- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 23)
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).
99 tents, or 34 percent of the initial quantity, remained at the PMC Wagner mercenaries’ camp in the village Tsel, as of September 30. Moreover, around 1,040 items of equipment (the vast majority are passenger cars) remain at the military camp. Earlier we assumed that due to the dismantling of tents and approaching autumn part of the mercenaries may be relocated to the former barracks on the territory of the camp. Indeed, it seems that this is the case. Such a conclusion can be made due to the carrying out of insignificant repairs in the barracks as well as due to the absence of chimneys from the cast-iron moveable stoves which are used for the heating of the remaining tents in the camp. From this, we can state that some of the mercenaries of PMC “Wagner” continue to remain in the camp in the village Tsel. During the week, it was reported that the mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” conducted training sessions with the servicemen of the internal troops and the 56th regiment of communications of the Armed Forces of Belarus. On October 2, Colonel Andrei Rasyuk was appointed the Head of the Main Organizational and Mobilization Department – Deputy Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus. Major-General Vladislav Budik, who had previously held this position, retired on August 14 with the right to wear military uniforms and insignia. The restriction zone for flights of all types of civil aircraft (including UAVs) at altitudes from 0 to 19,800 meters in southern Belarus is extended according to NOTAMN O0618/23 from 23:59 of October 1 until December 31, 2023. The ban on flights over southern Belarus was introduced on February 24, 2022, with the start of the Russian large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Thus, the theoretical threat of missile attacks on the territory of Ukraine from the airspace of Belarus remains at least until the end of 2023. On October 3, the next stage of the combat readiness check of the Armed Forces of Belarus began. The inspection involved the parachute battalion of the 103rd Airborne Brigade (which moved to the Lepelsky training ground), units of the 120th Mechanized Brigade, and the 50th Mixed and 116th Assault Air Bases. Also, within the framework of the inspection in the 51st Artillery Brigade, a commission of the Defense Ministry of Belarus monitored the technical condition of the military equipment in long-term storage. It is expected that the inspection will not be of a lengthy nature. On October 3, it became known that a few Belarusian volunteers who were fighting on the side of Ukraine as part of the special-purpose volunteer unit “Teror” were killed in a combat mission. The number of the dead was not disclosed. On October 3-6, the chairmen of regional executive committees (administrations) held mobilization readiness training sessions. The purpose of the training was to improve the level of preparation and coherence of the territorial defense authorities for the formation of territorial troops. Such trainings are held annually. Experts with knowledge of the Lithuanian language are being sought to serve in one of the units of the 153rd Special Purpose Radio-Technical Brigade (engaged in electronic reconnaissance and subordinate to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus). The radio-technical unit is stationed at the Ozerski airfield, 10 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Battalion tactical exercises with units of the 6th Mechanized Brigade took place at the 230th Obuz-Lesnovsky Combined Arms Training Range. During the exercise, the servicemen conducted maneuver defense of an occupied area using small arms, infantry fighting vehicles, and UAVs. The Belarusian Armed Forces are experiencing problems with the manning of mechanized brigades, as well as a shortage of drivers. Such conclusions can be drawn from the analysis of data on vacancies for contract military service. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense tries to conceal the scale of the problem. In 2023, at least 9,820 reservists have been called up for military training. This is more than the plans announced earlier by the Belarusian MoD. In general, it can be stated that in 2022-2023, the number of military training camps with reservists has increased compared to previous years. As of October 5, the repair of the runway at the Machulishchi airfield is still in progress. On October 6, Aliaksandr Lukashenka visited a fortified area built near the village of Saki, Zhabinka district. Based on the official statements, it can be concluded that a whole system of fortifications designed for maneuver defense will be built along Belarus’s border with Ukraine and NATO countries.
