- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 21)
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).
Belarus suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) with respect to Poland and the Czech Republic. The decision was justified by “the objectives of ensuring the national interests of the Republic of Belarus”. In practice, this will mean that Belarus won’t provide Poland and the Czech Republic with notifications and information related to conventional arms and equipment, nor will it accept inspections from both countries in order to monitor compliance with the numerical limitations on conventional arms established by the CFE Treaty. With respect to other participating states, Belarus will continue to implement the CFE Treaty. From September 18 to 22, a delegation of the Ministry of National Defense of Vietnam led by Deputy Head of the Main Logistics Directorate of the Vietnamese People’s Army Nguyen Tan Cuong was on a working visit in Belarus. In the course of the visit, negotiations, and visits to the military objects and production facilities were held. It is known that the delegation visited the 2236th military equipment storage base. On September 22, a bilateral complex military training of the Belarusian Armed Forces started and will continue until September 26. The purpose of the exercise is to improve the readiness of military command bodies to ensure the continuous management of subordinate forces during combat operations. In developing the concept of the exercise, modern approaches to the use of troops were taken into account on the basis of the experience of modern armed conflicts. The exercise is likely to substitute the previously canceled Russian-Belarusian joint maneuvers “Shield of the Union-2023”. From September 22 to 25, a command-staff exercise with the territorial defense forces of the Mahiliou Region took place. Officials of executive committees and military commissariats of the region, military conscripts of Mahilou, Osipovichi, and Chausa districts, as well as two units of the people’s militia, took part in the exercise. The issues of protection and defense of important facilities, ensuring martial law measures, and fighting against sabotage and reconnaissance groups were practiced. Last week, limited work continued on dismantling the PMC Wagner field camp in the village of Tsel. According to satellite imagery data, as of September 19, only about 103 tents, or 35 percent of their original quantity, remained in the mercenaries’ field camp in the village of Tsel. Their total capacity might be estimated at 2,000 people (assuming 20 people in one tent). Initially, there were about 292 tents in the camp. PMC “Wagner” mercenaries held classes with pupils of the military-patriotic club “Lynx”, as well as representatives of the National Beauty School.
Last week, a UN High-Level Week took place in New York, where political leaders of all UN member countries gathered to attend the UN General Assembly (UNGA) annual session and other high-level meetings in the framework of these important gatherings. Belarus was represented by two delegations at the UNGA High-Level Week in New York: a delegation of the official Minsk headed by the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Aleinik and the Delegation of Belarusian democratic forces led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. While Aleinik attended a Ministerial meeting of the Group of Like-Minded States and made accusations against the West speaking at several UN sessions, Tsikhanouskaya was defending the rights of Belarusians, promoting the project of a new Belarusian passport, and holding discussions with many leaders of the democratic countries, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna, the President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania Igli Hasani, US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Tajani, the Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen, Foreign Minister of Germany Annalena Baerbock, and the new Latvian Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. Moreover, Tsikhanouskaya recorded a video before the beginning of the UNGA high-level meetings, explaining her agenda and the goals she strives to achieve with her presence in NYC, underlining that she is here ”to defend Belarusians‘ interests“ and that she will not lie, unlike the delegation of Lukashenka. The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces attended several side events at the UN: ”Threat to Belarus‘ independence and international response to it“, which was organized under her own initiative and attended by foreign ministers of European countries and the Delegation of the European Union to the UN and devoted to discussing the most important matters like the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons and the threat to Belarus’ independence, which the Minsk regime is currently deepening. She also attended another side event on women’s political leadership, organized by the Women Political Leaders Association and the Apolitical Foundation, addressed the UN stating that there is not a single UN charter article that has not been violated by the Lukashenka regime, called upon the UN Security Council to put Belarus on the agenda and discuss the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons there and the direct threat to Belarus’ independence. At the same time, the Hungarian Delegation at the UNGA was asked by the EU and NATO allies not to meet with the delegations of Russia and Belarus. However, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs did not listen to these calls and met with his Belarusian colleague Sergei Aleinik, reasoning his step with a statement that the NATO and EU allies do not want to use the platform provided by the UN as a platform for dialogue. On September 18, the Head of the Belarusian National Anti-Crisis Management and the Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet Pavel Latushka held several meetings with Lithuanian politicians and decision makers. In a meeting with the Lithuanian Deputy Minister of Justice Gabija Grigaitė-Daugirdė, Latushka presented the report on crimes against humanity in Belarus prepared by the Justice Hub, according to which 136 thousand people became victims of such crimes in Belarus from May 2020 to May 2023, discussed legal framework for bringing the perpetrators of the Lukashenka regime to justice, discussed the issue of a special tribunal