Belarus Cracks Down on Pro-Ukraine Donbass Fighters
On 18 April the Belarusian authorities launched the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, a fighter from the Right Sector battalion who participated in the Ukraine conflict.
Earlier this month they introduced amendments to legislation which allow prison sentences for those fighting in foreign conflicts for ideological, not just mercenary, reasons.
However, the government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing disobedient President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.
Authorities introduce anti-extremist policies
On 4 April the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law “On counteracting extremism” proposed by the KGB, Belarus' state security agency. The amendments introduce criminal liability for extremism, which previously was only an administrative offence. The law will target individuals who “create an extremist group, or head it or its branches”. It will punish those convicted with extremist activity with three to seven years in prison, and in case of a repeated offence six to ten years.
Not long before the amendments were introduced, police started a raid against football ultras and radical supporters of the Ukrainian side in the Donbass conflict.
Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed political attitudes. However, since Euromaidan and the start of the Ukrainian conflict they have repeatedly declared support for Ukraine.
The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who have been inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, are one of the major groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests in Belarus.
Anonymous ultras told Novy Čas newspaper that the football fan movement in Belarus has been practically destroyed in recent years, regardless of the ideological views of particular firms. The police search ultras' homes and question their relatives about connections between those fighting in Ukraine and and ultras based in Belarus.
Fighting for ideas will become a crime
The same parliamentary session also approved amendments to the law on “Incitement to action against external security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security”. They introduce liability for fighting in foreign conflicts without mercenary intentions. Now Belarus citizens fighting for ideological reasons will face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Previously the Criminal Code contained only punishment for mercenary activity, as well as recruitment, training, financing and using of mercenary. However, the authorities faced difficulties when charging Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. Police could not gather proof of their receiving remuneration for the service.
On 25 March senior police official Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ revealed to Zviazda newspaper that the police had already filed criminal cases against 135 Belarusians fighting abroad. The police gather intelligence on Belarusians in Ukraine from various sources and also undoubtedly receive information from their Russian colleagues.
The Belarusian authorities seriously fear trained fighters returning home. They could become a dangerous element in the opposition to Lukashenka’s rule. As the economic situation in Belarus gets worse and poverty among the population grows, the risk of internal instability is becoming even higher.
The first trials take place
This April the Belarusian authorities are holding the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, allegedly a fighter from Right Sector, a radical nationalist Ukrainian organisation. He was detained in November 2015 at Minsk railway station in possession of a gun and a self-made grenade. He had a document which confirmed his participation in the Ukraine conflict in the Right Sector battalion, but the organisation has denied these allegations.
In the middle of April police detained another fighter nicknamed “Terror Machine”, this time allegedly from the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, on charges of hooliganism dating back to 2013 and alleged mercenary. Although both fighters are charged with crimes other than mercenary, the authorities will also investigate their involvement in the conflict.
Meanwhile, cases of combatants fighting for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being on trial remain unknown in Belarus. Only one person from that side of the conflict has been detained, in January 2016, and that was on other charges; he only later revealed his participation in the conflict.
A number of DNR fighters freely gave interviews to Belarusian and Russian media while staying in Belarus and apparently did not fear persecution.
Pro-Russian fighters to remain free?
Independent commentators claim that this is the result of close relations between pro-Russian fighters and the Belarusian security forces, with the support of Russia. For example, a number of pro-Russian combatants revealed that they had previously served in an elite special force group in Marjina Horka. Many of the Belarusian security structures sympathise with Russia and its policy in Ukraine, as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.
An anonymous DNR fighter from Mahilioŭ in an interview with gazeta.ru said that he got involved in the conflict through Russia-backed Belarusian cossacks when he worked in an Orthodox patriotic club.
Many from Eastern Belarus had a similar path. Since the start of Euromaidan pro-Russian groups have become more active in Belarus. They train youth in the ideology of the "Russian World" and maintain close links with the Russian military.
If the Belarusian authorities have indeed decided to tolerate pro-Russian fighters to please Russia, they risk seeing what they fear most coming true. Trained combatants who respect the Russian world more than Belarus independence would probably take Russia's side in case of intervention in Belarus. Meanwhile, pro-Ukraine fighters who value Belarusian independence are mostly taken for radical opposition and repressed. This is obviously a very short-sighted view.
But the Belarusian authorities should also pay serious attention to the reasons why Belarusians go to fight for breakaway republics.
As one Belarusian DNR fighter put it in an interview with the Russian Planet website:
We went there neither for ideas nor for money. People going to war were those who could not realise themselves here (in Belarus). Their future was to become alcoholics, marry ugly women and give birth to children who would face the same fate. None of the Belarusians I met there came from Minsk, because people from the capital have a different mentality and opportunities.
This vivid citation points to the deep social problems that lead Belarusians from the periphery to leave their homes and head for war. Desperate from unemployment, with no hope for a better life and heated with aggressive Russian propaganda, they become easy prey for Russia’s military plans.
Through turning a blind eye to pro-Russian groups in Belarus, failing to counterbalance the Russian media and maintaining a poor regional policy, the authorities have generated a threat that they apparently refuse to deal with. However, it may become a fatal mistake one day.
