- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 25)
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 October 16, it became known that a military transport plane of the Russian cargo company “Abakan Air” left the Bobrujsk military airfield for Mali on October 13. There are sufficient reasons to believe that the aircraft flight was connected to the PMC Wagner activities, and it could have carried out the transportation of mercenaries from Belarus to Africa. On October 16, the Ministry of Defense of Belarus announced that in the framework of the combat readiness check, additional units of the Belarusian Armed Forces started carrying out combat training exercises. In essence, this is the second round of the combat readiness check, which started on October 3. During the last week, the main activities of the combat readiness check finished, and most military units involved in training returned to their permanent deployment places. According to the existing information, the 355th tank battalion of the 120th mechanized brigade, 1st mechanized battalion of the 19th mechanized brigade, 52nd tank, and 202nd mechanized battalion of the 6th mechanized brigade and units of the internal troops participated in the combat readiness check. The military units trained at the military grounds “Gozhskij,” “Obuz Lesovskij” and “Borisovskij.” As of the beginning of October 2023, Russian military is still present at the airfield “Mozyr”(“Bokov”). In total, there are at least eight S-300/400 SAM launchers, several radar stations and other military equipment. In total, there may be 200-300 people on the airfield. The construction of a new mound for a radar station was also detected at the airfield. On October 17, the aircraft of the 50th Mixed Air Base of the Belarusian Air Force were redeployed from the Baranavichy airfield to the Machulishchi airfield. Since early September, the planes had been based in Baranavichy because of the runway repair at the Machulishchi airfield. It can be concluded that the repair in Machulishchi is over. On October 18, 2023, representatives of the Armed Forces of Belarus took part in a meeting of the Coordination Committee of the Chiefs of Communications of the Armed Forces of the CIS member states in Dushanbe. The event discussed the implementation of the Agreement on the Joint (Unified) Communication System of the Armed Forces of the CIS member states of May 29, 2020, and further development of the unified communication system. On October 18, a meeting of the joint board of the Defense Ministries of Belarus and Russia was held in Moscow. The board discussed, among other things, the activities of joint training centers, the use of regional troop groupings, and other issues. As a result of the Board meeting, a plan of cooperation between the Defense Ministries of Belarus and Russia for 2024 was signed. On October 19, the draft law “On Amending Laws on Ensuring National Security” was published. The document provides for several amendments to the Criminal Code, the Code of Administrative Offenses, the Law “On Defense” and others. Among the main changes are the toughening of responsibility for evasion of conscription, as well as the possibility of notification of a call to the military commissariat via SMS. On October 20, the 8th Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Defense Brigade hosted a combat training camp for the Armed Forces. The participants of the training camp were briefed on new forms and ways of using units in the performance of tasks, training of soldiers and units during combat training sessions, and summarized the results of combat training of the outgoing academic year.
On October 17, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with the Vice President of Iran Mohammad Mokhber, and stated that Belarus and Iran should work “closely” together to counter attacks from the West. He accused the U.S. and other Western countries of using never-ending Middle East tensions to poke Iran. The Belarusian ruler claimed that “the pressure exerted on Iran and Belarus is unprecedented” and added that Iran’s experience in countering Western sanctions is valuable for Belarus. The Iranian Vice-President held several meetings with other Belarusian officials and the visit resulted in several memorandums of cooperation, e.g., between Belneftekhim and the Iranian oil refinery, also in the pharma sphere. On the same day, Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with the Foreign Minister of Venezuela Yván Gil Pinto, and stated that the directions of bilateral relations should be revised as they were set in times of Hugo Chavez’s rule. The Belarusian dictator claimed that it must be clearly stated, what Venezuela can do for Belarus and what Belarus can do for Venezuela, an action plan should be set, and a roadmap for continuous long-lasting cooperation should be drafted. He also added, that if other foreign countries, for example Cuba, would join this scheme of cooperation, Belarus would not mind. On October 18, the General Court of the European Union rejected applications for delisting from the EU’s Belarus sanctions regime by the Minsk Automobile Plants and BelAZ (Belarusian Automobile Plants). The Court found that even if there was a discrepancy between the legal entities’ names provided in the listing of the EU and the actual names of registration, it does not prove that the Council did not have sufficient evidence to include the entities in the sanctions list. Moreover, the court found that the Council did not err in its assessment that the BelAZ and Minsk Automobile Plant were two of the leading state-owned companies in Belarus and a source of significant revenue for the Lukashenka regime. On October 19, marking the World Day against the Death Penalty 2023, the Swiss Ambassador to the OSCE Raphael Nägeli made a joint statement at the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on behalf of Switzerland, Andorra, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, San Marino, and the United Kingdom. Among other things, the statement said that, despite repeated calls for its abolition, Belarus remains the only country in Europe and Central Asia to use capital punishment. The death penalty in Belarus has been extended twice in the past two years, contrary to the country’s international obligations. The diplomats urged Belarus to reverse this trend and abolish the death penalty as soon as possible. On October 