzvetskaya, founder of the Belarusian Solidarity Center, which supports refugees, with special attention to children and youth from Belarus and Ukraine who are starting to rebuild their lives in Poland; Natalia Kalyada MBE, co-founder and artistic director of the Belarusian Free Theater. CEO of the Barbican Center, Claire Spencer, noted: “It is a great honor for us to support the incredibly brave and visionary Belarusian Free Theater, which has been putting the safety and rights of young people at the center of their work for the past two decades. Our goal at the Barbican is to unite people, inspire action, and spark discussion, we are pleased to welcome Oksana Lebedeva, Elena Nedzvetska, Natalia Kalyada, and Cate Blanchett on our stage to discuss how to support children and youth affected by the war.”
The anti-Polish campaign continues in the Belarusian media. According to iSANS analysis, two of three political talk shows on state TV channels discuss the Polish topics in the run-up to the upcoming elections to the Sejm of Poland. Many statements by the official Minsk are also devoted to similar issues.propaganda feature film “On the Other Shore” about the Polish occupation of part of Belarus at the beginning of the 20th century took place in Minsk. The action took place in 1925, as the western part of Belarus went to Poland after the signing of the peace treaty of Riga. According to the plot, there are protests by the locals and a guerrilla war in the occupied part. But protests end in brutal suppression. The state television channel STV calls the film “a big national film project talking about the struggle of Belarusians against Polish oppression”. On September 24, a Polish far-right and pro-Russian politician Mateusz Piskorski, speaking on the Belarusian state channel STV, said that Poland does not have political independence. “Unfortunately, Poland is not a subject of international relations in Europe. It is not an independent subject.” The political talk show of Nadezhda Sass, in which Piskorski spoke, was called “Elections in Poland: corruption, falsification and Scandals”. On September 25, the press secretary of the State Border Committee of Belarus, Anton Bychkovsky, said that Poland itself is creating a migration crisis and is pushing refugees onto the territory of Belarus by force and threats: “We record that these refugees are detained on the Polish side, collected in groups, and pushed through the gates for animals in the fence (on the Polish side) by pepper gas, threats, weapons, pokes, kicks into our territory. These gates are used to forcibly expel, to push out those unfortunate people who are looking for a better life in the EU countries, into our territory.” On September 27, it became known that during the elections on the “unified voting day” (February 25, 2024), the Central Election Commission of Belarus (CEC) will not form polling stations abroad, thus depriving thousands of Belarusians living abroad the right to vote. On the same day, the CEC chairman, Igor Karpenko, stated that this decision “does not violate the rights of citizens. They can come to our country, and during the early voting period fulfill their civic duty — come to the polling stations and vote.” Previously, human rights activists have repeatedly reported about cases of detention of people who returned to Belarus. In 2022, Karpenko explained the need for the cancellation of polling stations abroad because of the coronavirus pandemic and the reduction of diplomatic missions. On September 28, the Director General of the Belarusian propaganda television channel STV, Alexander Osenko, met with the leaders of the Shanghai Media Group media holding in China. They negotiated a possible cooperation in “the area of creating joint projects and sharing own content of both sides,” according to the press release of the meeting. Osenko went to China as a part of the delegation led by the Belarusian Minister of Information, Vladimir Pertsov. On September 28, the so-called “President” of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka called Hungary a “friend” and also declared his readiness to conduct a dialogue with the country for the sake of de-escalation of the situation in the region. On this day, accepting credentials from the Hungarian Ambassador, Lukashenka said “Hungary is a long-time and reliable friend of Belarus, relations with which have passed the test of time and are built on a pragmatic and mutually respectful basis.” Since 2020, the EU countries have not sent new ambassadors to Belarus, Hungary is an exception. On September 29, in the center of Gomel, unknown persons erected a spontaneous memorial to the fallen leaders of the PMC Wagner, Evgeny Prigozhin, and Dmitry Utkin. On September 2, a similar memorial was built in Minsk by placing a photo of Utkin and Prigozhin and laying flowers near the “Eternal Flame” in Minsk. Ihor Tour, a propagandist of the TV channel ONT, then said: “Photos of Prigozhin and Utkin at the Eternal Flame on Victory Square are very unnecessary”. Best regards,iSANS teamOn September 14, the premiere of the