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Belarus Weekly: Lukashenko attacks religious organizations, broadens grounds for their banning

by Maria Yeryoma January 12, 2024 1:28 PM 10 min read
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko speaks to reporters during the Eurasian Economic Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 25, 2023. (Contributor/Getty Images)
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Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko enacts restrictive religious law, mandating re-registration of every religious organization in the country and broadening grounds for their banning.

Belarus refuses to let OSCE observe parliamentary elections, citing alleged "dominance of Western representatives in OSCE missions" and sanctions policies.

Belarus and Sweden recall their emissaries in a diplomatic clash due to the appointment of a Swedish special envoy to the exiled Belarusian democratic movement.

Lukashenko signs a bill granting former Belarusian presidents immunity from prosecution.

A Belarusian woman charged with spying on the Belarusian diaspora in Poland for the Belarusian KGB faces up to 10 years in prison.

The European Commission urges Big Tech companies to support Belarusian independent media, citing concerns over search engines’ wrongful compliance with the Lukashenko regime’s censorship laws.

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Belarus Weekly

Lukashenko signs law tightening rules for religious groups

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has signed into effect a new law on religious groups that requires all denominations to reapply for state registration and introduces more grounds for their banning, his press service reported on Jan 3.

The law requires all religious organizations to undergo re-registration within a year or risk being banned.

The authorities also reserve the right to deny re-registration and have broadened the list of grounds for banning a religious group. Among the reasons listed are actions that do not comply with Belarus’ domestic and foreign policy or “civil harmony,” activities aimed at “discrediting the state,” so-called “extremist activities,” and “humiliating national honor and dignity,” which includes “insulting officials.”

Only citizens permanently residing in Belarus retain the right to lead a religious group. Clerics labeled by the authorities as “extremists” or “terrorists” – a term often used by Belarusian authorities to refer to those who do not support Lukashenko’s regime – are prohibited from holding leadership positions.

The use of any symbols other than religious ones is completely banned during religious services.

The law also lifts restrictions on involving children in religious activities against their will and without the approval of their caregivers, paving the way for further indoctrination in schools initiated in 2021 by the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has described the law as a setback to religious freedoms in the country and called on U.S. President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress to hold Belarus accountable for human rights violations.

“Instead of repealing its highly restrictive religion law enacted over two decades ago, which did not meet international human rights standards, Belarusian officials have doubled down and implemented a more repressive religion law that grants the government unbridled control over religious communities and their affairs,” said USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper.

The introduction of similar re-registration requirements for political parties in 2023 led to the banning of all but three out of the country’s 15 political parties. The remaining three parties have declared their absolute loyalty to the regime.

As of Jan. 1, 2023, Belarus had 3,590 registered religious organizations. The majority of them belong to the Belarusian Orthodox Church. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 73% of Belarusians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, 12% belong to the Catholic Church, and the remaining 6% are members of the 23 other confessions registered in Belarus.

During the anti-government protests in Belarus in 2020, Catholic and Protestant churches actively opposed police brutality and gave shelter to protesters, while the Orthodox Church routinely congratulated Lukashenko on his fraudulent victory.

The church also dismissed priests supporting the protests and banned the singing of “Mahutny Bozha” (Almighty God), a secular “prayer” hymn for Belarus that had been sung for years in churches and during the protests.

The Belarusian regime also targeted religious leaders for supportingthe protestss. According to Christian Vision, an interfaith Christian group, around 60 religious leaders have been persecuted by the state. Twenty-two religious leaders have been subjected to legal or criminal proceedings, Christian Vision says.

Belarus refuses to allow OSCE mission to observe parliamentary elections

Belarusian authorities notified the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Jan. 8 that the organization’s independent observers would not be invited to monitor the country’s upcoming parliamentary and local elections, to be held on Feb. 27.

Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus’ permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said that Minsk “has informed the OSCE of its intention not to invite observers and provided its arguments and reasons.”

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said that Western sanctions policies and the alleged “dominance of Western representatives in OSCE missions” were the reasons for its decision, but promised to reconsider if “the West abandons its illegal sanctions policy and its attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of our country.”

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Matteo Mecacci expressed concern that this “regrettable” decision “will prevent the country’s citizens and institutions from benefiting from an impartial, transparent, and comprehensive assessment.”

Mecacci also said that the decision not to invite the OSCE observers goes against Belarus’ commitments to the organization, and “contradicts the principle of transparency, which is essential for holding genuinely democratic elections.”

Belarusian authorities have instead invited members from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) parliamentary assembly to observe the elections.