On October 3, it was announced that starting from October 9, 2023, Kazakhstan will impose a ban on re-loading and re-hitching of Belarusian cargo vehicles for international transportation of goods from third countries. On October 3, the Polish Mieroszewski Centre published the results of its survey “Belarusian Emigration in Poland”, where Belarusians in Poland were asked many questions, including their reasons for leaving their homeland, intention to stay in Poland, etc. According to the survey, 86 percent of respondents give the fear of repression as the main reason that prompted them to leave Belarus for Poland; 45 percent plan to stay in Poland, 22 percent are ready to return to Belarus if the situation changes and 28 percent haven’t decided yet; for half of the respondents, Poland is the country with better living conditions than Belarus; 76 percent believe that Poland maintains friendly attitude towards Belarusians, they consider Poland the most favorable among neighbors, whereas Russia is considered the most unfriendly (61 percent of respondents). On October 5, it became known that the Lithuanian Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the Belarusian sanatorium in Druskininkai “Belorus” to unfreeze its assets in the Danish bank. The Court stated that the Danish Bank “Nets Denmark” lawfully denied transferring 12.4 thousand euros of customers’ payments by credit cards to the sanatorium in November 2021 and legally dismissed the contract with the entity in March 2022, which had been signed in September 2021. The court stated that the sanatorium failed to provide both the bank and the court documents denying the sanatorium’s ties with the Lukashenka regime and that the Danish bank’s ability to comply with the contract is restricted due to the EU’s restrictive measures. Last week, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces and the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, attended numerous events. At the beginning of the week, Tsikhanouskaya spoke at the OSCE human dimension conference, at the side event organized by the iSANS on accountability of the Lukashenka regime, at the Warsaw security conference, attended the European Political Community Summit in Granada, Spain, upon the invitation of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and addressed the Lublin Four Forum 2023 in Vilnius.During the Warsaw Security conference, the leader met with the US Permanent Representative to the OSCE Michael Carpenter, who announced the establishment of the OSCE group of Friends of a Democratic Belarus uniting 10 OSCE participating states; met with the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Wlachovsky and discussed Slovakia’s support for Belarusian initiatives, the situation with political prisoners, and the Russian presence in Belarus; met with a member of the German Bundestag and the leader of the CDU/CSU political group Norbert Röttgen and discussed the upcoming joint conference in November that intents to bring the groups of Friends of Belarus from different parliaments across the globe and to create coalitions of these group. At the same conference, Tsikhanouskaya met with British MP Stephen Doughty and discussed her upcoming visit to London in mid-October as well as the British support for the Belarusian democratic movement; met the Austrian Minister of Justice Alma Zadic and discussed the international investigation into the kidnapping of Ukrainian children with her, among others; met with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur on Belarus Prof. Herve Ascensio, OSCE PA President Pia Kauma, and the Lithuanian Minister of Energy Dainius Kreivys. During her visit to the European Political Community Summit in Granada, Tsikhanouskaya used the opportunity to thank the Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez for Spain’s support to Belarusians, especially families of political prisoners, and for the decision not to suspend visa issuance by the consulate of Spain in Minsk, with the country granting over 7,000 visas last year; and called on Spain to support the project of the new Belarusian passport. Prime Minister Sanchez assured Tsikhanouskaya that a solution would be developed to allow exiled Belarusians to stay in their countries of residence without risking deportation. At the same summit, Tsikhanouskaya met with the Latvian Prime Minister Evika Silina and emphasized the importance of distinguishing the regime and Belarusians, as well as Belarusians and Russians. She stressed that the draft law restricting personal vehicles with Belarusian license plates from entering Latvia might complicate the lives of Belarusians who do not support the Lukashenka regime. Tsikhanouskaya urged Latvia to support Belarusians living in the country. The Head of the UTC spoke with EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel on the margins of the summit and discussed the upcoming session of the EU-Belarus Consultative Group, which is due in January in Brussels, called on Borrel to appoint a special envoy or coordinator for Belarus, stressed the need to work together to develop a common EU strategy for Belarus and implement it. On October 7, after the HAMAS attack on Israel, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya issued a video statement, where she expressed her condolences to the families and the loved ones of the deceased and said she mourns “the numerous victims among the civilian population”. The leader of the democratic forces said: “Nothing can justify terrorism, violence, hostage-taking, torture, or the killing of civilians”. She expressed confidence that the criminals, who unleashed the war will be held accountable. In the same statement, Tsikhanouskaya addressed Belarusians living in Israel and urged them to listen to the messages of the Israeli authorities and to take care of themselves and their loved ones.