Rising costs of defiance: Number of political prisoners in Belarus hits a record
The number of political prisoners in Belarus appears to have increased by 550 per cent in just over a year. As of 12 April, human rights defenders estimate their total at 1,118 people.
The cost of protesting and demonstrating dissent in contemporary Belarus is rising. Over the past two years, short administrative detentions and fines have turned into infinite pre-trial terms and criminal charges that carry years in prison. In 2021, the court sentenced Belarusian bloggers Eduard Palchys and Ihar Losik to 13 and 15 years in prison respectively for allegedly “organizing mass riots” and “inciting hatred.”
Harsher punishments and no rights
In early April, the media reported a serious deterioration in Marfa Rabkova’s health while in custody. Rabkova, once an activist at the Viasna Human Rights Center and now a political prisoner, currently does not receive qualified medical care. She is being persecuted for her human rights activities and political views. She may face up to 20 years in prison on trumped-up charges.
Prisoners whose terms are almost over find themselves facing additional charges. This appears to be a tactic to demoralise current prisoners and intimidate others. For instance, journalist Katsiaryna Andreeva has five months of her prison term remaining. Andreeva is serving time for her live broadcast of a police crackdown on peaceful protests in 2020. Now, she faces new criminal charges of high treason, which carries up to 15 years in prison. Neither the media nor her family knows of any further details.
Updates about life behind bars are uncommon. Western media tends to notice only prominent cases that cause a public outcry, such as the recent hunger strike of philosopher Uladzimir Mackevich. Colleagues of Mackevich ran a support campaign for him on social media to generate attention. But Alexander Lukashenka’s regime does not appear worried about generating condemnation—domestic or foreign.
Since 2020, people behind bars have been subject to torture, arbitrary treatment, psychological pressure, deprivations, lack of communication, and prohibition of the right to write and receive letters. Political prisoners are often forced to wear yellow identity tags and they are included in special registers for those being “prone to extremism or to hostage-taking.”
In June 2021, out of desperation, political prisoner Sciapan Latypau attempted suicide by cutting his own throat while in a courtroom session. Latypau had acted following torture in detention and after threats to his family and neighbours.
Who can be considered a political prisoner?
According to Libereco, a German-Swiss human rights NGO, only one-to-two political prisoners were recorded in Belarus between 2016 and 2019. Following the mass protests against the rigged 2020 presidential elections, human rights defenders documented 187 political prisoners for 2020. So far in 2022, the NGOs have registered more than 1,100 political prisoners in Belarus.
Back in October 2013, leading Belarusian human rights defenders, including the Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Barys Zvozskaŭ Human Rights House, and others jointly agreed on a definition for who can qualify as a political prisoner. The key criteria include detention due to “political, religious, or other beliefs” or activities aimed at defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. A person cannot be a political prisoner if he or she has committed violent offences, hate crimes against a person or property, or called for violent actions.
The Belarusian human rights community usually issues a joint statement on identifying someone as a political prisoner. For those in prison, this status means their story and circumstances tend to gain more consistent media attention.
Some Belarusian human rights initiatives, including Dissidentby, Politzek.me, and diaspora associations suggest the 2013 political prisoner definition needs revision. They want to account for the Belarusian state’s arbitrariness and for the impossibility of a fair trial. For instance, many in prison for their political views are not recognised as political prisoners, because they face charges of violence against policemen.
Viachaslau Kasinerau, the founder of Dissidentby, notes the Belarusian authorities have learned to set up provocations for activists and protestors. Often their reactions to the planned provocation exclude them from political prisoner status. In addition, prisoners’ confessions cannot be relied upon, because detentions often involve the use of force and torture. Kasinerau argues any list of political prisoners should include those who try to resist the security forces’ violence.
What can be done?
Natallia Hersche, a Swiss-Belarusian dual national, was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for participating in protests in Belarus. Due to the efforts of the Swiss government, she was freed after 17 months. Hersche’s release followed after Switzerland sent a new ambassador to Minsk, who presented her credentials to Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej. But the exact conditions of her release remain unclear. To date, no other European ambassador has agreed to present their credentials in Belarus after the 2020 rigged elections and the violence that followed.
In the past, the modus operandi of the Belarusian authorities was to trade in political prisoners in order to improve relations with the West. Most likely, Minsk would like to resume this pattern. However, the sheer number of political prisoners in Belarus—among other issues—makes a mass, unconditional release of all detainees seem unlikely. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaja, Belarusian opposition leader in exile, declared the release of political prisoners as one of her principal aims. The regime, therefore, might view clemency as a show of weakness.
As long as the EU does not back up calls for the release of political prisoners with further steps (such as concrete legal action), it will have scant leverage against the Lukashenka regime. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently stated that in the absence of justice in Belarus other states must hold perpetrators accountable through domestic proceedings on the principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction. It is still unclear whether the global community feels up to the task, especially considering the ongoing challenges of reacting to the war atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.
War at the door: former Soviet countries react to Russia’s invasion
As Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February, reactions across the former Soviet Union (FSU) ranged from anxiety to terror. FSU countries once again feel exposed to the Russian, imperial powers that suppressed them during the 20th century—via histories of dependence, geographic proximity to Russia, or the presence of Russian-speaking minorities.
