- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 18)
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 August 28, British intelligence stated in its daily update on Ukraine that the military training “Zapad-2023”, which is one of the largest annual joint military drills of Russia, Belarus, and other Russian allies and a highlight of the year, has highly likely been canceled due to the lack of military personnel and equipment. It is worth mentioning that last December the Commander of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Valery Gerasimov announced plans to hold the “Zapad-2023” military training. On August 29, online media and Telegram channels posted news that several explosives detonated at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Serious damages were done to the rail track. The Commander of the Ukrainian Border Security Service Andrei Demchenko confirmed the information and stated that explosives were detonated by lightning. There were no victims of the accident. The Ukrainian officials reminded that restrictions for visiting the border area are in place. On August 30, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that another set of Iskander-M missile systems was delivered to the Belarusian Army. According to the information of the Belarusian Hajun project, at least ten units of the short-range tactical missile systems Iskander arrived at Osipovichi station from Astrakhan region of Russia. According to the existing data, the Fourth State Central Interspecies Testing Ground of the Russian Federation is located there, and, reportedly, this is not the last batch of the Iskanders to arrive in Belarus. The “Combat Brotherhood-2023” military exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) started in Belarus on September 1 and will take place until September 6. In the first half of the last week, military personnel from Kazakhstan arrived in Brest as well as an echelon of the Russian Armed Forces. According to official data, more than 2,500 military personnel will participate in the military drills, of which around 300 are Russian troops. It is worth mentioning that, in general, the military exercise of the Belarusian Armed Forces has been prolonged yet again in Belarus until at least September 11, 2023. On September 1, the State Border Committee of Belarus accused Poland of violating the state border as allegedly a Polish helicopter flew about 1,200 meters into Belarus and returned to Poland. Later that day the Polish Chargé d’Affaires was summoned to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry due to the incident.Earlier last week, it was announced that the servicemen of the 120th Separate Guards Mechanized brigade of the Belarusian Armed Forces went to Russia for training. Official sources of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense did not disclose the actual place where the military training will be held in Russia. According to the available information, the servicemen were brought to the Savasleyka military airbase in Nizhegorodskaya region in Russia where the Branch of the 4th State Center for Aviation Personnel Training and Troop Testing of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is located. It is worth mentioning that the MIG-31K interceptor aircrafts of the Russian Airforce, which left the Belarusian military airfield “Machulishchy” in 2022 and 2023, are located there.
On Monday, August 28, the meeting of the Ministers of Interior of the three Baltic States and Poland took place in Warsaw. The Ministers discussed circumstances in which the borders with Belarus could be completely closed. The Ministers have agreed on two main criteria for the closure of borders: an armed incident or incidents near the border of one of the countries, which poses a serious threat to the national security of the countries, or an organized mass breakthrough of illegal migrants. In a joint statement, the ministers demanded the Lukashenka regime to “immediately remove the “PMC Wagner” from Belarus and illegal migrants from the frontiers.” On August 29, the Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced results of an anonymous survey that they launched a month ago to see opinions of Belarusians about the work of democratic forces. The results showed that most Belarusians are satisfied with how the democratic forces represent their interests internationally, with efforts to hold Lukashenka’s regime accountable, the protection of the interests of Belarusians abroad, and build strategic partnerships with key politicians and organizations. However, Belarusians noted the lack of communication with Belarusians in the country, passive attitude towards a scenario of change of power involving military resistance, lack of transparency, recognition of mistakes, and mechanisms