- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 20)
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 11, a delegation of Military Attaches from 14 African countries, including Egypt, Zimbabwe, the South African Republic, and others, arrived in Minsk. The goal of the visit is to get to know Belarusian possibilities for bilateral military cooperation. Military Attaches visited many Belarusian companies and education institutions in the framework of their working visit. On September 12, as part of the second stage of the Air Force and Air Defense Force operational-tactical exercise, servicemen of the Belarusian Armed Forces went to the Telemba range (located in Buryatia, Russia) to launch S-300 SAMs. The exercise involves the 1st and 377th anti-aircraft missile regiments, as well as the 15th anti-aircraft missile brigade. According to available information, the Belarusian servicemen went to the training range without military equipment. The training equipment (S-300 SAMs) was provided by the Russian side. In late September, the Armed Forces of Belarus are scheduled to hold bilateral comprehensive exercises on the territory of Belarus. This was reported as early as the end of August. According to the available information, the exercise will involve units of the 6th, 11th, 19th, and 120th mechanized brigades, 51st artillery brigade, 250th separate security and service battalion, 336th rocket artillery brigade of the Belarusian Armed Forces, and others. It is known that some units have already started moving to the area of the exercise. For example, the tank battalion of the 19th Mechanized Brigade arrived in the town of Verkhnedvinsk, located 18 kilometers from the border with Latvia. It has been reported that at the end of August and beginning of September 2023, another stage of the import of Russian tactical nuclear weapons components (TNW) into the territory of Belarus began. To maintain the maximum secrecy, their delivery is carried out in small batches of 3-6 railroad cars. Since August 26, at least 5 trains that could transport TNW components have been detected. The final destinations of the trains are Baranavichy-Polesye and Luninets stations. In October-November, three shipments with TNW components are expected to be delivered to Prudok station, where the 2631st air base of missile armament and ammunition of the Armed Forces of Belarus is located. After the end of the exercise with the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force “Interaction-2023”, which was held in Belarus from September 1 to 6, units of the Armed Forces of Belarus returned to the locations of permanent deployment. It became known that the 587th separate missile division of the 465th missile brigade of the Armed Forces of Belarus received Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems for service. The 587th Division was formed on December 1, 1991, as part of the 465th Missile Brigade. As of 2013, it was reported to have been disbanded. Most likely, the 587th division was reconstituted in connection with the entry into service of the Iskander-M missile defense system. Currently, the Armed Forces of Belarus may have at least six self-propelled launchers of the Iskander-M anti-tank missile defense system. According to open sources, this number of vehicles corresponds to 1.5 missile divisions or half of a missile brigade of the Russian Armed Forces. Last week the dismantling of the field camp of PMC “Wagner” mercenaries in the village of Tsel may have been suspended. According to satellite images, no tents were dismantled between September 9 and September 12. At the moment, more than 50% of all tents in the camp have been dismantled. At the same time, the amount of equipment in the mercenary camp has not changed. We would like to remind you that the dismantling of the field camp of PMC “Wagner” has been going on since late July. The work began two weeks after the deployment of the mercenaries to Belarus. This may mean that the initially planned number of mercenaries of approximately 8,000 people did not arrive in Belarus. A total of 4,000-4,500 mercenaries of PMC «Wagner» could have arrived in Belarus in July 2023. At present, some of them could have left Belarus. As part of the tactical-special exercise “Voenkor-2023” at the Losvido training ground, mercenaries of PMC “Wagner” held tactical medicine training. It was also reported that training of mercenaries with servicemen of the internal troops of the Republic of Belarus took place.
