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Belarus Weekly: EU seeks to criminalize sanctions circumvention, standardizing penalties across member states

by Maria Yeryoma March 15, 2024 2:26 PM 11 min read
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a concert at the Gazprom Arena stadium in Saint Petersburg on Jan. 27, 2024. (Vyacheslav Prokofyev/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Following sham elections, Belarus revives the All-Belarus People’s Assembly – crafted as a sanctuary for dictator Alexander Lukashenko and afforded extensive powers.

EU Parliament seeks to criminalize sanctions violations and circumvention, standardizing penalties across member states.

Lithuanian citizen dies in Belarusian prison: Lithuanian foreign ministry protests violation of consular rights, urges Belarus for information.

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Belarus Weekly

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calls on UN secretary-general to intervene to end incommunicado regime of Belarusian political prisoners.

Russia-Belarus Union State allocates $11 million for a new propagandist media holding.

Belarusian authorities prosecute in absentia the exiled former head of Children’s Hospice charity organization on multiple charges.

After so-called elections, Belarus revives ruling body designed as refuge for Lukashenko

Following sham parliamentary elections in late February, on March 12, the Belarusian authorities commenced the selection of candidates for a new governing body – the All-Belarus People’s Assembly.

The assembly, which will have extensive powers, including the impeachment of the president, has been designed as a political vehicle for Lukashenko should he decide to step down from the presidency.

The assembly candidates' nomination is set to occur between March 12-31. The candidates will be drawn from various strata of the Belarusian bureaucracy and will be nominated by the Belarusian parliament, government, judiciary, pro-government professional unions, and nonprofits.

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The Belarusian authorities have characterized the assembly as “the highest representative body of the people's power,” akin to the medieval Slavic "veche" assembly. However, the Belarusian public will have no say either in selecting candidates or voting for them.

The 1,200 members of the assembly are supposed to convene annually, with the first meeting scheduled for April 24. Among the organization’s wide powers, the Belarusian Constitution lists the right to consider the legitimacy of elections and impeach the president, initiate changes to the Constitution, and enact a state of emergency or martial law.

Belarusian political experts almost unanimously agree that the new structure is only powerful on paper. Lukashenko would likely chair the assembly and remain in the president’s office, turning it into a modern version of the Communist Party congress.

In its previous form, initiated in 1996, the All-Belarus People’s Assembly was a consulting “conference” of Lukashenko supporters drawn from the government power structures. Between 2,500 and 5,000 participants were selected to convene as the assembly and publicly “approve” of Lukashenko’s course every five years.

Read more about the history of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly in today’s Spotlight segment.

European Union to criminalize sanctions violations and circumvention

The European Parliament has adopted a directive to criminalize the violation and circumvention of European Union sanctions and standardize the associated penalties across member states, according to an official press release published on March 12.

The directive introduces definitions and minimum penalties that are to become common for every member state. Under this set of laws, concealing or transferring funds that should be frozen, concealing the true ownership of property, and not reporting necessary information become criminal offenses, punishable by a maximum of five years of imprisonment.

“We need this legislation because diverging national approaches have created weaknesses and loopholes, and it will allow for frozen assets to be confiscated,” said Sophia In ’t Veld, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands.

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Since 2014, the European Union has imposed progressively stricter sanctions against Russia. It has introduced asset freeze and travel restrictions against 1,706 Russian individuals and 419 entities in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 13 packages of restrictions have been adopted against Russia.

Russia’s ally in its aggression, Belarus, has been targeted with five sanction packages for its fraudulent elections, human rights abuse, forcing the landing of a commercial airline flight in 2021, and orchestrating a migration crisis on the EU’s borders.

Russian FSB kills alleged Belarusian saboteur in northern Russian region

Agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB on March 6 shot dead a Belarusian activist, Mikalai Aliakseeu, during an attempt to detain him in the Olonets district of Karelia, a region of Russia north of St. Petersburg.

The FSB alleges that the 49-year-old Belarusian belonged to the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, a Belarusian formation fighting as part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It claimed Aliakseeu had been recruited by the Ukrainian security services and had been planning to commit a terrorist attack. A criminal case against Aliakseeu was launched on March 6, the day of his attempted arrest.