for Belarus and the implementation of the universal jurisdiction mechanism. In a meeting with the Head of the Department for Eastern Neighborhood Policy of Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Darius Vitkauskas, Pavel Latushka discussed the issue of a possible closure of further border checkpoints at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border was raised, and further possible national and EU sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and in a meeting at the Lithuanian Ministry of Interior discussed the issues of legalization of Belarusians in Lithuania, among others. On September 18, several media outlets announced that Poland had presented a paper with proposals for a new EU sanctions package in Brussels. The proposal says that the sanctions should ban diamond imports from Russia and put individual sanctions on the Russian Alrosa diamond company for its support to the Russian military, but, importantly, it also states that sanctions against Belarus should be aligned with those against Russia. On September 19, Latvia closed one of the two border checkpoints at the Latvian-Belarusian border. Immediately after the closure, fortifications such as concrete blocks and razor wire were installed at the entrance points of the border checkpoint. At the end of the week, it was announced that Latvia’s Ministry of Justice is preparing a legal framework not to let vehicles with Russian and Belarusian license plates into the country.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Minsk resident Pavel Kharitonau was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of financing extremist activities. The Minsk City Court handed down the verdict in January 2023, but it became known about it only now. Kharitonau was sentenced to such a term for a donation of USD 20 in 2021 to an initiative, which was only later recognized as an “extremist formation”. Kharitonau appealed the verdict, but the Supreme Court upheld it. Siarhei Hardzijevich, a former journalist of the Belarusian portal Pershy Region, was detained at the border while returning from Poland. As it became known, he was detained on September 14, at the Brest checkpoint, after which he was sent to a temporary detention facility. What caused the detention is not known. Hardzijevich left for Poland in 2022, having been released after serving a year and a half in prison for insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka, as well as police officers, and slander. On September 18, representatives of the Belarusian human rights community issued a statement, announcing an assignment of the status of “former political prisoners” to 150 people. According to Anastasia Vasilchuk, a member of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, people who were not recognized as political prisoners at the time of their imprisonment but had been put in prison for political reasons, began to apply to the Center after the end of their prison terms more and more often. At the time of their detention and trials, their relatives did not report the reasons for their imprisonment to human rights defenders for fear of even greater reprisals. Human rights activists demand a review of criminal cases of former political prisoners with the aim to cancel their sentences and obtain their full rehabilitation, with compensation for all types of harm caused by arbitrary conviction and imprisonment. On September 20, the Supreme Court liquidated the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada). This was announced by the party Chairman Ihar Barysau. “This is not the end,” he said in his message. “As long as there are our team and people who believe in the future democratic Belarus, in its social-democratic choice, we will rise from the ashes like Phoenix.” This year, the following political parties have been liquidated in Belarus: The Conservative Christian BPF Party, the Republican Party, the Social Democratic Party of National Accord, the Belarusian Green Party, the Belarusian People’s Front Party, the United Civic Party, and the Belarusian Social and Sports Party. On September 22, a court hearing was held on the appeal by political prisoner journalist Pavel Padabed. His appeal was dismissed, and his sentence was not changed. He was sentenced to four years in a general regime colony on charges of cooperation with the Belsat TV channel, which is recognized as an extremist formation. Padabed was also accused of “selfish motives” for his journalistic activities and “obtaining financial benefits” – the reason was the discovery of his foreign bank card. During the trial, it turned out that Padabed’s phone had been tapped, and the security forces had access to his correspondence in messengers. On September 19-20, the first case on the crimes committed by the Belarusian security forces was considered within the framework of the universal jurisdiction principle by a court in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Universal jurisdiction (UJ) is a legal principle that allows the perpetrators of core international crimes to be brought to justice, even if these crimes were committed by them in another country. Given the fact that numerous cases of human rights violations are not investigated by the authorities in Belarus, this principle can become an effective instrument for bringing perpetrators to justice elsewhere. Yuri Harausky, an ex-officer of the Belarusian SOBR (Special Rapid Response Unit of the Ministry of the Interior), which was called a “death squad” in independent Belarusian media for its role in the alleged assassinations of political opposition figures and leaders of organized crime gangs in the 1990s, fled Belarus to Switzerland in 2019, applied for asylum, and in an interview with Deutsche Welle stated his involvement in enforced disappearance and murder of key critics of Lukashenka in the 1990s – Yury Zakharanka, Viktor Gonchar, and Anatoly Krasousky. The official investigation in Belarus into the abduction was not effective. In 2004, PACE special rapporteur Christos Pourgourides concluded that Zakharanka, Gonchar, and Krasousky were abducted by a special squad of security forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Pavlichenka, and all this happened with the knowledge of the country’s leadership. The report, however, did not lead to the disclosure of these crimes in Belarus. Harausky’s interview became a basis for opening the investigation of the case in Switzerland