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Belarus Weekly: Finland establishes relations with Belarusian opposition; Minsk to nationalize McDonald’s

by Maria Yeryoma January 19, 2024 4:53 PM 9 min read
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (L) holds a card depicting her imprisoned husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, while speaking with Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen in Helsinki, Finland, on Jan. 11, 2024. (Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva / AFP via Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

Political prisoner dies in custody without receiving medical assistance – the fourth death of an opponent of the regime behind bars since 2020 in Belarus.

Mother of jailed Belarusian politician hospitalized after detention amidst ongoing crackdown on dissent in Belarus.

Finland becomes the 24th country to establish a parliamentary group to collaborate with the Belarusian opposition.

Belarusian independent media say the State Property Committee filed a secret lawsuit to nationalize former McDonald’s restaurants in Belarus, close business, and seize property.

Independent media says Tinder ceased operations in Belarus because Belarusian Law Enforcement used the app to track down opponents of the Lukashenko regime.

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Belarus Weekly

Political prisoner dies in custody after not receiving medical help

Belarusian political prisoner Vadzim Khrasko died in a penal colony after being deprived of medical care, human rights group Viasna reported on Jan. 15.

Khrasko, 50, died of pneumonia overnight on Jan. 9 in Vistba-3, a penal facility near the northeastern city of Vitebsk. He is the fourth political opponent of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to die behind bars.

Viasna reports that Khrasko was taken to hospital, but too late for doctors to rescue him. The penal colony administration did not provide any statement regarding the death. Viasna reported that Khrasko’s funeral was held on Jan. 12.

Khrasko, a tech-industry worker, was detained on April 15, 2023, and later sentenced to three years of imprisonment for donating to opposition groups that the Lukashenko regime has labeled “extremist.”

Despite his pre-existing medical condition, the Supreme Court threw out Khrasko’s appeal on Oct. 13, 2023. Khrasko, who had only served two months of his sentence, left behind his wife with his two children, who are five and nine years old.

Commenting on Khrasko’s death, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the Lukashenko regime “consistently and deliberately destroys Belarusians.” She called on Belarusians to support political prisoners and their families.

Prisoners in Belarus are held in appalling and life-threatening conditions. Viasna’s human rights advocate, Leanid Sudalenka, who served a politically motivated term in the same Vitsba-3 penal colony, said he barely survived COVID-19 while in custody, without ever being seen by a doctor.

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Another three Belarusian political prisoners are known to have died in prison. The first death in custody was reported on May 21, 2021, when 50-year-old Belarusian activist Vitold Ashurak was pronounced dead after an alleged cardiac arrest. His family denies this, saying he had no heart condition, and that he was allegedly beaten to death.

The second political prisoner to die was Belarusian anti-regime blogger and political prisoner Mikalai Klimovich, arrested for reacting to a caricature of Lukashenko posted on social media. The 61-year-old Klimovich had pre-existing medical conditions and died on May 7, 2023, deprived of medical care.

The third, Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin, who was serving a five-year sentence for “desecrating state symbols and inciting hatred,” died of a perforated ulcer, with doctors also being too late to save him. His wife, Janina Demuch, reported Pushkin’s death on July 11, 2023.

Around 1,500 Belarusians are being held behind bars for opposing the Lukashenko regime. In 2023, Belarusian opposition and human rights advocates made a “humanitarian” list of over 200 political prisoners – including seniors and individuals with serious diseases and disabilities – who are at risk of not surviving their sentences.

Members of the local Belarusian and Ukrainian diaspora, joined by dedicated activists, gather at the central Market Square in Krakow for the 'Freedom to Political Prisoners of Belarus' protest on May 21, 2023, in Krakow, Poland. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Belarusian authorities harass mother of jailed politician

The mother of imprisoned Belarusian opposition activist Paval Seviarynets, Tatsiana Seviarynets, was hospitalized on Jan. 10 suffering from high blood pressure after she was detained for allegedly subscribing to Facebook pages that authorities have designated "extremist."