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On October 2, the first court session was held in Rechitsa in yet another criminal case against Brest activist Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, who has been behind bars for two years and nine months. She is accused of malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony for the second time and faces up to one year in prison. Sharenda-Panasiuk spent almost the entire last year in inhumane conditions of a penal isolation cell, she was under strong physical and psychological pressure. In June, she was severely beaten by female prisoners — Sharenda-Panasiuk stated that it was organized by the administration of the colony. All her groceries and personal belongings were taken away from her, and neither a mattress nor bed linen was given out. She must sleep on the floor because it is impossible to sleep on the bare metal plates of the bunk. Palina stressed that she is still only an accused, not a convict, and such inhumane conditions are unacceptable and constitute torture. The next court session will take place in a week — on October 9 at 10.00. On October 3, 2023, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Minsk City Court to sentence Nasta Loika, a prominent human rights defender working in the field of human rights education and documentation, to seven years of imprisonment. On June 20, 2023, the Minsk City Court found the woman guilty of “incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord”. Since her detention on October 28, 2022, Nasta Loika has been systematically denied the exercise of her rights. In the summer of 2021, the authorities shut down the organization Human Constanta, where Nasta Loika previously worked, which promoted public interests and joint actions in response to modern challenges in the field of human rights. In 2022, the Belarus Human Rights House named Nasta Loika a woman human rights defender of the year. According to the materials of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, a criminal case has been initiated against the participants of a live broadcast called “We Care” Online Marathon of Solidarity with Political Prisoners. About 60 people are suspects. According to the Interior Ministry, “A 12-hour broadcast with the speeches of criminals and other destructive persons on the wanted list was broadcasted on the YouTube channels of radicals who left Belarus. The event, disguised as a fundraiser for convicted Belarusians allegedly persecuted for political reasons, was held by the organizers to attract money for their personal material gain. According to their statement, they received more than 500 thousand euros.” Investigators have opened a criminal case under Part 2 of Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code for financing extremist activities (the article provides for up to 8 years of imprisonment). Earlier, the court of the Central District of Minsk recognized the video content entitled “We Care” as extremist material. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case against the leaders and members of the Rada of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR). The BNR Rada is the supreme governing body of the Belarusian People’s Republic, operating in exile since 1919, and is one of the key political organizations of the Belarusian diaspora. The BNR Rada is headed by 87-year-old Ivonka Survilla, who lives in Canada. In July 2023, the Belarusian authorities recognized the organization as an “extremist formation”. The criminal case was initiated on the grounds of conspiracy or other actions with the aim of seizing power; leadership of an extremist formation or participation in it; involvement in extremist activities; incitement of national, religious, or other social enmity or discord committed by a group of persons; deliberate actions to rehabilitate Nazism committed by a group of persons; incitement to the participation of citizens of Belarus in the armed formation of one of the warring parties on the territory of a foreign state; discrediting Belarus. The criminal case was sent to the head of the State Security Committee to organize a preliminary investigation, identify, and bring to justice all persons involved in the activities of the specified formation, “wherever they are: both abroad and on the territory of Belarus.” At the end of September 2023, there were 1,490 political prisoners in Belarus, 164 of them – women, according to the report “The situation with human rights in Belarus. September 2023” by “Viasna” Human Rights Center. Human rights defenders continue to assess the human rights situation in Belarus as critical – the authorities continue to implement repressive policies, including arbitrary arrests, politically motivated convictions, torture, and other types of prohibited treatment against protesters, political opponents of the regime, and dissidents. Since May 2020, almost 2,700 persons have been recognized as political prisoners, about 470 of whom are women. About 1,200 political prisoners have already been released for various reasons. In September 2023, 36 persons were recognized as political prisoners, and 30 persons, previously convicted under political articles, were released after serving their sentences. The Supreme Court liquidated well-known opposition parties without the right of appeal. On October 3, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, and Volha Harbunova, a representative of the United Transitional Cabinet for Social Policy, took part in a side event in Belarus during the OSCE human dimension conference in Warsaw. At the event, OSCE participating states announced the creation of a group of “Friends of Democratic Belarus”. Tsikhanouskaya called on the OSCE institutions to demand access to political prisoners in Belarus and to trials, as well as to help bring the Lukashenka regime to justice. “A group of friends in the OSCE can help bring the Lukashenka regime and its accomplices to justice for crimes against Ukrainian children. I also ask you to help Belarusians who have fled to the EU to achieve justice in cases of universal jurisdiction,” she said. On the same day, the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) organized a side event during the OSCE human dimension conference in Warsaw, entitled “Ending Impunity in Belarus: High Time for International Action to Bring the Lukashenka Regime to Justice for Crimes against Humanity in Belarus, Complicity in the Aggression against Ukraine, and Incitement to Genocide of Ukrainians.” In her welcome remarks, the leader of the democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said: “The Lukashenka regime has a long list of crimes. We must do everything possible to prevent him and his associates from escaping responsibility.” The speakers — Head of iSANS Human Rights and Rule of Law Unit Yuri Dzhibladze, Chair of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus Victoria Fedorova, President of the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers Maria Kolesava-Hudzilina, iSANS legal adviser Sergey Golubok, iSANS analyst Andrey Kalikh, and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s legal adviser Kristina Rikhter – presented evidence of various international crimes committed by the Lukashenka regime and discussed prospects of using international legal mechanisms to bring representatives of the regime to justice. They include national justice system of a democratic Belarus when it becomes a reality; national justice systems of other countries, using the universal jurisdiction mechanism; the International Criminal Court, through a referral of the situation in Belarus by States parties in respect of crimes against humanity of persecution and deportation to other countries which are States parties to the Rome Statute; establishment of a Special International Tribunal for Belarus to bring to account perpetrators of a broad range of crimes against humanity in Belarus; the International Court of Justice to settle inter-state disputes on violation of UN human rights conventions by Belarus; again the International Criminal Court in the framework of its ongoing investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the course of aggression against Ukraine; and finally, establishment of a Special International Tribunal for the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine where Lukashenka and his associates should be indicted, along with Putin and his associates. On October 3, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) confirmed that its investigation had found that the current Belarus Red Cross Secretary General, Dmitry Shevtsov, breached Red Cross Red Crescent Fundamental Principles, misused the emblem, and breached the IFRC integrity policy. The IFRC’s Compliance and Mediation Committee (CMC) performed an investigation into the allegations related to the Belarus Red Cross Secretary General’s statements, including on nuclear weapons on the movement of Ukrainian children to Belarus, and his visit to Luhansk and Donetsk. The IFRC Governing Board called on the Belarus Red Cross to dismiss Shevtsov. If it does not do that, its membership rights will be suspended automatically on 30 November 2023. At that point, any new funding will be suspended until the removal of Shevtsov. According to the statement of October 4 by the European Union Delegation in Belarus, the European Union and its member states declined the invitation to join a visit by foreign diplomats to the Ukrainian children in Navapolatsk, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. “The EU and its member states have repeatedly expressed deep concern about the circumstances under which Ukrainian children are brought to Belarus. In this context, we regret that the Embassy of Ukraine, which is the most interested party, since the matter concerns citizens of Ukraine, was not invited either to the briefing on this issue or to the trip to Navapolatsk,” said the statement.
On October 2, 2023, the so-called “International Radio “Belarus” (a division of the state media holding BTRK) launched a “Belarusian-Polish socio-political project” in Polish language, called “Thoughts about Poland: reflections, discussions, comments.” As reported in the BTRK’s press release, the project is being created “jointly by Polish and Belarusian journalists and public figures.” Programs in Polish on the air of the “international radio” “Belarus” have been broadcast since 2006 and lasted only 20 minutes a day. Now, according to the press-release, programs in Polish are broadcasted for nine hours a day. According to the Polish pro-Kremlin “political scientist” and the radio anchor Daniel Mikusek, the project “will give the Poles the opportunity to understand the relations between Poland and Western countries on the one hand, and between Poland, Russia and Belarus on the other.” On October 2, it became known that the daughter of one of the most famous Belarusian propagandists, Andrei Mukovozchik, lives and works in the United States. Independent actionist Vladislav Bokhan who had reported this, succeeded in calling Mukovozchik during his live appearance on a propaganda channel and asking him why his daughter lives and works in an “enemy country” and not in Belarus. Mukovozchik did not refute this information while trying to avoid answering the question and using insults. On October 3, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka congratulated the people of Germany on Reunification Day, while simultaneously accusing Germany of a lack of independence. “The transition from confrontation to dialogue then required courageous, strategic decisions from all parties. Unfortunately, the European Union is now pursuing a non-independent policy of confrontation towards a number of sovereign states. Brussels’ only instrument is unilateral measures of economic and political pressure, which directly contradict international law. Germany’s support for this course “causes deep disappointment in Belarus, especially given the terrible events and numerous victims on Belarusian soil during the Second World War,” said Lukashenka. On October 3, a Forum “Russia and Belarus: common history, common destiny” organized by the Russian Ministry of Education, the Russian Historical Memory Foundation, and the Institute of History of Belarus, was held in Minsk. The Forum was initiated by the Russian pro-Kremlin historian Aleksandr Dyukov, known for his pseudoscientific theories about the history of Belarus. The goals of the forum are stated to be “preserving the historical memory of Russia and Belarus, countering the falsification of the joint history of the two countries and the revision of the results of the WWII, including the rehabilitation of Nazi criminals and their accomplices.” According to the Belarusian independent channel Reform.by, Dyukov and his Foundation “carried out subversive work