On September 11, Artur Michalski was appointed Special Representative of the Polish Foreign Ministry for cooperation with the democratic forces of Belarus. Prior to that, he had served as the Ambassador of Poland to Belarus. In the background of the new Lukashenka’s decree prohibiting issuance and exchange of Belarusian passports in diplomatic missions abroad, on September 11, the Lithuanian Ministry of Interior suggested that the country’s Parliament (Seimas) should consider extending the validity period of passports for foreigners to three years. According to the current legislation, a foreigner’s passport is issued in Lithuania for those, who have either temporary or permanent residence permit for the validity period of the permit and cannot obtain or prolong a passport in their own country for objective reasons. The Director of the Lithuanian Migration Department, Evelina Gudzinskaitė, stressed that a foreigner’s passport can only be issued to those Belarusians living in Lithuania who cannot return to Belarus for humanitarian or political reasons. Therefore, the Migration Department will need to carry out additional checks before issuing documents. In the beginning of last week, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was on a working visit in Stockholm. Tsikhanouskaya received the Anna Lindh Prize, met with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and discussed with him prospects of Sweden’s support the European perspective for Belarus and the project of a new Belarusian passport; met with Swedish Minister of Defense Pal Jonson and discussed with him the situation with the presence of Russian military in Belarus and threats to its sovereignty, and asked for support of Belarusian volunteer fighters in Ukraine with equipment and non-lethal weapons. At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya spoke at the meeting with Sweden’s delegations to OSCE PA and PACE about the implementation of the PACE resolution on Belarus, legalization of Belarusian citizens abroad and endorsement of the proceedings to hold Lukashenka accountable in international and national courts. On September 12, it became known that the European Court of Justice upheld several sanctions against Russian and Belarusian individuals, including Belarusian steel magnate Dmitry Pumpyansky and his wife Galina Pumpyanskaya for their direct ties with Russian President Putin and links to the revenue sources for the Russian government. The sanctions against Belarusian IT-company Synesis and its owner Aliaksandr Shatrov were also upheld. According to the EU official journal, Synesis provided the video surveillance system Kipod for Belarusian authorities, which allows to track people and identify persons captured on video by face recognition tools, which is widely used in the repression machine of the Belarusian authorities. On September 12-13, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was on a working visit in Brussels and Strasbourg. She addressed the European Parliament and urged the MEPs to support the European perspective for Belarus, spoke about political prisoners, and demonstrated the design of the new Belarusian passport. Further, Tsikhanouskaya met with the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola and discussed the formats of cooperation between democratic Belarus and the European Parliament. Both leaders agreed to hold a series of events in December to discuss Belarus. Belarusian democratic leader passed the Cross of Good Neighborhood award to the EP President Metsola for her support. During the visit, Tsikhanouskaya attended the Kalinouski conference held in the European Parliament. On September 12, the European Parliament held a debate on Belarus. Speakers included Petras Auštrevičius, Special Rapporteur on Belarus, Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Juozas Olekas, Chair of the Delegation for relations with Belarus, Thijs Reuten, Member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, the Group of the Greens. The deputies, among other things, criticized the actions of European countries with regard to Belarus as insufficiently decisive and urged the EP to consider new sanctions for the Lukashenka regime. On September 13, the EU adopted a Resolution on Belarus (2023/2041(INI). In a 17-page long document, the EP reminded that the Lukashenka regime is dangerously undermining the sovereignty of Belarus by turning it into a satellite state of Russia and allowing Belarus to be absorbed by Russia into a so-called union state, making the risk of direct occupation extremely high, against the clear will of the majority of Belarusians, pointed out that the regime poses a direct threat to the EU and its citizens’ security, and referred to the report by the UN HCHR who had stated that the repression perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime may amount to crimes against humanity. The resolution, in particular:
- condemns the unabated repression and the systematic and widespread human rights violations continuously committed by the Lukashenka regime, including manifold cases of mistreatment and torture, as well as the incommunicado detention of and inadequate medical assistance provided to political prisoners and other persons prosecuted on politically motivated grounds.
- demands that the Lukashenka regime end this spiral of violence, torture, repression, and propaganda against dissenting voices and perceived critics, immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, their family members, and all persons arbitrarily detained, declare a universal amnesty for all those arrested on political grounds since 2020 and enable the peaceful transfer of power after the organization of free and fair elections.
- calls on the EU institutions and member states to explore the possibility of allowing representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces, particularly Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the legitimate representative of the Belarusian people, and civil society to take up the empty seats previously occupied by representatives of the Belarusian authorities in bilateral and multilateral fora.
- condemns the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in Russia’s unjustified, illegal and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, and, in particular, in the illegal transfer of more than 2 150 children, including orphans, from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to so-called recreational camps in Belarus, where they are subjected to Russification and indoctrination.
