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Belarus Weekly: Lithuanian president calls Belarus a ‘Russian province,’ urges increasing defense

by Maria Yeryoma July 14, 2023 4:07 PM 9 min read
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya carries a photo of her husband Sergei Tsikhanouskiy, Belarusian blogger and pro-democracy activist who is currently imprisoned in Belarus, as she walks through a courtyard during the NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 12, 2023. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
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As NATO’s anticipated 2023 Vilnius Summit makes headlines, the alliance’s members urge Minsk to end its complicity in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda urges NATO to bolster its eastern flank, claiming Belarus is “no longer independent’ but rather a “province of Russia.” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya criticizes his comment.

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Belarus Weekly

Prominent Belarusian artist and political prisoner Ales Pushkin, jailed in 2021 for politically motivated charges, dies in intensive care “under unclear circumstances.”

A bill permitting Minsk to revoke the citizenships of Belarusians living abroad accused of so-called “extremist activity” and “harming national interests” comes into effect.

Belarusian authorities release political activist Zmitser Dashkevich, only to re-imprison him for alleged “disobedience.”

The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) votes to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in the Asian Games in China amid criticism.

NATO urges Belarus to end its complicity in Russia’s war at NATO summit

NATO leaders urged Minsk to end its complicity in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and adhere to international law at the Alliance’s 2023 Vilnius Summit on July 11-12.

“Russia’s deepening military integration with Belarus, including the deployment of advanced Russian military capabilities and military personnel in Belarus, has implications for regional stability and the defense of the alliance,” the Vilnius summit communiqué read.

“NATO will remain vigilant and further monitor developments closely, in particular the potential deployment of so-called private military companies to Belarus,” it continued, adding that the alliance calls on Belarus to “stop its malign activities against its neighbors, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law.”

Meanwhile, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhaniuskaya called on NATO member states to include a democratic Belarus in their projected security architecture.

She noted that, while Ukraine should be “in focus” during the NATO summit, Belarus should also be high on the agenda, adding that there can be no security for Ukraine without freedom for Belarus.

NATO’s 2023 Vilnius aummit in Lithuania took place a few kilometers from the Belarusian border.

After Russia announced the transfer of Wagner Group troops to Belarus, as well as that of tactical nuclear weapons, neighboring EU states such as Lithuania called on NATO to reinforce its eastern flank.

Lithuanian president calls Belarus ‘Russian province’ at NATO summit

Belarus is “no longer independent,” and is rather a “province of Russia,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said ahead of NATO’s 2023 Vilnius Summit on July 11.

“I told President Biden that Belarus is indeed becoming a problem,” Nausėda said after a meeting with the U.S. President Joe Biden, “This is not the Belarus that it was in 2020. Now we should have no illusions, this country is no longer independent, it is another province of the Russian Federation.”

Directly referencing Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus and the migrant crisis orchestrated by Belarus, Nausėda urged NATO to take decisive action.

“All this taken together shows that the security situation in our region is unstable, it is not improving, but worsening,” he said.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya responded to Nausėda’s statement, emphasizing the importance of recognizing that the erosion of Belarus’ independence is happening against the will of the Belarusian people.

“The United Transitional Cabinet believes that this (Nausėda’s interpretation) creates the wrong perception of Belarus in the world and contributes to an even greater isolation of our country and our people,” Tsikhanouskaya’s United Transitional Cabinet said, “Belarus is not a province of Russia, and the Belarusian people will not allow it to become one.”

Nausėda urged NATO on July 25 to strengthen its eastern flank in the aftermath of the Wagner Group’s armed mutiny and the anticipated transfer of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus.

“If Prigozhin or part of the Wagner Group ends up in Belarus with unclear plans and unclear intentions, it will only mean that we need to further strengthen the security of our eastern borders,” he said.

Prominent Belarusian artist dies in prison ‘under unclear circumstances’

Prominent Belarusian artist and political prisoner Ales Pushkin died in a Belarusian prison’s intensive care unit “under unclear circumstances,” his wife Janina Demuch said on July 11.