Russian law enforcers said that the activist had an improvised explosive device and was shooting at the officers during his detention.

However, members of BELPOL, a Belarusian organization of law enforcers in exile, studied a video recording of the alleged detention operation published by the FSB on March 7 and claimed that it was “clearly staged” after the actual death of the accused.

Lithuanian citizen dies in prison in Belarus

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry summoned Belarus’ charge d’affaires in the country to express its extreme dissatisfaction following the death of a Lithuanian citizen in a prison in Belarus, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry reported on March 12.

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“Lithuanian consular officers (in Belarus) were not properly informed about the detention of the citizen, the grounds thereof, and the state of health of the Lithuanian citizen, reads an official statement from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. “In addition, there was no possibility to visit or provide the detainee with the necessary consular assistance. By doing so, Belarus has grossly violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”

A 70-year-old Lithuanian citizen residing in Vilnius was detained at a Lithuania-Belarus border crossing on Dec. 31, 2023. Belarusian customs stated that 98 pistol cartridges (9×18PM) for 9mm caliber weapons were found in the person’s car and charged the Lithuanian with illegally transporting ammunition.

Lithuania’s Ambassador for Special Assignments, Asta Andrijauskienė, told reporters on March 12 that Lithuania requested a meeting with the detained person multiple times, but one was never granted.

The Lithuanian foreign ministry has strongly advised its citizens not to visit Belarus, despite Belarus having introduced a visa-free regime for the citizens of neighboring countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.

Tsikhanouskaya calls on UN secretary-general to intervene on behalf of political prisoners

Exiled Belarus’ democratic leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to intervene on behalf of political prisoners in Belarus and demand an end to the practice of holding political prisoners incommunicado.

Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters gathered near the Belarusian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 8 to raise the issue of the incommunicado regime imposed on political prisoners in Belarus.

“Intervene, demand to stop the atrocious incommunicado policy,” Tsikhanouskaya said in her address to Guterres. “It’s within your powers to save people’s lives. And this is not a political issue – it’s a humanitarian issue.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, opposition leader of Belarus, speaks at the European People's Party congress in Bucharest, Romania, on March 6, 2024. (Andrei Pungovschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The incommunicado regime involves full isolation of the prisoner from the outside world: they are unable to receive or send letters, are not allowed phone calls or meetings, and are prevented from seeing their attorneys in penal colonies.

The UN Human Rights Committee has previously concluded that an incommunicado regime violates several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – the core legal instrument of the United Nations, which was adopted in 1966.

Human rights activists also equate incommunicado regimes to forced disappearance.

Around 1,500 political prisoners are currently held behind bars in Belarus. The Viasna Human Rights Center has reported that since mass protests broke out in Belarus following the fraudulent 2020 elections, at least 4,690 people were charged in politically motivated criminal cases.

In 2020 alone, over 30,000 people were subjected to arbitrary detention. Five political prisoners have died in custody either without receiving timely medical care or under unclear circumstances that were never investigated.

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Russia-Belarus Union state reserves $11 million for new propaganda media holding

The Union State, a supra-national formation of Russia and Belarus, has allocated $11 million to launch joint media holding in 2025, the Secretary of the Union State Dmitry Mezentsev told Russian newspaper Izvestiya on March 11.

According to Mezentsev, the newly established media holding, which will have its head office in Moscow, is set to include TV and radio broadcasters, as well as two newspapers – “Union Veche” and “The Union. Belarus-Russia” – and the “Union State” magazine.

The broadcasters are to be allocated roughly $4.35 million. The “Union Veche” weekly newspaper, which already has a reported circulation of around 320,000 copies, is expected to receive $2.86 million. The funds come from the budget of the Union State, formed jointly by Russia and Belarus.

Mezentsev also said that the new media holding will oversee a “resource center” producing content for distribution via online media.

The weekly newspaper “The Union. Belarus-Russia” has been published since 1999 and has 321,429 subscribers. In Belarus, its distribution is attached to the circulation of the state-run “SB. Belarus Today” newspaper.

The monthly magazine, with a circulation of 15,000 copies, has been printed since 2006.

