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Belarus Weekly in 2023: Russian nukes, abduction of children, crackdowns on dissent

by Maria Yeryoma December 29, 2023 6:09 PM 12 min read
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko was seen during the CSTO Summit on November 23, 2023, in Minsk, Belarus. (Contributor/Getty Images)
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Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko claims the transfer of Russian tactical nuclear warheads to Belarus was completed in October 2023.

The Belarusian parliament has approved a bill to give immunity to the ex-president, ensuring he cannot be prosecuted for actions taken during his tenure, thereby attempting to grant Lukashenko the possibility of a safe retirement.

Exiled Belarusian activist Vadzim Prakopieu has been sentenced in absentia to a second 25-year prison term. He was convicted of defamation, insulting officials, inciting hatred, and joining a foreign military formation.

The Viasna Human Rights Center reports that at least 125 Belarusians were detained upon returning to the country in 2023.

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Belarus Weekly

Lukashenko claims transfer to Belarus of Russian tactical nuclear weapons concluded in early October

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Dec. 25 that Russia completed the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in early October.

As reported by his press office, Lukashenko made the claim when answering questions from the Russian press during the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union summit in Moscow. He did not specify the number of warheads or where they were deployed in Belarus.

No official confirmation of the deployment has been provided since Russian President Vladimir Putin made the first such claims on March 25 – claims echoed by the Belarusian Defense Ministry on March 28.

However, the Belarusian Hajun monitoring group, which has been tracking Russian troop movements in Belarus, says they have no physical evidence that any Russian nuclear weapons are in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the independent union of railroad workers in Belarus, which emerged in 2020 as a group resisting the regime, leaked internal railway company documents that suggest that components of Russian nuclear weapons were scheduled for transfer in both June and November 2023. According to the union, the latest transfer of nuclear components, marked as “explosives” and “other ammunition for military purposes” occurred between Sept. 15-24.

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Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin reported on Oct. 18 to the Joint Collegium of the Ministries of Defense of Belarus and Russia on storage preparations and personnel training for nuclear weapons handling, but did not claim that they had yet been transferred.

Putin first threatened on March 25 to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, allegedly for training purposes, in response to the UK Defense Ministry’s move to supply Ukraine with ammunition containing depleted uranium.

Lukashenko welcomed the move, and claimed that Belarus would have control over the nuclear weapons on its territory. That would be in violation of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Russia claims to abide by.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Khrenin signed an agreement in May 2023 to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, a process that Putin then said was to conclude by July 1.

Russian and Belarusian autocrats have repeatedly made claims in June about the delivery of Russian nuclear weapons. However, Ukrainian intelligence said on June 20 that Russia  didn’t pass “a single nuclear warhead” to Belarus.

Western countries and NATO denounced the deployment, calling it “dangerous and irresponsible.” Still, the White House said shortly after the May transfer agreement was signed that it had not changed its nuclear threat assessment.

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed for battlefield use and typically have a range of up to 500 kilometers if launched on land, and up to 600 kilometers if launched by air or sea, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank.

Belarusian parliament adopts bill on immunity from prosecution for ex-presidents

The Belarusian Parliament passed a bill on Dec. 22 that grants immunity from prosecution for the Belarusian president after his departure from the post.

According to the bill, the former Belarusian president may not be held liable for any actions committed during his tenure, detained, subjected to investigation, or deprived of personal freedom. The immunity also covers all property, real estate, and archives in possession of the former official and the president’s immediate family.

On leaving office, the ex-president has the option to take a seat in parliament’s upper chamber and is given a position in the All-Belarus People’s Assembly – a newly established extra-governmental body with the power to impeach the president.

The former president also receives a monthly allowance equal to 100% of the president’s wage, lifelong state pension, insurance, and medical coverage, and an option to obtain ownership of a chosen state-owned residence.

The amendments to the law on the Belarusian president bring it into line with changes made to the country’s constitution that were made after a contested referendum held on Feb. 27, 2022.

Lukashenko is Belarus’ only president, holding office since 1994.

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Lukashenko called a constitutional referendum to overcome a domestic political crisis caused by the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections, which he claimed to have won by a landslide. His victory was not recognized either by the opposition or internationally, and prompted massive months-long nationwide public protests.

The referendum was seen as a way of tightening Lukashenko’s grip on power in the country. It was prepared and held amidst mass political repression in the country, with hundreds of political prisoners jailed, civil society virtually eradicated, and the media fully muzzled.

Overshadowed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including from Belarus’ territory, the referendum allegedly approved the creation of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, an extra-governmental organization with vast powers, including impeaching the president, appointing and firing Supreme and Constitutional Court judges, appointing the Central Election Committee, and approving the engagement of the Belarusian Armed Forces in military operations abroad.

