Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?
On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.
At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.
The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.
A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered
On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.
20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.
The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.
According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.
Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.
On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.
How true is the official version?
Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.
Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.
People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.
Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.
Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat
With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.
Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.
What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.
Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis
The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.
As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.
The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.
Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.
The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.
Hrodna is learning to handle more foreign tourists
Around 1,100 tourists, a record number, visited Hrodna Region between 26 March and 2 April 2017, according to Belta news agency. Since October 2016, it is possible to visit the region for five days visa-free.
This growth in tourism has occurred despite inconvenient entry procedures: the authorities restrict visits to five days, limit where tourists can go, and prohibit entering the country via certain modes of transportation.
Over the last months, infrastructure, food services, and lodging in Hrodna Region have been developing. However, attracting more foreign investment and modernising housing, air, and railways would do much to increase the capability of the city to host more tourists.
Tourism Development in Hrodna
The amount of tourists in Hrodna continues to grow. In total, more than 7,500 tourists have come to Hrodna since October 2016 thanks to the new visa-free regime.
The majority of visitors come from Lithuania or Poland. Lithuanian and Polish travel agencies are popularising weekend trips to Belarus through package deals. For instance, Beta, a Lithuanian travel agency, offers single-day tours called 'Royal Hrodna' for $20. The tour includes visits to churches and historical places with buses departing from three Lithuanian cities: Vilnius, Kaunas, and Alytus. Since October, Hrodna Region has also been attracting visitors from Latvia, Germany, Italy and 35 other countries.
Augustow Canal is gradually becoming one of the most popular destinations. In response to increased interest, authorities plan to open new border checkpoint at the territory of Augustow canal on 28 April.
Liasnaja-Rudavka will become a border checkpoint for boats, pedestrians, and bicycles. Starting in late April, several new 50-km bicycle routes will be built along the canal.
Belarus can also expect increased tourism in other parts of the country as well. In February 2017, authorities announced visa-free entrance for nationals of 80 countries if they arrive via Minsk airport.
Moreover, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Belarus plans to introduce 12/14-day visa-free entrance instead of five. Belarusian minister of tourism and sports Aliaxandr Šamko reported an increased demand at health resorts. This factor may also contribute to extending the legal length of visa-free visits.
Travel Restrictions for Tourists
While travelling around Hrodna, tourists are restricted to car and bus travel. Several factors could explain this: Lithuania decommissioned the railway connection to Druskininkai after the fall of the USSR. The future of the Hrodna-Warsaw and Hrodna-Bialystok connections was also called into question in late 2015. The instability of rail connections may explain the decision not to include rail travel in the visa-free zone.
Recently, customs officers in Hrodna stopped Polish producer Piotr Dudanowicz and two German musicians at the border and forced them to return to the nearby Polish town of Kuznica. The three foreigners had travelled by train to Hrodna instead of taking the bus. The musicians had to wait more than 10 hours for the next bus in order to come back to Belarus.
Airplane travel to Hrodna is also impossible. Hrodna airport, like all other airports in Belarus, has failed to introduce budget flights. Moreover, authorities did not include the airport in the visa-free zone. Officials still voice doubts about introducing budget airlines in the Minsk airport due to the 'discrepancy of low-cost flights with the rules of Minsk National Airport', according to chairman of Minsk national airport Dmitry Melnikian.
The number of tourists increased but complicated procedures and small print create inconveniences for travellers. Customs officials count the day of arrival and departure as whole days. Experienced tourists advise crossing passport control after midnight if the flight arrives several hours before. In March, two Canadian musicians were fined $3,000 for counting the days wrong, reports KYKY.org.
Can Hrodna Accommodate More Tourists?
Although the amount of tourists continues to grow, services for tourists remain limited in variety and quality. Only 8 hotels and one hostel function in Hrodna, according to Booking.com. In cities with comparable populations in neighbouring countries, the numbers differ significantly. The Polish city of Bialystok has 19 hotels and nine hostels, Lithuanian Kaunas has 24 hotels and seven hostels, and Ukrainian Lviv has 20 times more hotels.
However, over the last months, Hrodna has been developing infrastructure for tourists. The second hostel with cheap prices (around $5 per night) opens in May. However, both hostels can only accommodate 100 tourists. Recently, Burger King announced the opening of a facility in Hrodna, making it the first international fast food chain in the city.
The lack of English-speakers continues to be a significant problem for tourists. Polish and Lithuanian tourist groups often travel on guided tours and have a guide who speaks their language. However, for tourists from other countries, communication remains a challenge. Recently, around 15 waiters in central cafes and restaurants enrolled in special English courses.
Some tourist activities are not well suited to foreigners. The number of tourist agencies in Hrodna dealing with inbound tourism has increased compared to last year, from 10 to 70. Nevertheless, the city currently lacks a tourist information centre. While Augustow canal is preparing several bicycle routes, bicycle infrastructure in Hrodna remains inadequate, according to the cyclist organisation Vela Hrodna. Additionally, there are few possibilities to rent quality bicycles close to the bus station.
A recent journalistic investigation conducted in Minsk by Alena Vasiljeva claimed that certain unique traits of Belarus could be turned into national brands. Safety and the relative absence of racism, as some travellers have noticed, makes Belarus different from many countries. Foreigners have also picked up on the Soviet nature of architecture and even daily life. Lithuanian tourists have praised the quality of Belarusian underwear and coffee.
Even though Belarus has made important strides in improving the tourism sector, more work is necessary. The first step should be increasing the number of hotels, at least to the level of neighbouring Kaunas or Bialystok. Another vital step would be improving the level of English for staff in hospitality industries, improving tourist centres, and working on bicycle infrastructure. Another option to make foreign visitors feel more welcome could be creating an English-version of video guides. The project 'Tourism without a bag' could provide a fitting example.
Simplifying investment opportunities for foreigners would also contribute to the development of the city. This would allow Hrodna Region to handle an increasing amount of tourists and reach a higher level of development.