Belarusian authorities prosecute in absentia former head of Children’s Hospice charity, shut amidst crackdown

Belarusian Investigative Committee has launched in absentia proceedings against Volha Vialichka, the exiled former head of the Children’s Hospice charity, who has been accused of inciting hatred, mass discord, aiding extremist activities as well as insulting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and illegally publishing personal data.

The Investigative Committee announced the initiation of in absentia proceedings on March 5, demanding that Vialichka return to Belarus to participate in the investigation.

Vialichka founded the public charity organization “Children’s Hospice” in the western Belarusian city of Hronda in 2008. The organization operated for 12 years until its head, Vialichka, was detained and fined for improperly conducting public events. The mass event allegedly held in violation of the law was a charity event at the Children’s Hospice.

In 2020, Vialichka joined presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka’s election staff, was an independent observer, and actively tried to prevent election falsifications and stop police brutality.

The first criminal case against her was launched in 2020 and was based on trumped-up charges of the illegal use of financial aid. Fearing that she might lose custody of her children due to the criminal investigation, Vialichka fled the country.

Later, on Aug. 4, 2021, the Belarusian Interior Ministry reported that a second case against Vialichka had been opened on charges of grossly violating public order.

The Children’s Hospice in Hronda was liquidated in 2021, along with 1,271 other non-profits dissolved by the Lukashenko regime. The third criminal case against the hospice director followed as law enforcement claimed that the organization continued to work after its official liquidation.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko meets with foreign media at his residence, the Independence Palace, Minsk, Belarus, on July 6, 2023. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Spotlight — What is the All-Belarus People’s Assembly?

The Spotlight segment provides readers with the historical context of contemporary events in Belarus.

The All-Belarus People’s Assembly was first created in 1996 as newly elected Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko struggled to obtain ultimate political power following a contested 1995 referendum, which brought back the Russian language as the official language of the country, replaced the historic flag and insignia, supported economic integration with Russia, and gave Lukashenko the right to dissolve parliament.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) dismissed the referendum, saying Belarusian authorities "conducted extensive efforts to convince the voters to participate in the referendum."

Throughout 1996, Lukashenko’s conflict with parliament rose. Lukashenko feared the Belarusian parliament would side with the people and oust him from power, so he announced a new referendum that would turn the then parliamentary-presidential republic into a presidential one.

Lukashenko created the All-Belarus People’s Assembly on Oct. 19-20, 1996, slightly over a month before the referendum, to give the impression there was public support for the draft of the Constitution proposed for the vote. Referring to Article 3 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the people are Belarus's only source of power, Lukashenko claimed that the new “consultative” organ would be akin to a Slavic veche (a medieval people’s assembly).

At its first congress, the assembly included around 5,000 people drawn from institutions of the authorities – the government, local councils, and professional unions.

In the following years, the number of participants was reduced to 2,500 and its members were selected according to the same principle, although this fluctuated sometimes towards more “popular” representation, including workers, farmers, or officials.

The selection procedure remains obscure. Requests for delegates are issued through the governing structures, and delegates are provided by institutions that are dependent on state funding.

The assembly usually convened once every five years, prior to presidential elections, to accept a report on the previous five-year cycle and approve plans for the next one.

The cycle was broken in 2015 when the assembly convened only after the presidential elections.

The opposition party Belarusian People’s Front (BNF) claimed this had been because none of the previously promised economic targets had been achieved. The following assembly convened for the sixth time in 2021 after the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections and several month-long countrywide protests.

Following the unrest in the country in 2020, experts believe, Lukashenko was forced to consider the possibility of his resignation, and the assembly came across as a solution for stepping down as president and yet retaining his grip on power.

In the contested referendum on Feb. 27, 2022, the Belarusian people allegedly approved the assembly's introduction to the Belarusian constitution. The vote was held amidst the protests against Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and was not recognized as free or fair.

Lukashenko openly said that the All-Belarus People's Assembly was designed as a way to limit the actions of a potential next president.

“(The older generation) should not prevent the new generation from creating a new life and moving forward. But it should have the right to observe and have the authority to stop the wrong (kind of) movement,” Lukashenko told his associates as amendments to the constitution were discussed in September 2021.

The assembly members will be selected between April 1 and April 10, and its first meeting is scheduled for April 24.

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