Swamp Campaign Victory, Alexievich in the Palace of Republic, Who Hates Whom – Civil Society Digest
Fastest crowdfunding campaign ever has collected money for an athlete and rock band singer Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ. Online registration on the 6th International Congress of Belarusian Studies is now open.
Svetlana Alexievich held its first public presentation in the very heart of Minsk – the Palace of Republic. A public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Swamps achieved the adoption of the Strategy of conservation and sustainable use of peatlands.
IDEAby published a grid based on relations between Belarusian political parties and movements' leadership. This and more in the new edition of Civil Society Digest.
Fastest crowdfunding campaign has collected money for an athlete. For 7 hours a crowdfunding platform Talakosht collected Br68.2 mils ($3,4K) for Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ to participate in the Muaythai World Championship in Sweden. Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ is a world champion and vocalist of BRUTTO band banned for performances in Belarus. After his dismissal from the Ministry of Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ looked for money via crowdfunding; his campaign was supported by 170 people, who donated from $2,5 to $250.
Talaka.by celebrates one year of its crowdfunding activity. During the year, 19 out of 48 crowdfunding campaigns hosted at Talakosht (Talaka.by crowdfunding resource), finished successfully. More than 200 people consistently support the new campaigns at the platform. The total amount of funds raised is around Br600 million (around $30,000).
Education and science
To the 10th anniversary of the Kalinoŭski programme, opened since 2006 for repressed Belarusian students and funded by the Polish government, Svaboda.org has collected 10 alumni success stories. Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva editor, reviewed the stories and revealed that 9 of the 11 best graduates remained in Poland, two of them opened the hookah. Dyńko concludes that now when there are no cases of expulsion from the Belarusian universities the program brings damage since the most talented youth move from Belarus.
Online registration on the 6th International Congress of Belarusian Studies is open from 1 April. The 6th Congress will take place on October 7-9, in Kaunas, Lithuania. The Congress was initiated as an annual meeting of Belarusian and foreign scholars, experts, analysts and representatives of civil society and government institutions, which are involved in studying Belarus. Application deadline is 20 May.
Swamp campaign won: the resolution on draining marshes replaced by strategy for their conservation. A public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Swamps started three years ago at the initiative of several people and has grown to the Bagna eco-CSO. The campaign could cancel the Council of Ministers' Resolution on peat extraction and achieved the adoption of the Strategy of conservation and sustainable use of peatlands. The organisers share their experience of successful implementation.
Zrobіm! action attended by over 22 thousand people. On April 9, the global action of cleaning illegal dumps Let's Do It! (Zrobim! in Belarusian) gathered about 22,700 volunteers from 43 cities and villages of Belarus (1,500 volunteers last year). Participants collected 560,000 litres of waste, thus removing more than 500 contaminated sites. The action was coordinated by Green Network, Centre for Environmental Solutions, Interaction Fund, Minsk Cycling Society and government ministries.
New educational program "City: Core, Community, Image of Action"is implemented by the Flying University in partnership with Green Network and Urban Tactics almanac. The course focuses on the modern approaches to the development of Belarusian cities and consists of three phases: intensive education, research and a summing-up workshop. Researchers and activists of environmental and urban movements are invited to participate. Deadline for applications is April 15.
Interaction between state and civil society
Svetlana Alexievich's presentation took place in the Palace of Republic. On April 14, a presentation of the Radio Svaboda's book Alexievich on Svaboda took place in the very heart of Minsk – the Palace of Republic. This was the first public presentation of Svetlana Alexievich in Belarus after receiving the Nobel Prize.
One-fifth of appeals at the Comfortable City resolved positively. For five months of its activity the website Comfortable City (petitions.by) posted 137 petitions, received 58 responses from government bodies, and 26 issues were decided in favour of citizens. Two-thirds of appeals are linked to the community level. Appeals submitted via the website are legally valid and require a mandatory reaction of related officials.
Freedom House has raised the rating of democracy in Belarus. In its annual report Nations in Transit 2016 Freedom House improves the Belarus' overall rating of the level of democracy, for the first time in six years. The growth is recorded only on two of the seven parameters – electoral process and civil society.
29 CSOs submit a group proposal for the changes in the rules of foreign aid receiving. The initiative to develop a consolidated position is initiated by Centre for Legal Transformation Lawtrend and the Assembly of NGOs. The program maximum is to cancel a permit procedure for receiving foreign grants and go to the notification principle, or at least to determine the minimum amount of aid, which does not require the state registration.
Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities presents an annual monitoring of citizens' appeals. The total number of requests increased by 40% comparing to 2014. Geographical distribution is almost equal 49% (Minsk) and 51% (regions). The major part of requests is still on social protection issues – 39%. Increasing the number of appeals can be linked to the signing by Belarus of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, which took place in autumn 2015.
Play "Seven" in Belarus. On April 4, in the framework of the UNFPA information campaign, the National Academic Janka Kupala Theatre hosted a play "Seven" aimed to draw public attention to the problem of domestic violence. The play is a monologue of seven women from different cultures, who have overcome major obstacles on the path to justice, freedom, and equality. In each country, the roles are performed by famous women and men.
IDEAby map of the opposition. IDEAby published a grid of opposition relations, jokingly called ‘Who Hates Whom’. The grid is based on relations between Belarusian political parties and movements' leadership. It is noticeable that the relations within the opposition has changed for the year.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.