The Baltic States were lucky enough to escape Russia’s grip in the early 1990s. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of both EU and NATO. Therefore, they have more reasons to feel protected. Countries engaged in territorial disputes with Russian-backed proxies, like Moldova and Georgia, have rushed to make their own EU accession bids, dreading the potential for wider, direct conflict with Russia.
With the notable exception of Belarus, FSU countries have unanimously worked to distance themselves from Russia, conscious of their economic and energy-related vulnerabilities.
The dilemma of post-Soviet neutrality
A UN resolution demanding Russia “withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” was adopted on 2 March 2022 by 141 votes in favour and 5 votes against, among the latter Russia and Belarus. Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic States, and Georgia voted in favour of the resolution. Other post-Soviet states avoided any clear position. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained, while Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were absent.
Apart from an overwhelming global condemnation of Russia’s aggression, the voting revealed dilemmas faced by the countries of the former USSR. Various factors—such as economic and energy dependence, participation in regional Russian-led economic and military alliances, geographic proximity to Russia, the presence of ethnically Russian minorities, and the influence of Russian media—narrow the space for diplomatic manoeuvre for FSU, non-EU member countries.
The Belarusian regime has long relied on Russian loans, subsidies, and other forms of support to remain in power. In 2020, during the mass protests against rigged presidential elections and police brutality, Russia fully backed the long-serving Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Now, the time has come for the Lukashenka regime to repay its debt. So far, the regime has worked to avoid direct, Belarusian involvement in Russia’s invasion. But Moscow continues to pressure Minsk to join the war.
In response to the Russia’s actions, Belarusian volunteers have created the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, which fights against the Russian military in Ukraine. The battalion reportedly has about 200 active soldiers, along with several hundred others undergoing military training.
Striking a balance
Kazakhstan is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Slightly more than two months ago, events in Kazakhstan made international headlines as protests erupted across the country. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev received Russian military assistance to suppress the unrest and, ultimately, to keep his regime in power. Just weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. In response, Kazakhstan has cautiously distanced itself from the invasion.
Kazakhstan’s attempts at neutrality resemble a balancing act, rather than sincere support for Ukraine. Fearing sanctions might not only target Moscow but its allies, too, Kazakh authorities let an anti-war rally go ahead on 6 March. Hundreds of protesters with pro-Ukraine slogans attended the rally. Not only collecting humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Kazakhstan also abstained on the UN General Assembly vote for a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan does not want to antagonise Moscow. For instance, on 18 March, it decided to use Russian rubles for customs fees in bilateral trade, because the use of foreign currency had become impossible due to Western sanctions. And Kazakh authorities forbade a second anti-war rally on 19 March.
A few days earlier, two Kazakh bloggers, who have criticized Russian policies in the past and the recent invasion of Ukraine, were handed down lengthy prison terms. According to BEROC economic analyst Leu Lvouski, in the future, Kazakstan (along with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) might seek to circumvent Western sanctions and facilitate access the Russian market, despite the increasing toxicity of such a connection.
Kyrgyzstan, another CSTO and EAEU member, reacted with concern over the economic impact of sanctions. Its authorities supported a “peaceful resolution” to the war in Ukraine. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev announced his country was willing to serve as a negotiation platform if need be.
Azerbaijan’s situation resembles that of Kazakhstan, as it also recently benefited from Russian support. In 2020, open hostilities resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region with Azerbaijani territorial claims. Russia helped negotiate a ceasefire and deployed peacekeepers to the region. Now, Azerbaijan prefers to keep a low profile in its response to the war with Ukraine, especially as Russia supports Azerbaijan’s territorial claims in the region.
The EU hopes of Georgia and Moldova
Following the Ukrainian request to join the EU on 28 February, Moldova and Georgia rushed to submit their own applications for EU candidate status on 3 March. The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party chair, Irakli Kobakhidze, remarked that Georgia’s EU bid could have been improved by reforms planned for 2024, but “given the general political context and the new reality […], Georgian Dream’s political team made a political decision to apply for EU membership immediately.”
Despite Georgia’s domestic political polarisation and increased economic ties with Russia in recent years, the war in Ukraine has reminded Georgians of the war in 2008, when Russia backed the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia used military force against an independent state for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, manifesting a clear turn in its policies towards neighbours.
Moldova has declared a 60-day situation of emergency due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Moldovan Ministry of Defence stated the republic did not have a reason to participate in the armed conflict, taking pains to reiterate Moldova’s neutral status. With a heavy dependence on Russian gas and with an unresolved situation in the separatist region of Transnistria, Moldova is in a precarious situation. This situation is being further pressured by Moldova’s immediate vicinity to on-going military actions and an influx of refugees.
On 16 March, in a move to demonstrate solidarity with Moldova, the Council of Europe recognised Transnistria as “Russian occupied territory.” This is a departure from the council’s earlier definition of the territory as being “under the effective control of the Russian Federation.”
Turning to the future, the EU needs to develop new and effective approaches in its foreign affairs. Not only must a new approach be taken towards Russia, but also towards FSU states, whose reactions to the war in Ukraine demonstrate high levels of insecurity. FSU countries are aware of the vulnerabilities, economic dependencies, and unstable political systems, which make them into easy targets for Russian imperial ambitions. Although evident as early as the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, these existential issues have largely been ignored by the EU and the rest of the world.
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