19, Advisor of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for Constitutional Reform and Interparliamentary Relations Anatol Liabedzka and the Representative of the Office in Latvia and Estonia Vitalij Molchanov met with the representatives of the parliamentary group “For Democratic Belarus” in the Latvian Saema. Representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces discussed with Latvian MPs the law on banning vehicles with Belarusian license plates, the possibility of prolonging the period of validity of residence permits for Belarusians on humanitarian grounds from one year to three, the situation with political prisoners, and encouraged Latvian parliamentarians to take over godparenthood over Belarusian political prisoners. As a result, Latvian MP Leila Rasima took on the godparenthood over political prisoner Alla Sokolenko, the parties agreed to organize an internship program for Belarusians in Latvian Saema, to cooperate in international interparliamentary organizations, and deliver the legal evaluation of the draft laws prepared by the Belarusian democratic forces. The Leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya went on several working visits this week. On October 16 to 18, she was in London, the United Kingdom, where she delivered the Westminster Lecture, held a briefing for ambassadors of the 24 EU countries, and attended the Belarus-UK forum. Moreover, Tsikhanouskaya met with the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, with the UK Minister of State and Special Envoy for Preventing Sexual Violence Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Preventing Sexual Violence Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, former UK Minister for Europe and Member of Parliament Wendy Morton, former Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader Theresa May, UK Shadow Defense Minister Luke Pollard, Members of the UK House of Commons and House of Lords, and the Belarusian diaspora in London. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discussed with UK politicians and decision-makers the appointment of a representative for contacts with democratic Belarus, the sanctions regime against official Minsk, the issue with the National Olympic Committee and support to Belarusian athletes, who opposed the regime, steps for the release of political prisoners and support to their families. On October 19, Tsikhanouskaya was on a working visit to Austria where she delivered a speech at the University of Innsbruck. The University launched a scholarship program for Belarusian students under the patronage of the Belarusian democratic leader to mark her visit. On October 20, Tsikhanouskaya went on a working visit to Moldova, which marked the first visit of the Belarusian democratic leader to this country. She met with President Maia Sandu, Speaker of Parliament Igor Grosu, and representatives of the parliamentary group “For a Democratic Belarus”, and participated at the Moldova Women Forum to speak about women in politics and situation of Belarusian political prisoners. This week, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka dismissed several of Belarusian diplomats in foreign countries. At the beginning of the week, the Charge d’affaires of Belarus in Warsaw Alexander Chesnovsky was dismissed from his position as his contract expired. Noteworthy, Belarus has not had an Ambassador in Poland since 2020 after the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs withdrew the Ambassador from Poland and demanded Poland do the same. At the end of the week, it was announced the dismissal of the Belarusian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Ukraine Ihar Sokal, and the Ambassador to Estonia Vyacheslau Kachanau. Whether there would be successors to the recently dismissed ambassadors remains unknown.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On October 17, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals of journalist and culture manager Pavel Mazheyka and lawyer Yulia Yurgilevich. The hearing was held behind closed doors. Mazheyka and Yurgilevich were charged with facilitating extremist activities by a group of persons by prior agreement and, in July 2023, sentenced to 6 years imprisonment each. According to the process materials, Yulia told Pavel in a telephone conversation about her disbarment and Ales Pushkin’s sentence. The prosecution claimed that Mazheyka passed this information to unidentified persons for publication in the Belsat media, which is recognized as an extremist formation. Mazheyka and Yurgilevich pleaded not guilty. Yurgilevich stated that she was being held in “bestial conditions” and was not allowed to get acquainted with the materials on the case. On October 17, the Minsk City Court liquidated the New Life church. A lawsuit against the protestant church was filed on September 15 by the Minsk City Executive Committee, which claimed that it was engaged in extremist activities, thereby violating the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” Now, the church is deprived of legal status, and its activities are illegal. As the telegram channel Słuchać hadko! (former Rerum Novarum) notes, the New Life church “angered the regime so much that it was decided to liquidate it out of turn, which for others will come when a new law is adopted.” One of the reasons for the liquidation of the church may be that in November 2020, the parishioners of the New Life recorded a video condemning the violence of the security forces and repression against peaceful citizens of Belarus. After that, the liquidation of the church was only a matter of time, the hearing itself was a mere formality. On October 17, the International Strategic Action Network for Security – iSANS published a brief “Incommunicado detention of political prisoners in Belarus: A heinous crime by the Lukashenka regime must be stopped”. Enforced disappearances have been used by the Lukashenka regime since the end of the 1990s as a tool of political repression to intimidate critics and spread terror within society. Impunity for past crimes of enforced disappearance has emboldened the dictatorship to apply this heinous practice again. Throughout 2023, as part of the tightening repression, the regime has begun to apply long-term incommunicado detention against several leading imprisoned opponents. Several political prisoners, including Viktar Babaryka, Igar Losik, Maria Kolesnikova, Maxim