on the basis of the universal jurisdiction principle. Belarusian and international human rights activists have played a leading role in getting the investigation started. The hearing lasted only two days; the verdict will be delivered on September 28. This process is of paramount importance for several reasons. Firstly, this is the first Belarusian case investigated and brought to a verdict within the framework of UJ. It will likely spur the investigation of cases submitted by Belarusian victims of torture and other crimes to law enforcement agencies in other countries. Several dozen cases are under investigation in European countries presently, but a significant increase in numbers can be expected – the victims account for many thousands, and human rights violations are carefully documented by non-governmental organizations and are ready to be transferred to law enforcement agencies. Secondly, it is possible that new circumstances revealed during Harausky’s trial will make it possible to initiate an official investigation into other likely participants in the abduction and murder of Belarusian opposition politicians. This process may lead to obtaining evidence of the involvement of top officials of the Lukashenka regime in these crimes. Thirdly, this trial has an important political and symbolic significance: the fact that the first verdict on the events was handed down almost a quarter of a century after they took place suggests that despite the fact that international justice needs to be sought for a long time, it is achievable. This gives hope to relatives of victims of human rights violations and instills confidence in those lawyers and human rights defenders who are involved in the support of their cases. On September 20, several UN experts urged UN member states not to deport Belarusians with expired passports and to help them with alternative documents. “The presidential decree in Belarus will specifically impact those who were compelled to flee the country due to mass repression in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election including peaceful protesters. They cannot return safely to Belarus,” the experts said. “The decree constitutes a misuse of security measures and is part of a deliberate policy to punish Belarusian exiles, including human rights defenders, journalists, and members of the opposition for their perceived political disloyalty. If these exiles returned to Belarus, they would be exposed to high risk of persecution,” the experts underlined, urging Belarusian authorities to repeal the decree and provide consular services as set out in the 1963 Vienna Convention on consular relations. They urged UN member states to facilitate, in accordance with their international obligations, the acquisition of alternative travel and identity documents guaranteeing Belarusians who cannot return safely to their home country, access to essential services and the freedom of movement. The statement was signed by Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights. On September 22, an interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Belarus was held at the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council, following an interim oral update of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, in accordance with Resolution 52/29. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, delivered the update where she noted that in the three years since the 2020 elections, the human rights situation has not improved. “On the contrary, we are witnessing a further narrowing of civil space and continued disrespect for fundamental freedoms,” she said. Al-Nashif mentioned arbitrary arrests, repression, trials in absentia, torture, deprivation of lawyers’ licenses, putting people on the list of “extremists”, and liquidation of NGOs and political parties. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also criticized the recent changes in the legislation of Belarus, which allowed the authorities to deprive Belarusians convicted of “extremism” as well as those living outside the country, of their citizenship of the Republic of Belarus. The UN pointed out that such legislative innovations create “a danger of the appearance of stateless persons” and “a large space for abuse.” The Council members called on States to investigate cases falling under universal jurisdiction in order to ensure the responsibility of those who violated human rights. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Advisor on Legal Affairs, Kristina Rikhter, noted that hearings on the situation in Belarus have been held at almost every session of the Human Rights Council since 2020. “For Belarusians, this means that the issue of human rights in Belarus and their violations by the regime remain in the focus of attention of the international community and the UN itself”, she said. The next written report of the UN HCHR Examination mechanism on the human rights situation in Belarus will be presented in March 2024.
On September 17, the EU’s regional communication program for the Eastern Partnership countries, EU NEIGHBOURS East, published the results of its annual survey of public attitudes in Belarus. The public opinion poll was conducted in February 2023. According to the survey, a significant part of the answers regarding the Russian aggression against Ukraine correspond to the main narratives of Russian and Belarusian propaganda. At the same time, many of the respondents have a different point of view. For example, respondents were asked to evaluate the following statement “In February 2022, the Russian Federation launched a special military operation to protect civilians in the Donbass of Ukraine”. 