- reiterates its call to prepare the ground for the criminal prosecution of Belarusian officials who are responsible for or complicit in electoral fraud, grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity, under the accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction and supports further discussions about the possible establishment in The Hague of an international tribunal for human rights violations in Belarus. Considers that the actions of Lukashenka himself and his regime may amount to the crime against humanity of ‘deportation or forcible transfer of population’ under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and therefore calls on the ICC to consider issuing an international warrant for Lukashenka’s arrest.
On September 14, Lukashenka went on an unannounced working visit to Russia. Aliaksandr Lukashenka met Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 15 in Sochi. This is already the seventh time this year that Lukashenka went on a working visit to Russia. Despite the usual praises, Lukashenka touched upon the topic of Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong Un and suggested thinking about a cooperation of three, implying a possible trilateral cooperation between Russia, Belarus, and North Korea. Moreover, the Belarusian dictator promised to continue supplying diesel to Russia, as agreed with Putin; accused the United States of being the ones who forbade Ukraine to hold peace negotiations with Russia; agreed with Putin’s statements and said that “the West should count how many mercenaries they have sent to Ukraine instead of criticizing Russia”, reiterated that the military units are deployed in Poland near borders and “ready to march into Ukraine”.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On September 11, the Investigative Committee of Belarus began special proceedings (trial in absentia) against the founders and participants of the association of former Belarusian security officers BYPOL Aliaksander Azarau, Uladzimir Zhygar, Matsvey Kupreychyk, Ihar Loban and Andrei Astapovich. The corresponding decision was approved by the Prosecutor General of Belarus. The accused are presently abroad. Publication on the Committee’s website in accordance with the current legislation is a proper summon. The indictment lists such charges as conspiracy to seize power, inciting hostility, calling for sanctions, creating an extremist formation, and insulting government officials. Aliaksandr Azarau, who supported the protests in 2020 and, after leaving Belarus, became one of the founders and leaders of the BYPOL, whose goal was to “restore democracy in Belarus led by people’s leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and hold new presidential and parliamentary elections based on democratic principles,” faces the death penalty: charges he faces include high treason and organization of terrorist acts as part of a group. The remaining defendants face up to 12 years’ imprisonment. The People’s Embassies of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Office, and the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus launched a website www.pashpart.org, where information about countries in which Belarusians living abroad can obtain a foreigner’s passport and the corresponding rules of procedure can be found. The information on the website will be updated on a regular basis. Representative of the United Transitional Cabinet for international affairs, Valery Kavaleuski, explained that in addition to efforts aimed at the development of the passport of New Belarus, communication with national governments and international organizations to simplify and accelerate the procedures for legalizing and obtaining travel documents of Belarusians in various countries will be continued. On September 12, Mikalay Vasilyevich, a former massage coach of the Belarusian National Biathlon Team, was convicted for the second time in three months for donating. On June 6, he was sentenced to six years in prison for “financing an extremist formation” and “financing extremist activities.” In July, the second trial of Vasilyevich on charges of “financing terrorist activities” took place. Since during the consideration of the second case the first sentence entered into force, Mikalay Vasilyevich was considered a previously convicted person when the second sentence was handed down. Given this, he was convicted of a total of 9.5 years of enhanced regime and a fine of 600 basic units (22,200 Belarusian rubles). On September 12, the Belarusian PEN Center presented the results of a study on trends of persecution for political reasons in the sphere of culture in Belarus. The most common violations include denial of access to justice (212 cases), censorship (207), arbitrary detention (130), denial of the right to legal aid (125), criminal prosecution for dissent (115), administrative prosecution (104), and others. Many respondents stated that repression in the country is intensifying and expanding. Summing up the results of the study, the head of the organization, Taciana Niadbaj, noted that politically critical independent art is impossible now in Belarus. On September 14, the Gomel Regional Court began consideration of the case against TOR BAND musicians. The