Belarusian authorities sentenced the 57-year-old to five years in prison for “desecrating state symbols” and “inciting hatred” in 2021. During his closed trial, Pushkin slit his stomach in a sign of protest.

At the time, Belarusian prosecutors said Pushkin’s charges were related to his painting of Jaŭhien Žychar, a member of the Belarusian anti-Soviet resistance, shown at an exhibition in the Belarusian city of Hrodna. Authorities claimed the painting “rehabilitated and justified Nazism.”

Ales Pushkin, a prominent Belarusian artist who died in prison on July 11, 2023, "under unclear circumstances," according to his wife. (Photo: Ales Pushkin / Facebook) 

Pushkin was admitted to his prison’s intensive care unit unconscious on July 10, according to Radio Svoboda. In his last letters, he reportedly said he had lost 20 kilograms in a short period of time. Local media said Pushkin had a perforated ulcer for which he was not given assistance in prison. He reportedly died of sepsis and multiple organ failure.

In response to his death, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called Pushkin’s work the “embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the Belarusian people.”

“Ales used his art to fight for freedom and build a new Belarus without tyranny,” Tsikhanouskaya said, “He dreamed of a free and democratic Belarus. Now we must continue his work and make his dreams come true. Dictators fear artists. Why? Because they have the power to express thoughts and ideas that challenge the regime’s lies.”

Pushkin has been at the forefront of Belarus’ national revival for decades, also having taken part in the mass protests that followed the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

In his most famous work, “Dung for the President,” for which he was sentenced to two years in prison, Pushkin overturned a wheelbarrow of dung across from the presidential building in Minsk in 1999.

Human rights watchdog Viasna reported in April that the official number of political prisoners in Belarus has reached 1,500, noting that the figure is likely much higher.

In December 2022, Maria Kalesnikava, a symbol of Belarusian civil society’s resistance to Lukashenko’s regime, was admitted with a similar diagnosis as Pushkin, although she managed to survive.

Bill allowing Minsk to revoke exiled Belarusians’ citizenships enters into effect

A bill that permits Minsk to revoke the citizenships of Belarusians living abroad accused of so-called “extremist activity” and “harming national interests” came into effect on July 11.

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 so-called “extremist activities.” It was set to enter into effect in July.

Belarusians who enlist in a foreign state’s military, security service, or law enforcement may also have their citizenship revoked. This will affect Belarusians who have joined Ukraine’s military to fight against Russia.

The amendment also introduced a compulsory oath for those seeking Belarusian citizenship, which obliges them to inform Belarusian authorities about foreign citizenship, residence permits, or other such documents.

Lukashenko initiated a bill in July 2022 permitting trials in absentia for a series of violations, including charges of treason, terrorism, genocide, mercenarism, and participation in “extremist activities.” If found guilty, individuals may have their assets seized or be deprived of their Belarusian citizenship.

The measure violates the country’s constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prohibiting stripping citizenship of those who obtained it by birth.

Authorities re-imprison political prisoner after serving full sentence

Belarusian authorities reportedly gave recently released political activist Zmitser Dashkevich an additional prison sentence on July 11.

According to his wife, Nasta, Dashkevich had served his full prison sentence. Upon his expected release, Belarusian authorities launched a new criminal investigation into Dashkevich for alleged “disobedience” while in jail.

Nasta was sentenced to a year in prison for having participated in protests following another rigged presidential election in 2010 and became the first Belarusian woman to receive the U.S. State Department’s International Women’s Prize for Courage.

Dashkevich was initially imprisoned in March 2022 for having participated in the mass protests that took place in the aftermath of the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020. Nasta was charged in the same case and sentenced to three years of house arrest as she was expecting their fourth child.

“I don’t know what to tell the kids who are waiting for their dad today,” Nasta said.

It is not uncommon to justify extending politically motivated prison sentences in Belarus with charges of “disobedience,” especially after Minsk cracked down on those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime after 2020.