Znak, Mikalai Statkevich, and Andrzej Poczobut, have been kept in full isolation from the outside world, not been allowed access by lawyers and relatives and not been able to communicate with the outside world since February. Taking into consideration information about the gross violation of the rights of political prisoners and the history of torture and killings of political opponents by the regime, such as the deaths in custody of Ales Pushkin and Vitold Ashurak, the tendency of incommunicado detention raises very serious concerns for the lives of the detainees and requires immediate action by the international community to influence the regime in order to stop these crimes, save lives, and bring the perpetrators to justice. In an interview with Reform.by, an iSANS expert suggested that in addition to investigation, public statements, and official inquiries in the UN and the OSCE framework and the application of new sanctions, the emergency response should include making a referral by state parties of the Rome Statute of the situation in Belarus to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The commission by the Lukashenka regime of crimes against humanity in Belarus, including enforced disappearances in prisons, falls under the ICC (International Criminal Court) authority because hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have fled the country to the neighboring states due to the risk of persecution. Amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences of Belarus have been drafted, providing for a “ban on LGBT propaganda”. This was stated on the air of STV by Roman Sidorenko, senior prosecutor of the Department for Supervision of the Enforcement of Legislation on Minors and Youth of the Prosecutor General’s Office. According to him, “First of all, three articles are introduced. This is a ban on propaganda of LGBT, pedophilia, and the change of gender”. “Propaganda” in the draft law is supposed to mean “any communication to society on the Internet, in public statements, and publications”. “It is the imposition of this licentious idea of LGBT, pedophilia… in the sense, in the form in which it comes to us from the West. After all, look, today they are asking for equal conditions for them, then they will consider themselves special, and the state will need to allocate special benefits, and privileges to them. It is them who impose their idea, their vision on us,” said Sidorenko. On October 19, it became known about the new verdict of Zmitser Dashkevich, political prisoner and former leader of the unregistered youth opposition movement the Young Front. In a new criminal case of malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony, he was sentenced to a year of strict regime imprisonment. He was supposed to be released in July after 16 months of imprisonment but was left behind bars in connection with recent charges. According to the Prosecutor’s Office of the Brest region, show trials on “extremist” articles prevent crimes. Representatives of labor or educational collectives are invited to such court sessions or field hearings. It is reported that, in the first week of October, two field hearings were held. One convicted a 37-year-old driver of a foreign company for insulting Lukashenka in a telegram chat. He was sentenced to one year in prison. On the second hearing, a 19-year-old resident of Zhabinka and an 18-year-old student at an agrarian college were tried on charges of abuse of a state symbol. They received 2.5 and 1.5 years in prison, respectively. Students and residents were invited to observe the hearing. “The practice of on-site court sessions will continue, and the results of the consideration of this category of criminal cases will be covered in the media,” the Brest Prosecutor’s Office says. According to the amendments to the law On Military Duty and Military Service, a new type of summons for military service is being introduced – via SMS. Paper summonses will be handed over not only at the place of residence of the conscript but also at “the place of location” — that is, anywhere — from a workplace to a cafe. The bill On Changing Codes approved by the Belarusian parliament in two readings suggests that it will be impossible to avoid receiving a summons not only in the case of conscription but also in all other areas of life. This is provided for by the introduction of the concept of a “legally significant message”. It will be considered delivered even if it was sent by mail or electronic means (SMS, e-mail, messenger), and the addressee did not receive it or did not get acquainted with it “due to circumstances depending on him”. Thus, it will be impossible to avoid receiving such messages. There are also amendments to the articles on conscription in the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences. Instead of two years of restriction of liberty, imprisonment, a fine, arrest, or community service for evading the army, it will be possible to be sentenced to three years of imprisonment. The fines have been increased several times. On October 17, former British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, recorded a video in support of Belarusian political prisoners. The video was published on politician’s Instagram account. “I want to draw your attention to the fate of one very brave man – Sergei Tsikhanousky, who by right should now be the elected leader of Belarus. Instead, he is in prison, where he was thrown away by the corrupt tyrant who runs this country – Lukashenka, a friend of Putin. Do you remember what happened in 2020? Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, his wife, participated in the elections instead of her husband, and the people of Belarus chose her. But she was not allowed to take office. She was forced to leave the country. Her husband is still in prison, and she hasn’t heard from him for more than seven months. This is a blatant violation of all basic human rights. What is being done to Sergei Tsikhanousky is a disgrace. Let us all campaign for the freedom of Sergei Tsikhanousky and the freedom of Belarus,” Johnson said in the video address and added in writing: “I am supporting @prezident.sveta‘s campaign to raise awareness of political prisoners in Belarus. I have agreed to sponsor her jailed husband, Sergei Tsikhanousky. With 1,500+ political prisoners in Belarus, I urge others to join me in this act of solidarity. I stand with the brave people of Belarus.”
