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Belarus Weekly: Kyiv considers granting citizenship to foreign volunteers fighting for Ukraine

by Maria Yeryoma May 17, 2024 5:39 PM 9 min read
A soldier waves the flag of Kastus Kalinouski Regiment during a rally at Sofia Square on March 14, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Oleksii Samsonov /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
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Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk says Poland to bolster its border with Belarus amid warnings of mass migration breach and "hybrid war" threats.

Ukraine’s parliament considers a bill to grant citizenship to foreign volunteers fighting in as part of the Ukrainian Army, addressing legal challenges currently facing Belarusians fighting for Ukraine.

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Belarus Weekly

Dictator Alexander Lukashenko dismisses Belarusian army chief Viktar Hulevich, leaving the position vacant as the country engages in continuous military drills.

Former opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who was arrested during forced landing of a commercial flight in Minsk in 2021, is facing a $7.6 million reparation claim.

Belarusian authorities prosecuted at least 161 Belarusians in April, human rights organization Viasna reports as crackdown on Lukashenko regime's opponents continues.

Poland to fortify border with Belarus amid reports of upcoming border breach attempt

Poland plans to strengthen its entire eastern border with Belarus due to a growing “hybrid war” and illegal migration, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said after he visited the country’s eastern frontier on May 11.

“The Polish-Belarusian border is a unique place due to the pressure of illegal immigration,” Tusk told Reuters.

“In fact, we’re dealing with a progressing hybrid war.”

During the visit to the border, Tusk claimed that Belarus, “a country with increasingly aggressive intentions towards Poland, is co-organizing this practice on the Polish border.”

Following Tusk’s visit, Poland’s Deputy Defense Minister Cezary Tomczyk announced that a planned modernization, developed by the team of engineers at Silesian Technology University, would render the barrier “impassible.”

Tusk: Poland to fortify border with Belarus due to ‘hybrid war’
Warsaw has also, for several years, accused Belarus of deliberately pushing migrants into Poland in order to pressure the EU over sanctions, a charge Belarus has denied.

“The modernization of the (border) fence will most likely cost about 1.5 billion zlotys (about $375 million), and that’s how much we need to allocate to make this fence actually work,” Tomczyk told TVN24 on May 12.

“However, the issue of fortification that Prime Minister Donald Tusk raised is an entirely different project on which we have been working for many weeks,” Tomczyk said.

Tusk’s May 11 visit to the Polish-Belarusian border came soon after Belarusian opposition group BYPOL warned that the Belarusian authorities were organizing a massive border breach attempt.

According to BYPOL – a group of exiled former Belarusian law enforcers that oppose the regime – the Belarusian authorities are secretly transporting small groups of illegal migrants to the Polish border.

“The migrants are delivered from Minsk by OMON (riot police) officers in civilian cars at night,” BYPOL said, citing its own sources. “The migrants are sorted into groups of 25-30 people.”

The total number of migrants has reached 700-800 individuals, BYPOL claims.

The Polish Border Guard reported on May 10 that it had thwarted an attempt by 140 migrants to cross the border. According to the guards, the migrants behaved aggressively and were throwing sticks and stones at the Polish Border Guards and military.

Grupa Granica, a human rights group that has been helping migrants in eastern Poland, criticized Tusk. “During the press conference, (Tusk) didn’t mention people or human lives at all,” the group’s representative, Anna Alboth, said. The activists have condemned pushbacks – the practice of forcefully returning illegal migrants to Belarus.

Tensions between Poland, a NATO country, and Russian ally Belarus have surged since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

Ukrainian parliament considers bill to provide citizenship to foreign volunteers fighting for the country

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has supported in first reading a bill that would give Ukrainian citizenship to foreign volunteers fighting together with the Ukrainian army, lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko said on May 9.

The bill reportedly received 263 votes in favor, said Honcharenko, who also heads the non-official parliament group “For Democratic Belarus.”

“This is a much-needed bill,” the lawmaker said in a post on Telegram. “A step towards volunteers and their families has been taken.”

According to RBC-Ukraine news outlet, the bill provides for granting permits to foreigners and stateless persons “recruited for the defense of Ukraine as part of the territorial defense forces or voluntary formations of the territorial community” and the provision of temporary residence permits to their family members.

What do we know about the ‘Siberian Battalion’ that reportedly crossed into Russia?
Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent doesn’t provide the full names of soldiers mentioned in the story to protect them and their families from persecution in Russia. They are identified by callsigns. KYIV OBLAST – In the early hours of March 12, Russian state media sounded the alarm. A number of Ukr…

Russian and Belarusian citizens who have acquired Ukrainian citizenship since the beginning of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, and who have promised to give up their former citizenship, will have to provide corresponding proof that they have done so “within a year of the date of termination or cancellation of martial law, if the term of such an obligation has already expired.”

The bill makes it possible for foreigners to acquire permits with expired passports, which is especially significant for Belarusians. In November 2023, the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko banned Belarusian embassies from issuing new passports abroad.

Political opponents who had to return to the country to renew their passports were subsequently arrested and prosecuted.

Hundreds of Belarusians have joined the Ukrainian army since 2014, and at least 46 of them have been killed in action. In Belarus, volunteer fighters risk imprisonment, and the Lukashenko regime harasses their families.