Russian, Belarusian athletes allowed to participate in Asian Games

Russian and Belarusian athletes will be permitted to participate under a neutral flag at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, in the fall, the event’s organizers said on July 8.

The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) voted on July 8 to allow up to 500 athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, noting that they will not be allowed to win medals at the event.

In January, the OCA said it was open to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals, suggesting Asia as a potential route to get past bans from European regional competitions. At the time, OCA acting president Randhir Singh told reporters that the athletes “won’t interfere in our medal system or Asian quota for the Olympic Games”

Participating in the Asian Games will reportedly help the athletes earn points to qualify for the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has received a lot of criticism for recommending that Russian and Belarusian athletes that do not actively support Russia’s war be allowed to participate in international sporting events under a neutral flag.

On June 22, the Council of Europe urged the complete ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating in the Olympics “as long as Russia’s war of aggression” against Ukraine persists, calling on the IOC to uphold its prior decision to ban the athletes from the Olympics and “all other major sporting events.”

Politically-motivated murders

Belarusians voted for Lukashenko in the country’s first and only presidential election the international community recognized as fair on July 10, 1994.

However, Lukashenko’s rule in the 1990s and early 2000s would soon be marred by fraudulent elections, the dismantling of democratic institutions, and politically motivated arrests and murders.

For example, former Interior Minister Yuryi Zakharanka disappeared on May 7, 1999, after he announced the creation of the Officers’ Union, which opposed Lukashenko. Similarly, opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, also went missing.

Meanwhile, July 7 marked 23 years since the kidnapping of Dzmitryi Zavadski.

In 2000, Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Zavadsky went to meet his colleague at the airport and was never seen again. His empty car was parked next to the airport, and his body was never found.

Dzmitry Zavadsky started his career as a cameraman on Belarusian TV and worked with the selected group of reporters that followed Lukashenko on his official visits.

Zavadski left for the Russian ORT channel and started working with Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist critical of the regime.

His reporting annoyed Lukashenko and caused a rift in Russia-Belarus relations. Sheremet was soon deprived of accreditation and was detained along with Zavadsky, his cameraman. The duo was sentenced to 1.5-2 years of imprisonment, postponed for a year. Both continued their work.

Zavadsky made several reports about Russia’s Chechen War and returned to Minsk right before he was kidnapped.

In 2001, the former Belarusian prosecutors Dzmitry Petrushkevich and Aleh Sluchak, who were in charge of the Zavadsky case, emigrated to the United States, fearing for their lives and revealed that Lukashenko’s opponents’ disappearances were the result of work of the so-called “Death Squad,” a special unit created by Luakshenko to deal with any task including murder.

The Squad had to develop a procedure of kidnapping and killing the opponents of the regime without leaving a trace. The murders were carried out with a gun dedicated to executing death penalty sentences in Belarus.

The Belarusian KGB tried to investigate and uncover the group.

But as KGB Chairman Vladimir Matskevich and Prosecutor General Oleg Bozhelko have arrested the group’s commander Dzmitry Paulichenka and demanded the resignation of the country’s Secretary of the Security Council, Viktar Sheiman, the two were fired instead.

Paulichenka was released from KGB prison and continued his service.

Their story matches that of another whistleblower, Yury Garavski, a member of the squad, who fled to Belarus.

A 2004 special report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe found that Viktor Sheiman, Yury Sivakov, Vladimir Naumov, and Dmitriy Pavlichenko were involved in the disappearance of Zakharanka, Hanchar, Krasousky, and Zavadsky.

They were banned from entering the territory of the European Union and the United States and remain persona non-grata to this day.

Up until 2021, Sheiman was heading Lukashenko’s administration. Pandora Papers revealed Sheiman is actively involved in Lukashenko’s deals with Zimbabwe.

Dmitry Pavlichenka is retired from service and is heading a veteran's organization in Minsk.

No bodies were found.

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