Coverage of the parliamentary elections in Polandmost notorious Belarusian propagandists Aliaksandr Shpakouski wrote in his Telegram channel: “An anti-Belarusian consensus has formed in the political elite of Poland. The Belarusian state distinguishes between the Polish authorities and the Polish people. We do not cultivate hatred towards Poles and do not try to strengthen our own identity by searching for an external enemy, as, for example, the Ukrainian authorities do”. On October 15, the state agency BelTA quoted Igor Shishkin, an “expert” of the Institute of CIS Countries (Russia): “There is no reason to assume that any socio-political upheavals will occur as a result of elections and remove Poland from the list of active adversaries of Russia and Belarus. No one will give permission to organize a “color revolution” in Poland. In today’s hybrid confrontation with Russia, Poland’s role is assigned as profoundly serious,” Shishkin said. On October 16, state TV channel ONT commented: “The current election campaign in the country is called the dirtiest and the most unprincipled. Signs include corruption, economic difficulties, worsening relations with the EU and neighboring countries, and violations at polling stations”. On October 16, BelTA published an interview with Polish pro-Lukashenka and pro-Kremlin “political scientist” Tomasz Gryguć, where he says: “Poles, who think realistically, know that their will and votes have no meaning in elections in Poland. The United States decides who will rule our country. And, most likely, the United States will decide that its lackeys will continue to rule. “Law and Justice” [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, a conservative political party that gained the most votes] are the servants of Washington, Berlin, and Kyiv. We call this party “No Law and No Justice,” said Gryguć. “We are completely dependent on the United States. Poland is a large European country. Like Belarus, it is in an especially important place not only for Europe but also for Eurasia. And the US wants to control everything here.” At the same time, many Poles do not want to depend on the United States and the European Union, said Gryguć. “What are the real interests of Poland and the Polish people? First, a peaceful life with our neighbors, and cooperation with Belarus and Russia. Spiritually and politically, Belarus and Russia are closer to Poles than to the West,” said Gryguć. On the same day, in an interview with the Belarusian TV channel ONT, Tomasz Gryguć, commenting on the elections in Poland, said: “By the way, you are talking to a person who did not and does not believe in democracy! I don’t believe in democracy and don’t go to vote. Because… I am in this group of Poles who believe and know that elections will not change anything in Poland.” On October 16, the so-called “President” of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka said: “[President of Poland] Duda and Prime Minister Morawiecki are Washington’s lackeys who are on a short leash. [Donald] Tusk, on the contrary, is a pro-European politician. And there is hope that he will act in the interests of Europe, not the United States.” On October 16, state TV channel ATN: “The wind of change is already walking through the streets of Poland. The election campaign that preceded the vote is rightfully considered one of the dirtiest in recent decades. The key parties threw mud at each other generously, staging a battle of incriminating evidence. Society was torn into two parts and set up for confrontation.” *** On October 15, 2023, the editor-in-chief of the state newspaper Belarus Today Dmitry Zhuk said on the state TV channel “Belarus 1” that the words “human rights” and “democracy” are used by the enemies of Belarus. “If you hear the words ‘human rights’ followed by some stories about Belarus, know that this person is an enemy of our country. Period. Our supporters avoid these terms,” Zhuk said. According to Zhuk, “today’s democracy, human rights” are the tools that are allegedly used to “make us feel inferior.” “As soon as we start to feel defective, we become vulnerable – therefore, we do not need to react to it.” Thus, the editor of the propaganda newspaper answered a question about the recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus Anaïs Marin. On October 17, it became known that the pro-Russian Ukrainian propagandist Dmitry Gubin, who fled from Ukraine, disappeared in Minsk. According to his colleagues, on October 2, Gubin flew to Minsk to seek political asylum in Belarus but was denied on the grounds that he was banned from entering both Russia and Belarus. Previously, Gubin actively promoted the ideas of the “Russian world” and published articles on pro-Russian resources justifying Russian aggression against Ukraine. On October 20, Aliaksandr Lukashenka congratulated the most notorious Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, the host of the political talk show “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” on the state TV channel “Russia 1” on his 60th anniversary. “Your integrity, talent for persuasion, and deep understanding of reality serve as a source of truth for millions of people. I am confident that your public and journalistic activities will continue to contribute to strengthening the friendship of the brotherly peoples of Belarus and Russia,” said Lukashenka. Since 2021, Solovyov has been banned from entering the EU; since 2022, he has been under personal sanctions from the US, EU, Ukraine, Australia, and other countries. Best regards,iSANS teamOn the day of the Polish parliamentary elections, one of the