Moreover, in Ukraine they also find themselves in a legal trap as soon as they are discharged from service. Unable to obtain residence permits under current legislation, Belarusians have to seek refuge elsewhere.

However, EU-member states are not inclined to provide it to combatants, according to Andrey Kushnerau of the Association of Belarusian Volunteers.

Lukashenko dismisses Belarusian army chief of staff

The chief of the general staff of the Belarusian army, General Viktar Hulevich, was dismissed from service on May 10, Lukashenko’s press office reported.

The 55-year-old Hulevich was reported to have been discharged from military service due to his age, but he will continue to be a reserve officer. As such, he has the right to continue to wear his military uniform and insignia. No successor to Hulevich has been announced yet.

Like many officers in the Belarusian military, Hulevich underwent military training in Moscow. He briefly served in the Russian Armed Forces, and returned to Belarus soon after. Hulevich was appointed chief of general staff and first deputy defense minister in March 2021.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko speaks with the country’s military command while dressed in full military gear on March 26, 2024. (Courtesy)

Belarusian media outlets suggest that Hulevich opposes Belarus’ involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine, and has been speaking to his NATO counterparts. Belarus provided its territory and resources to aid Russia in its full-scale invasion and war on Ukraine.

Hulevich’s dismissal came just days before the removal of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.

Captured opposition activist says he owes Belarusian state ‘$7.6 million in damages’

Former opposition activist and NEXTA Telegram channel editor Raman Pratasevich has said that he and the co-defendants in the "NEXTA case" have to repay the Belarusian state around $7.6 million as compensation for taking part in the mass public protests in Belarus in 2020.

During a Youtube stream on May 7, Pratasevich revealed there had been a court ruling on such compensation in a civil case involving himself and the co-founders and editors-in-chief of the NEXTA Telegram channel – Yan Rudzik and Stsiapan Putsila

NEXTA played a significant role in the 2020 protests and was subsequently labeled as an “extremist” organization by Lukashenko’s regime.

The total compensation demanded by the court was $7.6 million, Pratasevich said. Although convicted in absentia, Rudzik and Putsila remain in exile, beyond the reach of Belarus' law enforcers. Pratasevich is thus the only defendant physically present in court.

“I have no idea what to do about this and how to go on living,” Pratasevich said, commenting on the ruling. “It's clear that I don't have even close to that kind of money. Even finding a job now is extremely difficult for me. I have three choices: to leave, to pay 50% of any income for the rest of my life, or to walk into the noose.”

Pratasevich was detained in May 2021 in Minsk after the Belarusian authorities grounded a commercial airline flight en route from Athens to Vilnius that had the activist and his then-girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board.

Pratasevich was pressured to cooperate with the authorities. There were visible bruises on his body when he gave an interview later in 2021 to a state-owned broadcaster, as well as when he subsequently spoke at a press conference in Minsk endorsing the Lukashenko regime's narratives and supporting Lukashenko's policies.

Pratasevich was sentenced to eight years in prison in May 2023, but was pardoned by Lukashenko two weeks later.

New Defense Minister Belousov to put Russia’s economy on war footing
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appointment of a new defense minister, Andrey Belousov, is seen as an attempt to streamline Russia’s economy and mobilize it for the war effort. Russia’s military has faced numerous supply and logistics problems that thwarted its all-out war against Ukraine from t…

Viasna human rights organization says at least 161 Belarusians were convicted in politically motivated criminal cases in April

At least 161 Belarusians were prosecuted in politically motivated criminal cases in April, the Viasna Human Rights Center wrote in its report, following the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko continuing to crack down on civil society in Belarus.

Nearly 64% of criminal cases are still initiated on charges of “participating in actions that grossly violate public order,” referring to mass anti-government protests that engulfed the country in 2020 after Lukashenko claimed to have won a sham presidential election.

Eight sentences were handed down in absentia. Viasna also pointed to the continuing trend for former political prisoners to be subjected to repeated prosecution on new charges, as well as charges being made against entire families.

The Barometer of Repression in Belarus, an analytical report by think tank the Center for New Ideas, said there was an increase in both administrative and criminal prosecutions of Belarusians in the first quarter of 2024.

According to the report, at least 414 individuals underwent criminal persecution, and 987 were detained on politically motivated charges. The report’s authors also warned that these figures were likely below the actual numbers due to the inaccessibility of official statistics and the atmosphere of fear that prevents families from reporting detention cases.

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'Lukashenko’s regime commits crimes against humanity'

Since the beginning of the crackdown on civil society in 2020, we have seen many examples of solidarity among Belarusians inside the country and abroad – thousands of letters and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for political prisoners and their families.

Yet, in 2024, receiving this aid will be used as a pretext for prosecution by Belarus authorities.

Viasna attorney Pavel Sapelka explained what is happening to solidarity efforts for political prisoners and why the Lukashenko regime seeks to criminalize them.

"The only option totalitarian powers have is to intensify repressions. Lukashenko's regime has never managed to regain even a small part of the tacit approval it had before 2020," Sapelka said.

"In my opinion, this is an element of ongoing crimes against humanity committed by officials in Belarus. These actions are aimed at large-scale systematic persecutions on political grounds," he added.

"At the very least, these are gross violations of human rights, both individually and in the aggregate, which are rapidly and inevitably pulling Belarus away from democratic states governed by the rule of law."

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