45 percent of them agreed with this statement, while 29 percent called this thesis “false”. Another 26 percent refused to reply to this question. In general, the survey outcomes can be assessed as a failure of the anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Belarus. According to the survey, one-third of Belarusians have a positive image of the European Union, compared to only 16 percent who have a negative one. Propaganda continues to justify Lukashenka’s decree to cancel the issuance or exchange of passports at the Belarusian consulates abroad. On September 17, the state channel STV aired an interview with the First Deputy Secretary of the State Security Council, Pavel Muraveyko, who stated that the decision was made exclusively to relieve pressure on Belarusian consulates abroad, therefore, it was not of a political nature. “There are no pitfalls,” he said. “The decree of the head of state clearly states for what purposes this decision was taken. This is to optimize the improvement of administrative procedures and streamline the actions of our diplomatic missions. Secondly, no matter how one speculates about it, our citizens are always our citizens. The country does not abandon its citizens and is ready to assist everyone in resolving their issues. It’s just that the mechanism of how it works has changed.” On September 18, the VoenTV channel of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense published a new anti-Polish report. The storyline of the report promotes the current main propaganda narrative that Poland allegedly refuses official Minsk’s peace proposals: “Belarus has repeatedly taken and continues to take steps towards (Poland), but in Poland so far, they are only hitting the hand of friendship and good neighborhood.” Apparently, this is a reference to the latest military exercises currently taking place in Belarus, to which the Belarusian side invited Polish observers. The Polish side constantly rejects the proposal, not unreasonably considering it an ideological step. On September 20, the illegitimate “head” of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, called Putin his “elder brother” (or “big brother”). According to Lukashenka’s press service, at a meeting with the Governor of the Krasnodar region of Russia, Veniamin Kondratiev, in the city of Sochi, where defense issues were discussed, he said: “Our elder brother and I agreed on how we will act in Belarus. Of course, we don’t say this publicly. Our last negotiations on your land were devoted to defense and security,”. At the same meeting, the Belarusian dictator shared his fears and fantasies about the future: “Ukraine is just the beginning. The worst is still ahead if we don’t mobilize. We, including Russia, are mostly alarmed by Poland, and America stands behind Poland. They decided to destroy everything that exists here, especially the European Union. The main point of support is Poland. In 2020, they wanted to assimilate us, so that we would be the dividing line between Russia, the East, and the West. But it didn’t work out. That’s why we’re paying a lot of attention to defense issues now.” On September 20, the Foreign Minister of Belarus Sergei Aleinik, speaking at the UN Security Council meeting “Maintaining International Peace and Security” in New York, said that Belarus “has always advocated for peace and is interested in ending the war between Russia and Ukraine as soon as possible.” Also, he blamed Western countries for unleashing the war: “They allegedly did not want to comply with the Minsk agreements, and this led to a full-scale war”. In conclusion, Aleinik again proposed Belarus as a mediator in peace negotiations. At the same time, Aleinik rejected accusations of complicity in the Russian aggression on the part of Belarus. He justified his statement by the fact that Ukrainian refugees were arriving in Belarus. “By a special decision of the country’s leadership, they have practically equal rights with our citizens. Has anyone from the Western countries made such decisions? Since the end of February 2022, about 120 thousand Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Belarus. This is almost 1.5% of our country’s population! Do you think, that if they felt aggression from us, these people would come to Belarus voluntarily? The answer is obvious and logical.” “Against this backdrop, accusations against Belarus of “complicity in the aggression” look completely absurd,” said Aleinik. On September 22, speaking at a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Alliance of Civilizations during the 78th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, Aleinik called sanctions “a modern form of the neo-colonialism”: “Belarus is deeply concerned about the trend towards unilateralism and arbitrariness, including the thoughtless use of unilateral coercive measures that are applied to more than three dozen sovereign states of the world as a key instrument of the foreign policy of individual countries. We consider sanctions as a modern form of neo-colonialism, affecting the lives of more than a third of humanity and having no place in international relations between civilized peoples in the 21st century.” On September 21, at a meeting on educational issues in Minsk, Lukashenka said that it was necessary to take the Soviet textbooks as a basis for publishing new books for education in Belarus: “We should not print new textbooks, but take the Soviet ones as a basis”. In addition, Lukashenka spoke in favor of ensuring that the most talented applicants are in demand in Belarus. In his opinion, “young people need to be told about the prospects for self-realization in Belarus, and if children stray from this path, then adults are to blame.” At the same meeting, Prosecutor General of Belarus Andrey Shved said that too much attention is paid to teaching English in schools. “For a number of classes, the number of hours spent on studying English is greater in total than on studying Belarusian and Russian. Are we preparing a workforce for the West?”, he asked rhetorically. On September 22, speaking at a meeting on the development of livestock farming in the city of Soligorsk, Lukashenka commented on the cooling of relations between Poland and Ukraine: “Now the Polish side has begun to conflict with Ukraine. At first, Poland supported Volodymir Zelensky in every possible way, but now it sharply criticizes its partners. Do you think that Poland is simply crushing this poor Ukraine today? No, a “go-ahead” order from overseas was given: “We need to dismiss Zelensky, we are tired of him”. Tomorrow is the election in America, no one will care. And we need to defend ourselves. Because we don’t know what to expect from these crazy Polish politicians”, said Lukashenka. On September 22, during a talk show by propagandist Grigory Azarenok on the state television channel STV, pro-government politician, and chair of the Belarusian party “Belaya Rus” Oleg Romanov said, discussing the question “Where did the opposition come from in Belarus?”: “In reality it was a program. A program for zombifying the Belarusian people, turning them into “anti-Russians”, just as it was successfully done in Ukraine. Now we are reaping the fruits…” Best regards,iSANS team