The new Constitution also tightened requirements for potential presidential candidates, upping the age threshold from 35 to 40 years, and the required term of residence in Belarus before running for office from 10 to 20 years. Candidates with residence permits issued by other states would also be banned from running.

The European Union and other Western countries condemned the referendum.

The bill amending the law on the president was passed by the parliament after two readings.

It must now undergo review by the Constitutional Court and be signed by Lukashenko. Given the regime’s full control over the Constitutional Court, there’s little doubt the bill will be approved.

Exiled Belarusian activist sentenced in absentia to another 25 years in prison

A Belarusian court has handed down another 25-year prison sentence to the exiled Belarusian opposition activist Vadzim Prakopieu, the press office of Belarus’ Prosecutor General reported on Dec. 26.

The closed trial convicted Prakopieu in absentia of defamation, insulting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and other state officials, inciting hatred, and participating in a military formation on the territory of the foreign state. The court sentenced him to a second 25-year term in prison and fined him approximately $11,500.

Prakopieu, a Belarusian restaurateur-turned-politician, was earlier sentenced in absentia, on June 21, to 25 years of imprisonment for allegedly organizing and leading a terrorist group seeking to “seize power by unconstitutional means.”

Eighteen individuals were convicted and received cumulative prison terms of over 240 years. While three people were tried in absentia, fifteen others who had been detained were sent to prison.

His new sentence is linked to his role as a founder of the Pahonia regiment – a Belarusian unit fighting against Russia as part of Ukraine’s International Legion.

Belarus introduced amendments to its legislation permitting the prosecution of exiled opposition leaders in absentia in July 2022, and started to exercise the new powers in 2023.

A Belarusian court sentenced the leader of Belarusian democratic forces, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to 15 years in jail on March 6.

Five media managers accused of administering a Telegram channel de-anonymizing Belarusian law enforcers received 12-year terms on Jan. 18. Former presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo was charged with 17 years of imprisonment. The editors of the Belarusian Nexta news outlet were given 20- and 19-year sentences.

At least eight in absentia cases went to court in 2023, resulting in suspects receiving lengthy sentences and having virtually no right to a defense.

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

Viasna: 125 Belarusians detained on returning home from abroad

At least 125 Belarusians were detained upon returning to Belarus in 2023 after their phones were inspected at border checkpoints, the Viasna Human Rights Center reported on Dec. 24.

According to Viasna, the phones are inspected by KGB or Customs Control officers, who checked them for pictures for protests or subscriptions to independent media channels. Most detentions were registered for those returning from Lithuania, but they have occurred at every operational border checkpoint, including ones on the border with Russia.

The detentions have resulted in administrative charges for “spreading extremist materials,” while some bring further criminal charges, leading to prison terms.

Since the fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down severely on all opposition. Viasna currently lists nearly 1,500 individuals as political prisoners, and registers 300-400 politically motivated administrative arrests every month.

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Spotlight - Belarus in 2023

2023 has been the second year of our continuous coverage of Belarus, a country embroiled in a domestic political crisis and a full-scale war it helped launch. The last year has seen the tightening of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on power, his growing international isolation, and his regime’s further complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine. In today’s Spotlight segment, we recall the major stories in Belarus from 2023.

Decreasing Russian military presence, nukes and Wagner

Russia’s military presence in Belarus decreased in 2023. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service claimed on Oct. 31 that Russia had likely moved all of its troops from Belarus. However, according to independent monitoring group Belarusian Hajun, Russian troop numbers were reduced, but 2,000 service personnel remain at Belarusian training grounds.

The attack on a Russian radar early warning and control aircraft at Machulishchy airfield in Belarus on Feb. 26 likely contributed to undermining Belarus’ promise of a safe base for the Russian military.

However, two major military developments returned Belarus to the spotlight in 2023: the alleged deployment of Russian nuclear weapons, and its use as a new base for Russian Wagner mercenary troops.

Nevertheless, the presence of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus remains unproven at the end of 2023. After repeated claims that the weapons have been deployed, no evidence of this has been given either by Belarus or Russia.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary company, began a coup in Russia on June 23, with his troops marching on Moscow. Lukashenko claimed to have provided a safe haven for Prigozhin in exchange for him to end his mutiny.

The Belarusian Hajun monitoring group reported on July 18 that the first of six convoys of Wagner mercenaries had arrived in Belarus. A camp speedily built in Belarus near the village of Tsel could reportedly host up to 8,000 Wagner troops.

Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania agreed on Aug. 28 to shut their borders with Belarus completely should a “critical incident” involving Wagner mercenaries occur.

The rapid deployment of the Wagner group to Belarus ended abruptly after a fatal plane crash in Russia’s Tver Oblast took the lives of Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin.