Law enforcers published a video of Seviarynets "confessing" to having subscribed to some of the Facebook pages a long time in the past. She was placed under house arrest until her trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

Her son, Paval Seviarynets, the co-chairman of the unregistered opposition Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, was arrested on June 7, 2020 at a rally while gathering signatures to register a presidential candidate. After serving a total of 75 days of three consecutive administrative arrests, he was then charged with organizing mass riots.

Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience and said it has reports of his mistreatment in custody.

Human Rights Watch’s 2024 World Report says that in 2023 Belarusian authorities employed harassment tactics against family members of political prisoners, including arbitrary searches, detentions, and interrogations.

Finland establishes parliamentary group to support Belarusian democratic opposition

Finland has established a parliamentary group to support Belarus, becoming the 24th country to set up a group dedicated to cooperating with the Belarusian democratic movement, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office reported on Jan 12.

Agreement on the group’s creation was reached during a meeting between Tsikhanouskaya and the speaker of the Finnish Parliament, Jussi Halla-aho.

The Finnish parliamentary group will focus on the possibility of providing internships to young Belarusians in the Parliament of Finland to scrutinize draft laws for a democratic Belarus, as well as cooperation with international organizations, according to Anatoly Lyabedzka, Tsikhanouskaya’s advisor on inter-parliamentary cooperation.

The announcement came after a “Helsinki Dialogue” event on Jan. 10-12 that featured six-panel discussions on the current geopolitical context around Belarus, national identity, political prisoners, electoral matters, and creating a representative body for the Belarusian people.

By the end of 2023, parliamentary groups from 22 countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, united into an alliance for supporting a democratic Belarus.

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Belarusian media: ex-McDonald’s restaurant chain in Belarus faces nationalization

The Belarusian State Property Committee is suing the Singapore-based “Ksb Victory Restaurants Pte. Ltd.” and its Belarusian subsidiary, the managing company of the former McDonald’s restaurant chain, seeking to terminate the business’s operations and seize its property, Belarusian independent media reported on Jan. 10.

The committee filed a lawsuit against the former McDonald’s managing company in the Minsk region Economic Court on Sept. 29. The case was appealed in the Supreme Court on Jan. 10.

Journalists have suggested that Ksb Victory Restaurants could still appeal against the court “rulings,” and for now the restaurants are continuing to operate.

The lawsuit was reportedly based on a "plea from the controlling authorities," on grounds stipulated by a recent law that permits the confiscation of property from foreign citizens or companies for “unfriendly actions against Belarus.”

Belarus’ National Assembly secretly passed the law after the Council of Ministers issued a resolution preventing foreign investors from selling their shares in 190 Belarusian companies without government authorization. The move aimed to stop foreign business owners and investors from withdrawing from their Belarusian businesses following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus aided by letting Russian forces attack Ukraine from its territory.

The U.S. fast-food chain McDonald’s announced its decision to end its operations in Belarus on Nov. 11, 2022, some nine months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although Belarusian troops did not take part in the invasion, Belarus supported Russia’s aggression by allowing Russian forces to attack Kyiv from its territory, and by supplying the Russian army.

A customer enters a McDonald's fast food restaurant on Independence Avenue in Minsk, Belarus, on March 16, 2016. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Russian fast-food chain "Vkusno i Tochka," which took over the McDonald’s restaurant chain in Russia, was supposed to gain control over the Belarusian branch, managed by former McDonald’s franchisee "Ksb Victory Restaurants,” on Nov. 22, 2022.

Two days before the rebrand, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko demanded that Belarusian businesses take over the Western companies that withdrew from the market.

Following the announcement, Vkusno i Tochka lost its bid to acquire the chain.

Twenty-five restaurants continued their operations under Ksb Victory Restaurants management but not under the McDonald’s brand.

