To maintain his grip on power, Aleksandr Lukashenko, the 26-year president of Belarus who fraudulently claimed victory in the country’s Aug. 9 presidential election, relies on two factors: support from Russia and backing from Belarus’ powerful security services. Patience in Moscow with Lukashenko may be running thin, as evidenced by the recent visit to Minsk by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the Kremlin doesn’t appear ready to abandon Lukashenko yet.
A more promising sign that Lukashenko’s days in power might be numbered is emerging among the Belarusian security forces. This may come as a surprise given the systematic violence that police and other security forces have used for the past four months against thousands of Belarusians protesting Lukashenko’s efforts to steal the election. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is the country’s largest law enforcement agency, with some 130,000 employees. It forms the backbone of Lukashenko’s regime—and what happens in its ranks shapes the political situation in the country.
Defections among the ranks of the police and security services could change the tide. If those carrying out Lukashenko’s orders to use brutal methods against protesters were to realize those orders are wrong and stop following them, then the regime would collapse like a house of cards. And there are signs that that is happening.
Those carrying out Lukashenko’s orders face a stark choice: to comply and be complicit with a discredited leader who perpetrates human rights abuses against his own people, or to do the right thing and join their fellow citizens in deciding that 26 awful years under Lukashenko are enough. Members of the security forces need to understand that one day there will be a serious investigation of who did what—and they need to decide now whether they want to be among those being investigated or those doing the investigation.
The outflow of personnel from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law enforcement agencies began during the presidential election campaign and continues to this day. Employees began to quit in the weeks and months leading up to the election, when Lukashenko used the security services to obstruct the candidacies of opposition figures, using such methods as initiating criminal proceedings, arresting opposition members, preventing meetings, and rejecting signatures collected for candidates. Some Ministry of Internal Affairs employees did not show up for work on the day of the election.
According to information obtained by our organization, the International Strategic Action Network for Security, the pace of defections from the ministry picked up after the electoral fraud was committed and massive force was being used against peaceful protesters. There were more than 300 reports of officer dismissals at the main personnel department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the end of August. Staff losses continued in September and then decreased significantly. As of Nov. 1, staffing at the city of Minsk’s Main Internal Affairs Directorate had declined by some 18 percent. Another security department in Minsk, the Central District Department of Internal Affairs, has lost 29 percent of its staff. Many of the dismissed employees have since been supported with funds raised by the Belarusian diaspora, who have also provided moral support.
A number of active and former members of various law enforcement agencies have recognized that Lukashenko is illegitimately clinging to power. They have united in By_Pol (short for Belarus police), a network of officers from the internal affairs services, border troops, the state prosecutor’s office, the criminal police, and the secret police (which still goes by the old Soviet initials of KGB). They have decided to stand with the people of Belarus instead of the discredited Lukashenko. They simply do not want to be at war with their own people, friends, and families. And they are being joined by growing numbers of new defectors.
Aleh Talerchyk, who resigned from the Prosecutor General’s Office, is one of the defectors.
«I want to support the brave Belarusians who were repressed», he said.
Talerchyk and a number of other highly qualified specialists have recently left the Prosecutor General’s Office to object to the treatment of their fellow citizens. They are being joined by a rising number of doctors and medical professionals who have been treating those badly injured by police and security forces. The evidence includes gunshot wounds to the head and various parts of the body, open chest wounds, shrapnel wounds, injuries from explosives, stab wounds, thermal and chemical burns, trauma from barometric bombs, and signs of torture.
By_Pol has compiled documentation of more than 1,100 cases of torture and major injuries among civilians between Aug. 9 and Aug. 21 alone. The number of cases, tragically, has only grown since then. The documentation will serve as the basis for identifying the perpetrators, since the time and place of each injury can later be matched with available recordings from surveillance cameras, other video material, as well as the communications between direct participants in the suppression of the peaceful protests.
And since By_Pol is already a significant network within the Belarusian power structure, the list of those who appear to be directly guilty of abuse is growing. Some of the information comes from interviews By_Pol members have conducted with civilian victims who have left Belarus.
While the officers organized in By_Pol remain loyal to their country, they do not recognize Lukashenko as their president and instead view opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the victor in the election—and thus the legitimate president of Belarus. After all, their inside knowledge of the political situation has given them access to information about the election results that are contrary to Lukashenko’s claims of victory. Independent surveys support their claim. According to a poll of Belarusian internet users commissioned by Chatham House, Tikhanovskaya received 52 percent of the vote compared to only 21 percent for Lukashenko. According to another opinion survey whose name cannot be used since independent opinion polls are illegal in Belarus, Lukashenko’s vote was even lower—below 10 percent.
The initiators of By_Pol met in Warsaw with Tikhanovskaya during her recent visit to Poland and proposed creating a trade union for security services employees. Such a union, supported by By_Pol, would help guarantee the independence of the security forces, lay the groundwork for a reconstituted Belarusian police force after Lukashenko leaves, and ensure the loyalty of the security forces to the country and people, not to any dictator.
The security services members organized in By_Pol could form the core of a new Belarusian police force, which would replace the existing police and the especially brutal OMON units, which have covered themselves with the blood of peaceful Belarusians. By_Pol could also form the basis for a new prosecutor’s office and law enforcement bodies. It could even be deployed to investigate members of the security services who committed crimes against their own people.
On Dec. 1, Tikhanovskaya and another opposition figure, Pavel Latushka, announced the launch of a Unified Crime Registration Book. Using the platform, victims and witnesses of abuses can provide information that will be used to develop a unified register of crimes and suspects.
Encouraging more Belarusian security forces to join the ranks of By_Pol and support the registration of crimes should be a top priority of the Belarusian opposition—and of the West as well. This could be done by providing financial assistance to those who lose their paying jobs and by granting immunity in exchange for testimony against perpetrators of abuse.
If this movement gains momentum, it could soon leave Lukashenko without much of a force to support him. If Lukashenko has no one to carry out his brutal orders, he loses his ability to stay in power—barring Russian intervention. But even then, the struggle would continue, as an intervention would turn the people of Belarus, many of whom still have a neutral or even positive view of Russia, against Moscow. After losing Ukraine in a similar fashion, that is something Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford.
Encouraging the defection of Lukashenko’s security forces offers the best hope for real change in Belarus. The country’s citizens deserve better—and that includes those who serve in the security services and police but never signed up to beat, torture, and even kill their fellow citizens.
This article is also available on Foreignpolicy.com