for resolving conflicts within the democratic forces as weaknesses of the democratic forces. Last Week, the leader of Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya held meetings with a number of international politicians. She discussed with the newly appointed Prime Minister of Bulgaria Nikolai Denkov the New Belarusian Passport project and the Russian threat to Belarus’ independence and with the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs further cooperation, support for political prisoners and the situation of Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine. Tsikhanouskaya discussed the situation with the Wagner mercenaries, provocations of the Lukashenka regime, as well as the UN General Assembly agenda with the Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Wlachovsky and asked the minister to include representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces into the work of the Bucharest Nine and use that platform for discussions about Belarus. With the Foreign Minister of Canada, Melanie Joly Tsikhanouskaya discussed the potash exports and Canada assured of the readiness to supply potash to countries that had been dependent on deliveries from Belarus. Canada’s Foreign Minister informed of the latest decisions to expand sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime and that Canada is ready to regularly expand its sanctions lists against individuals and companies as well as freeze assets and property of the regime if found in Canadian jurisdiction. Tsikhanouskaya met with Slovenian President Nataša Pirc Musar and expressed her gratitude for the support of democratic Belarus in international organizations, congratulated Slovenia on winning the seat at the UN Security Council against Lukashenka’s regime, informed the Slovenian president of a joint declaration of Belarusian democratic forces of a European future for Belarus and asked for support. On August 30, Switzerland aligned with the latest EU sanctions imposed against the official Minsk on August 3. Despite the sanctions against 38 individuals and 3 companies that Switzerland imposed on August 15, the Federal Department of Economy, Education and Science as a responsible body, imposed further restrictions on exports of goods and technologies in the aviation sphere. The restrictions against Belarus now are very similar to restrictions imposed against Russia.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Another 17 people were recognized as political prisoners in Belarus: Barys Vitko, Mikhail Litvak, Syargey Adaska, Aleg Prakapchuk, Valery Khamenka, Alyaksei Harseey, Yuliya Kolas, Yagor Zhukai, Alyaksander Pabarzhyn, Yaugen Holaday, Andrei Khalupka, Syargey Korsak, Alyaksander Birata, Alyaksander Kulikoy, Syargey Safronai, Valeriy Krantsevich, Alyaksei Afanasiei. They were convicted on charges of insulting a judge, and government officials, insulting Aliaksandra Lukashenka, and inciting hostility. Belarusian human rights defenders consider their persecution to be politically motivated, connected with the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and an end to political repression against citizens of the country. More than 70 people have become defendants in criminal cases under Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code, “assistance to extremist activities”, for contacts with media recognized as “extremist formations” for a period of just over two years, since June 2021, when this article appeared. The vague definition of “extremist activity” and the practice of recognizing independent media as “extremist formations” allows the authorities to manipulate the wording to unlawfully restrict the right to information, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. As of today, 17 media outlets have been recognized as “extremist formations”. Most of the known cases of criminal prosecution for contacts with “extremist” resources are based on charges for interaction with Belsat and Euroradio. Many persons have also been convicted of sending photos and videos of Russian military equipment to the Belarusian Hajun. For communicating with “extremist” resources, in particular, the wife of political prisoner Igar Losik, Daria (for an interview with Belsat), ex-teacher of the Minsk State Linguistic University Natalya Dulina (for speaking on the air of Euroradio), analyst Yagor Lebyadok (for comments for Euroradio), and lawyer Alexander Danilevich (for an interview with the Tribune) were tried. For the fourth time, Belarus took the last place in the “Index of the Prohibition of Torture” compiled by the working group on fighting torture of the Civic Solidarity Platform, which includes representatives of human rights NGOs from eight countries of the OSCE region — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Poland, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and Ukraine. In 2022, Belarus scored 95 points, two less than a year earlier. “Viasna” Human Rights Center documented 227 cases of torture and ill-treatment in 2022 (of which 89 women and 138 men). Also, about 5,000 cases of torture and ill-treatment of participants in peaceful protests in 2020 remain uninvestigated. On August 29, the Current Time online TV channel of RFE/RL published an interview with Leanid Sudalenka, chair of the Gomel chapter of “Viasna” Human Rights Center, who had been recently released from prison after fully serving his three-year term for “organizing a gross violation of public order and financing or providing other material support for such activities.” In the interview, Leanid spoke about what happens to political prisoners in the colony and how their persecution by the authorities does not end when they are released. “The situation is getting worse, significantly worse, in comparison even with 2021,” said a former political prisoner who is currently in exile in Lithuania. On August 30, the Supreme Court of Belarus upheld the verdict against journalist Yauhen Merkis, handed down at the end of May by the Gomel Regional Court. He was accused of facilitating extremist activities and participating in extremist formation. According to human rights defenders and friends of the journalist, the charges are related to sending photos of Russian military equipment to “extremist resources”. He was sentenced to four years of imprisonment in a high-security colony. On August 30, political prisoner Polina Sharendo-Panasyuk ended her hunger strike which she had started on August 23. Her demands for more humane detention conditions were met. She was transferred from the Rechitsa Temporary Detention Facility (IVS), where she was kept in solitary confinement in unsanitary conditions, without bedding, and without the opportunity to go out for walks and receive parcels, to the Pre-trial Detention Center № 3 in Gomel. She will be held there until trial. In 2021, Polina Sharendo-Panasyuk was sentenced to two years in prison, accused of using violence against policemen and insulting them, as well as insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In April 2022, her sentence was prolonged for another year for malicious disobedience to the requirements of the penal institution’s administration, otherwise, she would have been released on August 6. On August 31, Larysa Shchyrakova, a former journalist from Gomel, was sentenced to three and a half years in a general regime colony for promoting extremist activities and discrediting Belarus. According to the prosecution, the journalist collected information to ensure the “extremist activities of the information resource “Viasna” and the extremist formation “Belsat”. In addition, Larysa Shchyrakova will have to pay a fine of BYN 3,500 (approximately EUR 1,275). The trial was held in the Gomel Regional Court in a closed mode. After the trial, Larysa Shchyrakova said she would not appeal the verdict. On August 31, Viktor Lameko, an entrepreneur from Zelva, was sentenced to three years in a general regime colony. The political prisoner was accused of slander and insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka. During the arrest, Lameko was severely beaten first in a minibus, and then in the building of the 9th Department of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs though, as becomes clear from the video, published by a pro-government telegram channel, he did not resist. Yuri Garavski, a former member of the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) will stand before a criminal court in St. Gallen, Switzerland on September 19-20, 2023. He is accused of having participated in the enforced disappearance of three leading political opponents of the Lukashenka regime in 1999. The proceeding follows the criminal claims by relatives of two of the victims and is supported by human rights NGOs FIDH, TRIAL International, and Viasna, which concurrently filed a criminal complaint. The case is groundbreaking: for the very first time, a Belarusian national stands trial for enforced disappearance on the basis of universal jurisdiction. It is also the first application of the specific provision criminalizing this offense in Switzerland. “With this first-ever prosecution of an alleged member of Lukashenka’s hit squad, we are sending a strong signal. Justice for international crimes can and will be delivered, regardless of state borders or time elapsed since the crimes have been committed”, said Pavel Sapelka, lawyer of Viasna. “The principle of universal jurisdiction is becoming firmly and crucially entrenched in our judicial systems. Step by step, we are making impunity for international criminals impossible.”