band became popular in Belarus during the wave of protests in 2020. Musicians Yevgen Burlo, Zmitser Galavach, and Andrei Yaremchuk were detained on October 28, 2022. They were assigned 15 days of arrest several times in a row for participating in the filming of music videos and then transferred to a pre-trial detention center. They were recognized as political prisoners by Belarusian NGOs. During the musicians’ stay in prison, the group was recognized as an “extremist formation”. They were charged with “inciting other social discord”; “creation of an extremist formation or participation in it”; “discrediting the Republic of Belarus”; “insulting Lukashenka”. They face up to 12 years in prison. The trial will be held behind closed doors. On September 15, the Supreme Court recognized the Belarusian Investigative Center as an “extremist formation”. The activities of the Center were found to be aimed at incitement of social, political, and ideological hostility, including against certain social groups; dissemination of deliberately false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of its citizens; the discrediting of state authorities and management, as well as the dissemination of extremist materials. The court hearing was held behind closed doors. The Center’s journalists say that their investigative publications have deprived the Lukashenka regime of hundreds of millions of dollars and now the authorities are taking revenge on them for this. For example, together with Delfi journalists, the Center’s investigators published Minsk’s schemes to circumvent Western sanctions by half a billion dollars a year. After this publication, Estonia announced that it would introduce additional restrictions against Belarus. In 2022, the Center unveiled a scheme by which almost $ 200 million of the profits of the Belarusian state-owned enterprise BelAZ were withdrawn from the country. Several investigations were related to the war in Ukraine: on Belarusian mercenaries in the Donbas who were fighting on the side of the Russian Federation and on persons who participated in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus from the occupied territories. The head of the Center Stanislav Ivashkevich claims its journalists are under pressure. “For us, this is the evidence that we are working in the right direction,” he notes. A former police officer, Kirill Gnezdilov, was sentenced to eight years in a high-security colony for inciting hostility and illegal actions regarding information about private life. Gnezdilov resigned from his position in August 2020 and moved to the IT sector. He was detained on February 19, 2023, right at the country border: he lived in Poland for the last six months and came to Brest to visit his family. The trial was held behind closed doors, but it is known that the case was related to the “Black Book of Belarus”, the telegram channel, which published the personal data of persons, including security forces, about whom involvement in repression is alleged. According to the court verdict, Gnezdilov must pay moral compensation to two “victims” (2 thousand and 1 thousand rubles), he is deprived of the captain’s rank, and his phone is confiscated “as a means of crime.” The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, will receive the award “Women for Peace and Security” from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. This award is presented to women who have made a special contribution to the formation of a conflict-free world, the organization reported. After the announcement of the award to Tsikhanouskaya, Assembly President Joëlle Garriaud-Maylam commented that her personal story serves as evidence of “the transformative power of women’s leadership in promoting peace and security.” In turn, Tsikhanouskaya called it a deep mistake that women in politics are too often overlooked. “Dictators and tyrants constantly underestimate the power of women. In my country, Belarus, we have seen incredible courage, resilience, and determination of women. I am proud to accept the Women for Peace and Security Award on behalf of the brave women of Belarus,” she said. On September 14, an award ceremony for the winners of the Free Media Awards, which are given annually by the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation and the German ZEIT-Stiftung to Eastern European journalists, took place in Hamburg. This year it was received by the editorial offices of Reform.by (Belarus), OC Media (Georgia), and “Important Stories” (Russia) as well as journalists Sevgil Musayeva and Yuri Nikolov (Ukraine). Speaking at the ceremony, co-founder of Reform.by and its editor-in-chief Fyodor Pavlyuchenko said: “Right now there are 33 Belarusian journalists in Belarusian prisons. These are not targeted repressions against specific journalists. The systematic destruction of the institution itself – independent media – is being carried out in Belarus. <…> I am convinced that independent media are the immune system of a civil nation. If we disappear, the country Belarus will disappear from the world map very soon. The destruction of Belarusian independent media is part of the Kremlin’s undeclared war against the Belarusian people and our state. Please help us not to lose in this war.”
