- MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
- POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
- HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
Belarus Review (2023 edition, issue 15)
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).
Last week, international and Russian media outlets informed of the massive withdrawal of PMC Wagner mercenaries in groups of 500-600 people on “vacation” to Russia. Supposedly, Lukashenka refused to finance the PMC Wagner presence in Belarus: he hoped for finances from Russia, but Russia refused to finance Wagner’s presence in Belarus. However, there has been no confirmed information about the movement of bus columns carrying Wagnerites out of Belarus. There also has been no confirmation of the reason for the mercenaries’ withdrawal from Belarus. Therefore, as of now, the information about the massive withdrawal of PMC Wagner mercenaries from Belarus can be deemed unconfirmed. The 231st Artillery Brigade of the Belarusian Armed Forces (part of the North-Western Operational Command) will receive a 301-mm. Belarusian-made B-200 Polonez multiple rocket launcher system. The brigade will become the second unit of the Belarusian military to receive the Polonez MLRS. Previously they were in service only in the 336th reactive artillery brigade of central subordination. Accordingly, Polonez MLRS’ will be represented not only in the artillery units of the central subordination but also in the units of the operational command of the Ground Forces. Belarusian Ministry of Defense is planning to overhaul eight Su-25 attack aircraft in 2023. Such a conclusion can be made after analysis of the equipment purchase plan of the Ministry. According to “The Military Balance” data for 2023, Belarusian Air Force has 22 Su-25 attack aircraft of various modifications at its disposal; a certain number of aircraft is stationed in storage. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defense plans to repair one-third of the existing Su-25 aircraft fleet. It is yet unknown, whether the repair of the aircraft fleet is connected to their adaptation to carry tactical nuclear missiles. The PMC Wagner mercenaries continue to conduct training with Belarusian servicemen. Last week reports became available that tactical, firing, and medical training by the PMC Wagner is being carried out with the servicemen of the 51st Artillery Brigade of Belarusian Armed Forces. From August 22 to September 14, training with the Territorial defense will be carried out in Polatsk district (Vitsebsk region). In total, from the beginning of 2023, such training was conducted in 8 regions in Belarus. A total of around 850 reserve officers were called for such training. The tensions between Belarus and the EU’s Eastern members have been rising during the past week even stronger. Polish officials announced a boost of the troops at the Polish-Belarusian frontier to up to 10,000 servicemen due to the Belarus regime’s orchestrated migration wave that reached its record high this year, amounting to 19 thousand illegal migrants, the hostile actions of the Lukashenka regime, and the presence of PMC Wagner mercenaries in the close proximity to the Polish border. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė informed that Lithuania also boosted the border security at the frontier to Belarus but did not disclose the actual number of troops sent to secure the border. The advisor to the Lithuanian Transport Minister informed that the government would decide in the coming week on the closure of one-third of border checkpoints on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border to solve organizational hurdles and refocus on border security. The estimated date of the closure of checkpoints Tverečius (Vidzy) and Šumskas (Losha) is August 18, 2023. Following Lithuanian and Polish efforts in boosting the security of the EU’s Eastern borders, Latvian President Rinkevics paid a visit to the Latvian-Belarusian border and urged officials to finish building physical barriers. Moreover, starting from August 11, an increased security regime entered at border checkpoints in Daugavpils, Ludza, Kraslava, and Auksdaugava.
On August 7, the results of the “New Belarus Conference 2023” held by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskayas’s Office, the United Transitional Cabinet, and the Coordination Council of Belarus in Warsaw over the Weekend of August 5-6 were announced. The conference concluded with four key documents: “Political Declaration of the Democratic Forces of Belarus” in support of the legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people, “Declaration on the Membership of Belarus in the European Union”, “Declaration of the democratic forces of Belarus on solidarity with the people of Ukraine”, and a statement “The 2024 elections are a substitute and an imitation”, which calls the elections planned by the regime an imitation and fraud, calls on voters not to take part in them, and non-governmental organizations and political parties to conduct an information campaign about the invalidity of these elections. The statement further calls on the international community not to recognize the election results and announces the holding of an “alternative united campaign of democratic forces.” On the third anniversary of the falsified presidential elections in Belarus, leading Western countries imposed new sanctions on the Lukashenka regime. On August 8, the UK expanded its sanctions list by adding six Belarusian companies: BelOMO, Gomel Radio Plant, Peleng, Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant, 2566 Radioelectronic Armament Repair Plant, and Kidma Tech. The sanctions include asset freezes and other measures. To date, the financial sanctions list includes 108 individuals and 22 legal entities. On August 9, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on eight individuals and five entities, including entities involved in the Belarusian regime’s continued civil society repression, and complicity in Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine. The U.S. sanctions include Belavia Airlines, Minsk Civil Aviation Plant No. 407, Financial Investigation Department of the State Control Committee. Sanctions hit individuals such as Ihar Marshalau, director of the Financial Investigations Department, his deputies Ihar Syalitski and Dzmitry Franckevich, Artsiom Dunko, Director General of the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant Dzmitry Kkorchyk, sons of a businessman Aliaksei Aleksin, Dzmitry and Vital, and his wife Inna Aleksina. At the same time, the U.S. Department of State is taking steps to impose visa restrictions on 101 regime officials and affiliated persons. Canada included nine individuals and seven entities “in response to systematic violations of human rights”. According to Canada’s Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, sanctions target especially government officials, judges, and associates of the regime, including the head of Belarusian state television, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, the Internal Troops of the Ministry of the Interior as well as the military manufacturing and technology companies. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced of including nine Belarusian individuals and entities to New Zealand’s sanctions list – five military personnel, two financial institutions, and two state-owned enterprises, which have supported the invasion of Ukraine. This effort is “part of an international response to Russia’s aggression, intended to put pressure on Belarus to cease its support for the war”, according to the Foreign Minister.