On August 29, State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, Alexander Volfovich, on the air of the STV channel, said that Wagner mercenaries do not pose a threat to Western countries: “Reproaches that Belarus poses a threat to neighbors by deploying the PMC Wagner detachment on its territory are a complete lie. After all, the PMC Wagner does not threaten anyone. The people who are currently deployed on the territory of Belarus, are exclusively engaged in maintaining their professional skills and providing instructor services. They work as instructors at training grounds, and they share their extensive combat experience”. On August 29, it became known that one of the most notorious Belarusian propagandists, the host of the STV state television channel, Grigory Azarenok, was invited to work as a lecturer at the Polatsk State University. Azarenok will provide students with the course “Fundamentals of Media Business”. Last year, his colleague from another propagandist TV channel, ONT, Igor Tur, began teaching at the Faculty of Journalism of the Belarusian State University in Minsk. Other propagandists constantly give ideological lectures at various universities in the country. Grigory Azarenok starred in a music video for a Russian propagandist song about the Wagner group by the Ukrainian pro-Russian rapper Akim Apachev and Russian singer and “Z-patriot” Yulia Chicherina, both support the war in Ukraine. They recorded a video for the song “Who is Mr. Wagner?”. The video shows the “face of Belarusian propaganda” — Azarenok, as well as the Belarusian military servicemen in the background. The song was sung in English with a strong Russian accent. It sings about “Russian gremlins from the Kremlin” who love nothing more than “ruining F-16s”. “Russian gangsters” is what the Wagnerites are called in the song. On August 31, Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a meeting of the Security Council of Belarus, at which he made several statements. In his opening speech, he reiterated the threat from NATO, Poland, and the Baltic states, which “are constantly conducting provocative exercises on our borders.” At the same time, Lukashenka took a step forward and invited Polish observers to visit the military exercises “Combat Brotherhood — 2023” of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Belarus that started on September 1 in the Brest region of Belarus. Lukashenka elaborated that he has invited the observers from Poland to the exercises “to exclude any insinuations” and as a sign of the readiness to renew the relations with neighbors. At the same meeting, Lukashenka rejected the demand of the Baltic countries and Poland to withdraw the Wagner mercenaries from Belarus, which was inscribed into the joint declaration of Ministers of Interior of the named countries on August 28. Lukashenka stated: “The answer is simple: neither in Poland, nor in Lithuania, nor in other Baltic countries should there be a single foreign serviceman. Then we can also make claims about the presence of military personnel from other countries here. In the meantime, these are unreasonable and stupid demands”. At the same time, Belarusian propagandists supported Lukashenka’s proposal to invite Polish observers to the CSTO exercises. On September 3, Grigory Azarenok while speaking on STV channel combined peace proposals with traditional insults and threats: “Relations between Belarus and Poland are tense as never before. Lukashenka takes steps to de-escalate. We do not want any war, just like the Polish people”. He elaborated further and said that Poland should not provoke Wagnerites and better come as good Slavic neighbors. However, he continued to threaten with nukes: “Well, what do you say, neighbors? Sheathed old sword? Or will we hang out? Do you need it — to treat radiation sickness for centuries?”. On September 1, another well-known Belarusian propagandist, Alexander Shpakovsky, received a public position. He was appointed as the Minister Counselor of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in the Russian Federation. On September 1, which marks the start of a new school year, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said at a meeting with Belarusian schoolchildren that “independence is rather a relative concept.” “Today, there are no independent states in the world, since even the largest, most powerful, and most advanced countries need support and allies. But we have this independence, and we have sovereignty. We need to preserve this so that never again we put the generations that will come after us, and you, under the whip,” Lukashenka said and called on “to preserve sovereignty”. On the same day, the Belarusian Minister of Information Vladimir Pertsov, while meeting with students of the Faculty of Journalism of the Belarusian State University in Minsk, said that they are “fighting bayonets” in information wars. “In these information wars, you become not just creative people, not just journalists, not just media managers, but, by and large, soldiers. Because you are our future and present combat bayonets. You are journalists and media managers of a whole new era.” This year, the faculty matriculated students only to state-funded programs. According to the dean of the faculty, Aleksey Belyaev, the faculty fulfills the state order and trains specialists only for the state media. On September 2, the St. Elisabeth Orthodox Monastery in Minsk launched a premiere of a Russian propaganda film about the war in Donbas. The film “Bassoon” by the Moscow director Anna Artamonova is an attempt to romanticize the war of occupation in Russia. The film was shown at the monastery’s Sunday school, and the meeting with the director took place in Pinsk and Minsk. Events in Pinsk are a part of the Orthodox festival “The Joy”. The concert, which is included in the program, is called “We do not leave our own” (a slogan that supports the aggression of the Russian Federation in Ukraine). The Minsk writer Nikolai Gavrilov, who has recently introduced himself as a “war correspondent” (the self-name of military Z-bloggers and reporters), will speak at these meetings. Best regards,iSANS team