against the independence and sovereignty of Belarus long before the suppression of peaceful protests in 2020”. Just before Halloween, a new campaign to denigrate “Western holidays” started in the state media. On October 4, Evgeny Pustovoy, host of the STV channel, said in his political talk show that states that officially celebrate Halloween are “civilizations of death”. Member of the Youth Parliament at the National Assembly of Belarus Ekaterina Levdorovich said that teachers and cultural workers should explain to young people why such holidays are harmful. “Many holidays have now turned into a “circus”, people don’t even understand why they dress up on Halloween.” Belarusian State University student Alexandra Gorbatova said in the same TV program that holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day bring “death and depravity.” On October 4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus used Ukrainian children in one more propaganda action by inviting diplomats accredited in Minsk, including those from the European Union, to meet with the children who were brought to Belarus. The meeting was mainly attended by representatives of countries such as China, Cuba, and Qatar. European diplomats didn’t accept the invitation. The head of the charitable Foundation named after himself, Alexey Talay, said that Europeans “did not want to face the truth”. On October 5, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka, at a meeting with the governor of the Ulyanovsk region of the Russian Federation, Alexei Russkikh, stated that Belarusian IT specialists should “fulfill fewer Western orders and work more for the benefit of Belarus and Russia”: “We will already have enough of servicing orders only from Western companies. Let our specialists work more for their own countries.” On October 5, the sociological agency “Belarusian Analytical Workshop” published the results of a survey about the attitude of Belarusian citizens to the media in the country. The data was collected in June 2023. The results show that Belarusians trust state media more than independent media – 68 percent versus 57. However, sociologists say this information should be taken correctly, bearing into account the conditions under which the survey was conducted. It is noteworthy that mainly older people (45+), from rural areas (79 percent) and with secondary (or lower) education (71 percent) tend to trust state media. The Belarusian Association of Journalists commented on the results of the survey “as a failure” of the propaganda of the Lukashenka regime. On October 6, Lukashenka made several mitigating statements towards Poland. While speaking at one of the training facilities of the Ministry of Defense in the Brest region, he said “We don’t want the Poles to consider us strangers or enemies”. “We never set out to aggravate relations… We do not gather armed forces near the borders of Poland and the Baltic countries in order to attack them.” Another propaganda track is the ongoing anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Several anti-Ukrainian statements have been made over the past week: Alexander Semchenko, “Doctor of Political Sciences,” in the program “Azarenok. Directly” (STV): “The rear of Ukraine is beyond its borders. A blow (against Ukraine) from the territory of Belarus could have very seriously changed the situation. It would be great, if this was delivered (from Belarus) to the south, at least to Lviv (a Ukrainian city near the Polish border). This would have changed everything very seriously in this war.”. Oleg Voloshin, “political scientist”, STV: “The war in Ukraine is an opportunity for prosperity for Western corruption”. Kirill Molchanov, director of the Institute for the Study of the Consequences of the War in Ukraine (Russia), ONT TV channel: “The United States and its allies perceive Ukraine as a ‘kamikaze country’”. After the HAMAS terrorist attack on Israel end of the week, Belarusian propaganda responded to the tragic events by adopting a moderately apologetic stance towards HAMAS. The anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Belarusian state media shows that they are generally following the line of the Russian propaganda, which did not condemn the attack against Israel but underlined that it is supposedly weakening the West in its support for Ukraine. The first one to react was the Belarusian MFA on Saturday, October 7, declaring “the inadmissibility of attacks on civilians” without specifying whose attacks it meant. The statement said, “We are shocked by the incoming information about the number of dead and wounded on the first day of the conflict” and expressed sympathy with friends and families of the victims. On October 8, a pro-Russian “political scientist” Alexander Shpakovsky stated that he is “sure that the war in the Middle East will not lead to any “mitigation” for the Ukrainian military theater. There are no prerequisites”. Another “expert” Alexey Dzermant said: “The outbreak of confrontation between Palestine and Israel may have an impact on Eurasian logistics. The India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor project may be at risk. In this sense, it is the northern options of trans-Eurasian logistics that look the safest – through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus.” On October 8, the state newspaper Minskaya Pravda published a radically anti-Israeli article by Igor Molotov, a columnist for RT, a Russian propaganda media holding. In this article, Molotov justified attacks on Israel, called this country a “fascist state” and proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel. Moreover, the article said, “The victory of Palestine in the occupied territories is a victory for Moscow and Minsk”. Grigory Azarenok, one of the most notorious Belorussian propagandists, re-posted the article on his Telegram channel. However, today the article of the Russian propagandist and RT columnist Igor Molotov, became inaccessible, allegedly it was deleted due to the reaction of the Belarusian MFA that stated “the inadmissibility of attacks on civilians”.
iSANS teamThe so-called “President” of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka has not yet taken a stance on the events in Israel. Best regards,