Shortly after, the mercenaries were reported to be leaving Belarus, and their camps were dismantled. However, Belarusian Hajun claims that around 500 Wagner mercenaries remain in Belarus to train the Belarusian army in the tactics of the current war in Ukraine.

Abductions of Ukrainian children

Lukashenko has found himself under the threat of the issue of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for his involvement in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or PACE recognized Belarus’ complicity in the forced deportations of Ukrainian Children on April 27, while Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said on May 23 that it is investigating Belarus’ potential role in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children in the wake of a report by exiled Belarusian opposition members.

The National Anti-Crisis Management, a Belarusian opposition organization, said it had submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court or ICC on June 27 revealing Lukashenko’s complicity in kidnapping at least 2,100 Ukrainian children during Russia’s full-scale war.

Belarusian authorities have themselves confirmed hosting over 1,000 children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

The European Parliament called for an ICC arrest warrant against Lukashenko on July 18.

As reports and allegations mounted, two pro-regime activists – Paralympian athlete Alexei Talai and Secretary General of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society branch in Belarus Dzmitry Shautsou – claimed to have been involved in taking Ukrainian children to Belarus “for recreation.” The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society subsequently suspended the Belarusian Red Cross’s membership, and cut its funding.

Closing borders and continued migration crisis

Artificially engineered by Minsk in 2021, the migration crisis continued on the Belarus-EU border. Neighboring EU member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia registered around 100 illegal border crossing attempts daily in 2023.

Lithuania closed two border crossings with Belarus, while Latvia one checkpoint.

Poland’s relations with Belarus worsened after Belarusian authorities cracked down on the Polish minority in the country and incarcerated Polish-Belarusian journalist and activist Andrzej Poczobut. As a result, Poland shut down all but one border crossing with Belarus.

Isolated from all but one of its neighbors, Russia, Lukashenko sought allies further afield, visiting China, then Zimbabwe and other African countries, and unsuccessfully applying to join the BRICS grouping of countries. At the same time, Russia’s own foreign ties have seen a hit, with Armenia failing to attend a CSTO defense bloc summit in Minsk.

Going after exiled opponents

As the number of Belarusians seeking refuge in Europe hit a record-high – between 200,000 and 500,000 according to PACE estimates – the Lukashenko regime in 2023 doubled down on making the lives of exiled Belarusians harder.

On Jan. 5, Lukashenko signed a bill amending Belarus’ citizenship law, permitting the stripping of citizenship from Belarusian nationals living abroad who are accused of “extremist activities.”

Belarusian courts exercised new powers to conduct trials in absentia, prosecuting the regime’s political opponents outside the country.

Following a failed attempt to lure political opponents back to Belarus with a special commission consisting of infamous propagandists and persecutors, Lukashenko ordered Belarusian embassies to stop issuing and renewing Belarusian passports abroad, making exiled Belarusians stateless persons in their host countries.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya warned Belarusians against returning to Belarus, saying, “No document in the world is worth a person’s freedom.”

Meanwhile, a number of states have pledged to recognize expired Belarusian passports as valid.

The regime’s move reinvigorated the initially dubious idea of Belarusian opposition to start issuing alternative passports to exiled Belarusians. By the end of 2023, a sample copy of the passport was designed, and the Belarusian opposition is in talks on its recognition, according to Tsikhanouskaya.

Cracking down on political prisoners

The number of political prisoners in Belarus soared to 1,500 individuals in 2023 – with the real number likely being three times higher. While the total count stayed relatively stable throughout the year, prison conditions have worsened.

Prominent political prisoners, including Viktar Babaryka, Siarhei Tsikhanousky, Maria Kalesnikava, and Mikola Statkevich, are being held incommunicado. Their attorneys can’t reach them in penal colonies, and their families have not received letters or any news from them for nearly a year.

Former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, who is currently serving a 14-year sentence for politically motivated charges, was reportedly hospitalized on April 27 with a collapsed lung and evidence of a severe beating. After the doctors stabilized his condition, Babaryka was taken from the hospital and went missing – no prison administration has admitted to holding him.

Concerns over the lives of political prisoners are rising, given the Lukashenko regime’s track record of reprisals against opponents and the health incidents that have plagued them.

In 2023, Belarus jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski and outlawed his Viasna Human Rights Center, branding it as an extremist organization.

Two political prisoners, blogger Mikalai Klimovich and artist Ales Pushkin, died in custody in 2023.

The Belarusian opposition has 200 political prisoners on a so-called “humanitarian” list, comprised of those whose health conditions endanger their lives and require immediate medical treatment. However, there is little hope for the prisoners’ release.

UN experts have claimed that the Belarusian government’s crackdown on dissidents amid the fraudulent 2020 presidential election may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

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