On September 11, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that the state newspaper “Minskaya Pravda” started selling in Moscow. The publication calls on advertisers to “take advantage of the unique chance and place their advertisements in the newspaper, which is sold in Belarus and in all corners of Moscow and the Moscow region.” “Minskaya Pravda” is the first Belarusian publication to enter the Russian market. The outlet is known for its anti-Western stance and aggressive attacks against Belarusian democratic forces. On September 11, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus published two new lists of “Nazi criminals during the WWII” – people of Lithuanian and Latvian nationality. The authority has accused modern Lithuania and Latvia of “open complicity in hiding war criminals and denying the value of human life.” The lists are a part of the propagandist project to investigate the criminal case of the “genocide of Belarusian people” during the war. “Having studied this list, there remains no doubt about the refusal by the political elites of Lithuania and Latvia to provide legal assistance in the investigation of the criminal case of genocide against Belarusian people,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement. Previously, the Prosecutor General’s office published a similar list of German nationals who allegedly committed war crimes in Belarus. On September 11, three state television channels of Belarus simultaneously released “investigative” films about people who “prepared terrorist attacks in Belarus on instructions from Ukrainian and Western intelligence services”. The STV channel released the film “What are the SBU (Ukrainian State Security Agency) agents doing in Belarus?” about “Belarusians-marginals” who are recruited by the Ukrainian special service. “When the desire to make money becomes a terrorist threat? Kilograms of TNT and thousands of dollars: who is bringing death to our country? How many secret agents of the SBU are hiding in Belarus and why are their plans not destined to come true?”, said the announcement on YouTube. Another propagandist channel, ATN, streamed a “special report” with similar messages entitled ““They were preparing to kill Belarusians!”. How traitors agreed to blow up the railways. Contract with the devil!”. The film talks about a “special operation by the Belarusian secret services to “find and neutralize cells of foreign intelligence services in Belarus”. Another “investigation” film was released on the state television channel ONT with the title “Demons of Terror: SBU accomplices were preparing terrorist attacks on railways. How did the KGB of Belarus prevent the tragedy?” The announcement says: “Ukrainian special services organize attacks on the railway and its infrastructure on the Russian territory. They were ready to use similar tactics in Belarus.” Obviously, the date of the simultaneous screening of three propaganda films “about the terrorist threats”, September 11, was not chosen by chance. On September 13, the Belarusian propagandist Alexey Dzermant on the channel “Azarenok. Directly” spoke in favor of restricting the right to leave Belarus for political prisoners after their release from prison: “As for the leaders (of the opposition), there are questions here. For example, why don’t we legislatively provide for some kind of travel restrictions for these people?” On September 13, at the STV state TV channel, the pro-government psychologist Alena Dziodzina commented on the visit of the President of Equatorial Guinea and representatives of other African countries to Minsk, mostly praising Aliaksandr Lukashenka: “Lukashenka’s method of communication can be called in one word – humaneness.” “Dialogues between guests and the Belarusian President often begin with them sincerely sharing their fatigue from neo-colonial oppression by the United States. And they admit that they came to Belarus with the hope to become more independent and sovereign”. On September 13, Belarusian pro-government artist Svetlana Zhigimont, who supports Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, announced a public fundraising campaign to support a “Russian hero Mikhail “Pitbull” Turkanov,” fighting in the war. Turkanov does not hide his neo-Nazi and racist views. Zhigimont is known for her paintings of portraits of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. After the message about the fundraising campaign drew the attention of the media, she deleted it. At the same time, Russian and Belarusian propaganda constantly portray Ukrainians as Nazis and thereby justify the invasion of Ukraine. On September 14, the state TV channel “Belarus 1” reported that the country’s libraries are tightening the procedure for providing “extremist literature” to readers. The channel claims that special permits should be introduced to be able to borrow such materials. The report states that all “extremist books are difficult to destroy, and sometimes specialists need them for scientific work.” At the National Library in Minsk, such books are being kept in a special storage. Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office continues to ensure that “extremist” literature is not sold in stores and on the Internet. First of all, prosecutors are interested in historical books. On September 14, the head of Lukashenka’s Administration, Igor Sergeenko, announced that Lukashenka instructed the government to exclude the use of Latin letters in the names of streets and topographical objects. “This issue was raised by many concerned citizens who saw the imposition of Western liberal values and cultural traditions through the Latinization of the Belarusian language,” said Sergeenko. Belarusian propaganda welcomed the strengthening of ties between Russia (and Belarus) and North Korea amid the visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to Russia. On September 14, “political scientist” Alexei Dzermant in an interview with propagandist Grigory Azarenok stated that “the logic of geopolitics, the logic of the continent requires that we have a union space from Brest to Pyongyang.” On September 15, propagandist Grigory Azarenok spoke out to defend the Belarusian propaganda. Without denying the very fact of its existence, Azarenok said, apparently addressing representatives of democratic forces, “Our propaganda is the propaganda of justice, conscience, honor, dignity. Propaganda of Aliaksandr Lukashenka! It will come to children, to old people, and to teenagers, and this is inevitable! And you won’t be able to replace it with Polish and American propaganda, you are useless”. Best regards,iSANS team