On Dec. 12, 2022, Lukashenko returned to the issue, saying, "The owners have left – goodbye, we don't know you, you don't want to know us, from now on, the enterprise is nationalized.”

He instructed an official, Dzmitryi Shabeka, to tell the government to authorize the change of ownership.

Meanwhile, another nationalization ruling was handed down on Jan. 15 by the Economic Court in Mahiliou region in eastern Belarus. The case concerns the Rechitsa electric substation, which was owned by Solar Land, a private green-energy firm with U.K. capital, which was listed as one of 190 Belarusian companies that need government's permission to take any actions with the property.

The Economic Court ruled that the company's state registration be annulled and its assets transferred to the state. Its investor, U.K. national Kiabod Mashad, has filed a notice of treaty dispute, demanding that the Belarusian government compensate him for his lost investment.

While the cases can still be appealed, it is a worrying sign of increased risks for foreign investors in Belarus.

Tinder to end services in Belarus

Match group, the tech company behind the range of dating app brands that includes Tinder, has said that it is shutting down its services in Belarus from Feb. 15.

The company’s announcement, published on Jan. 16, did not specify the reason for its departure. Match Group ended its operations in Russia in July 2023, citing human rights concerns.

Belarusian law enforcers have been using Tinder to track down opposition supporters, RFE/RL has reported.

Media have confirmed at least one case of a detention over a Tinder picture: 29-year-old Aliaksandra Rybchyk was detained in 2022 after police found a picture of her attending an opposition protest.

She was charged with “organizing or preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or participating in them,” put on trial, and sentenced to two-and-a-half years of imprisonment.



Lukashenko's political prisoners

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

In 2023, the number of political prisoners in Belarus “stabilized” at around 1,500 individuals.

However, this by no means represents a slowdown in the unprecedented scale of repression that ensued after the disputed 2020 presidential elections, annual reports from human rights organizations read.

Viasna Human Rights Center reported a total of 1,603 new criminal convictions on political grounds in 2023. The real number is likely higher, as the families are increasingly wary of reporting the detention of relatives and friends.

Of these convictions, 863 individuals were sentenced for alleged “organization or participation in actions that grossly violate public order,” often related to their involvement in the anti-government protests of three years ago. A significant number, 324 Belarusians, faced jail sentences for insulting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, while another 184 individuals were charged with insulting a state official.

Since 2020, Viasna has documented 4,248 individuals being convicted in politically motivated criminal cases.

Human Rights Watch’s annual report emphasizes there has been an increase in the practice of prolonging politically motivated prison terms by charging prisoners with violating prison rules. The organization also notes that political prisoners face beatings and arbitrary confinement in punishment cells for supposed violations of prison regulations.

Dozens of prominent political figures have been held incommunicado in prison, including presidential candidates Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka, his ally Maria Kalesnikava, politician Mikalai Stakevich, and blogger Ihar Losik.

The Belarusian regime has also intensified its crackdown on the supporters of political prisoners by criminalizing support for organizations deemed “extremist” by the authorities.

According to Viasna, the Belarusian KGB has employed intimidation tactics against those who donated to organizations to support political prisoners: Based on their banking data, Belarusians are summoned to the KGB and told to "donate" to government-run charity foundations in order to compensate for the “damage” they have done – or face criminal prosecution.

Fifty-eight individuals were jailed on the basis of such accusations in 2023.

In 2023, at least 6,386 people faced political administrative persecution, with over 530 Belarusians being harassed by Belarusian law enforcers every month. At least 4,500 of them were eventually convicted, and 2,000 people received days of administrative arrest merely for having a friend on social media with an “extremist” profile picture or having an independent media app on their phone.

A February 2023 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was mandated to assess the state of human rights in Belarus, found systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations, some of which, it concluded, may amount to crimes against humanity.

And while the Belarusian authorities plan an amnesty for 2024, they have already declared publicly that no amnesty will be granted to those convicted for "extremist" or "terrorist" activities.

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