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
On August 6, political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk was not released after her second term of imprisonment ended. A third criminal case was opened against her under Part 2 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code (malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the correctional institution). Sharenda-Panasyuk would have been released last year, but she was accused of violating the regime in the penal colony and a second criminal case was opened against her. She was then sentenced to an additional year in prison. Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk decided to renounce her Belarusian citizenship in protest against torture. After that, she was sent to a psychiatric examination but refused to undergo it. The activist’s husband reported that a long stay in the detention center and the lack of proper nutrition severely affected her health. According to him, Sharenda-Panasyuk lost 18 kilograms. According to a report by the Human Rights Center “Viasna” on August 8, in the three years since the beginning of the mass peaceful protests in 2020 in Belarus, at least 3,645 people have been convicted under “political” criminal articles, 1,440 of them for participating in protests. At least 1,494 political prisoners are now in custody, 162 of them are women. The youngest political prisoner is 15 years old, the oldest is 75. All political prisoners are kept in inhuman conditions. During the three years of repression, only 33 people have been pardoned, and 6 have been released under amnesty. At least 470 people have fully served their sentences. It became known on August 9 that the consideration of the case of Artsiom Liabedzka, the son of politician Anatol Liabedzka, will begin in the Minsk City Court on August 21. He is charged with financing activities of an extremist formation. Anatol Liabedzka is a well–known opposition politician. From 2000-2018, he headed the United Civic Party. After that, he opened the Center for Research and Development Forecasts “European Dialogue”. Now he resides outside Belarus and is the representative of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for Constitutional reform and parliamentary cooperation. In January 2022, a criminal case was opened against him in Belarus. On August 9, the Day of Solidarity with Belarus was celebrated. On the third anniversary of the rigged presidential election 2020 in Belarus, people rallied against the Lukashenka regime in different cities around the world. One of the largest was the action in Warsaw gathering over a thousand people. The participants called for the release of the illegally convicted in Belarus and opposed the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Belarusian opposition rallies were also held in Lithuania, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. On August 10, Human Rights Center “Viasna” reported that political prisoners Valeria Kostyugova and Tatiana Kuzina were transferred to a women’s colony in Gomel. Valeria Kostyugova is a political consultant, and editor of the website of the expert community “Our Opinion”. Tatiana Kuzina is an independent expert in the field of public administration and co-founder of the Sympa School of Young Managers of Public Administration. In March of this year, they were sentenced to 10 years in a penal colony on charges of conspiracy to seize state power, calls for sanctions, and incitement to hostility. The Ministry of Justice of Belarus continues building up pressure on independent lawyers by depriving lawyers of their licenses. On August 11, the Qualification Commission of the Ministry terminated the licenses of attorneys Marina Vorobyova and Svetlana Petrovskaya. Also, according to the decision of the commission, Mikhail Tarasyuk, Sergey Medvedev and Larisa Suslikova cannot continue working “due to insufficient qualifications.” On August 12, political prisoner, a leading veteran Belarusian opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich turned 67 years old. The politician marked his fourth birthday in a row behind bars. The Lukashenka regime sentenced one of its main opponents to 14 years of imprisonment in a special regime. For more than six months, Statkevich has been held incommunicado: the last letter from him was on February 9. It became known that in May this year, Statkevich was put by the prison authorities in a solitary confinement cell. National leader of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stated on the occasion of his birthday: “Today is 1,169 days since Mikalai Statkevich is behind bars. For more than six months, the politician remains without letters, without medical care, without consulting a lawyer, and without contact with loved ones. And he meets his 67th birthday in a solitary cell the size of an elevator cabin. The Lukashenka regime is trying to break Statkevich. But Nikolai is a man with a strong spirit, a firm character, and will in his soul. This is evidenced by his life position and actions. Today I would like to lend him good health and be with his wife, children, and colleagues as soon as possible.» On August 9, the third anniversary of falsified presidential elections in Belarus, high officials of various countries and international organizations addressed Belarusians with words of support. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell stressed that “today, the situation is worse than ever for those who dare to voice any criticism of the system. The EU continues to keep the situation high on the global agenda in international fora and to promote efforts aimed at accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations”. The President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola underlined that “three years ago, the people of Belarus chose a new direction for their country: freedom, sovereignty, and democracy. Instead, they are facing political persecution, threats, and imprisonment. Europe stands strong with the people of Belarus. And Lukashenka is to be held accountable.” The Foreign Ministers of Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, and Estonia issued a joint statement stating that criminal seizure of power by the illegitimate regime has since resulted in massive internal repression, complicity in the war crimes and the crime of aggression, rapid erosion of Belarus’ sovereignty, as well as destabilization of the region. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Zbigniew Rau noted that hundreds of thousands of people left Belarus because of repression, and Poland has become a safe haven for a significant part of Belarusians. The Lukashenka regime continues repression inside the country, supports Russian aggression in Ukraine, and pursues a policy of Russification. Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that “1,500 people are unjustly imprisoned. Their humanity causes fear in the regime. Their courage cannot be imprisoned, and the idea of freedom cannot be sent into exile. We stand by your side for a free Belarus”. The UK Minister for Europe Leo Docherty called for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners in Belarus. On August 9, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, became the winner of the 2023 Anna Lind Prize. Anna Lind was a Swedish politician and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who died after an assassination attempt on her. The prize is awarded for “bravery in the fight against indifference, prejudice, oppression, and injustice, for a good life for all people in the environment, and respect for human rights.” “Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya continues to fight tirelessly. She is a symbol of a free and democratic Belarus,” the Swedish Anna Lind Memorial Foundation said in a statement. The award will be officially presented to Tsikhanouskaya on September 11 at a ceremony in Stockholm dedicated to the 20th anniversary of Lind’s death.
On August 7, Deputy Head of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPIK), Mikhail Bedunkevich, stated that political repressions cannot be stopped: “Sometimes someone says in various media that we have already won, maybe it’s time to forgive them (participants of peaceful protests) and leave them alone?”. “But if we leave them and will not work on it,” he answers himself, “then ‘they’ will start working against us again. Hidden cells will appear and get stronger, new initiatives will develop, and work will be done to undermine the state from within, they will do harm”. Therefore, Bedunkevich promises to continue the repressions: “If we have not reached someone yet, this does not mean that they are unknown. It’s just that we probably don’t have to do it right now. When the time comes, we will tell about them and show it all.” GUBOPiK employees actively participated in the physical suppression of peaceful protests in 2020. On August 8, member of the pro-government Communist Party Yuri Voskresensky, in an interview with propagandist Grigory Azarenok, spoke about the activities of the State Commission for the Return to Belarus. The commission is a propaganda project aimed at bringing back “repentant” participants of peaceful protests or oppositional movements from abroad. Voskresensky claims that the work of the “Commission” is carried out “in silence”, it does not make PR on anyone’s case there, and it’s not necessary for those who are willing to come back to give “repentant” interviews to state television channels: “These representatives of our fugitive opposition often apply to me. Because they are still Soviet people to the core. And they don’t want to follow the (official) “European” procedures but want to go through the back door. I help them to the best of my ability. Despite being disappointed by them many times.” On August 11, while visiting the Minsk National Airport, the Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that Ukrainian children were being taken to the West as “organ donors”: «Children are being taken out of Ukraine (to the Western countries). “They dismember and take out (children’s) organs.” At a meeting with the airport staff, he also said that the trips of Ukrainian children to Belarus are financed jointly with Russia: “We agreed with Putin that we would finance these trips from the budget of the Union State. We did it and will continue to do it, regardless of any reproaches”. Moreover, he stated that Belarus will continue to bring Ukrainian children to Belarus for “rehabilitation”. “We planned, we plan, and we will plan! And not only plan, but we will support the kids. You see, they come here for silence. It is wild for them to be in our country and not hear these explosions, not see these deaths, this famine. And the fact that Westerners are trying to instigate first against Putin, now against me the situation in the world – almost to bring to criminal responsibility – it’s just ridiculous, I absolutely do not worry about it. On the contrary, we understand that this is the way to act”. On August 12, propagandist and guest of the political television talk show Aleksey Dzermant stated in his Telegram channel that the doctrine of tactical nuclear weapons should provide a possibility of a preventive nuclear strike, since “the plans of the Poles to seize Western Belarus are real.” In response to this, another Belarusian propagandist Alexander Shpakovsky wrote on his channel that “delivering a preventive strike against the enemy if we know about the preparation of aggression against Belarus, not only does not contradict the Constitution but is also provided in the Belarus military planning documents.” Best regards,iSANS team