The single voting day on Feb. 27 will elect the entire parliament and provide for establishing a new extra-government body, the All-BelarusianPeople’s Assembly, designed as a refuge for Lukashenko after he leaves office as president.

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The assembly, consisting of 1,200 delegates – officials, members of local executive authorities, and handpicked loyal “activists” – will have extraordinary powers, including impeaching the president, appointing the Central Election Committee Members, and approving the deployment of the Belarusian military.

In 2023, ahead of the last parliamentary elections, Belarusian authorities purged the country’s political parties. Twelve out of 15 parties were denied re-registration and were banned.

The three remaining parties pledged allegiance to the Lukashenko regime and were joined by the newly established “Belaya Rus” – a party formed from the “civil movement” supporting Lukashenko.

The Belarusian opposition in exile, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who claimed to have beaten Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, said the parliamentary vote was a “sham election” and called for a boycott.

The parliamentary and local elections will be the first electoral campaign in Belarus since the contested 2020 vote, in which Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth consecutive time. The vote, widely decried as rigged by the international community, triggered mass nationwide protests.

The subsequent crackdown on dissidents by the Belarusian regime led to over 30,000 arrests by the end of 2020, the detaining of nearly 1,500 political prisoners, and the eradication of independent media and non-governmental organizations. The country has been in a long-lasting domestic political crisis since the disputed election.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya meets with Polish government officials in Warsaw, Poland, on Jan. 9, 2024. (Andrzej Iwanczuk/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Belarus recalls ambassador to Sweden over appointment of envoy to Belarusian democratic movement

Belarus and Sweden each recalled their diplomats for consultations following Stockholm’s appointment of an official special envoy to the Belarusian democratic forces in exile, RFE/RL reported on Jan. 5.

Former Swedish Ambassador to Belarus Christina Johannesson was appointed as the special envoy to Belarus’ exiled democratic forces on Nov. 6. In her role, she is to oversee relations and cooperation with Belarusians in exile.

Following the announcement, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the rehabilitation of Belarusian political prisoners and recognizing alternative passports for Belarusians would be among the topics discussed with the new envoy.

Angered by Johannesson’s appointment, Minsk recalled its ambassador, Dzmitry Mironchyk, and demanded that Sweden also recall its representative in Belarus.

Sweden's Foreign Ministry then confirmed the return of Sweden’s temporary charge d’affaires in Minsk, Eva Sundqvist, to Stockholm for further consultations, adding that the embassy would continue to work as usual.

Sweden joined France, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland in appointing special representatives for relations with the Belarusian democratic forces.

While announcing Johannesson’s appointment, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom promised to make Belarus one of its priorities during its tenure as coordinator of the Nordic-Baltic Eight group of countries in 2024.

Lukashenko signs bill on immunity for former presidents

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has signed a bill granting immunity from prosecution to the Belarusian president after his departure from the post, his office reported on Jan. 3.

The bill guarantees former presidents immunity from prosecution for any actions committed during their tenure. The ex-president is granted an allowance equal to 100% of the president’s monthly wage, the option to take a seat in parliament’s upper chamber, and is given a position in the All-Belarus People’sAssembly – a newly established extra-governmental body with the power to impeach the president.

The former president cannot be detained, subjected to investigation, or deprived of personal freedom. The legal immunity also covers all property, real estate, and archives in possession of the former official and the president’s immediate family.

The amendments approved by the Belarusian Parliament on Dec. 22 bring the law into line with the constitution, which was updated by Lukashenko’s regime in a fraudulent referendum on Feb. 27, 2022, which was condemned by the European Union and other Western countries.

Lukashenko assumed the presidency in 1994 and has remained in the post ever since, further consolidating power in the president’s hands via disputed referendums in 1995 and 1996. Since then, no presidential elections held in Belarus have been recognized by Western countries as free and fair.

Belarusian detained in Poland, charged with espionage

A Belarusian woman who was detained and sent to pre-trial detention in Poland in December was charged with espionage for the Belarusian KGB, Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) reported on Jan. 9.

The woman, whose name has not been disclosed, had reportedly been collecting intelligence on members of the Belarusian diaspora in Poland and providing it to the Belarusian secret police for several months.

ABW officers detained her on Dec. 20, 2023, after which a Polish court ordered her arrest for three months. She faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

The investigation was conducted by the ABW delegation in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland, roughly 55 kilometers away from the Belarusian border. Along with Warsaw and Gdansk, the city is a hub for the Belarusian diaspora in Poland.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians have fled the country over the last three years since Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime brutally cracked down on civil society, as well as in the wake of the country’s involvement in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Tensions between Warsaw and Minsk, as well as its Russian allies, surged after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Poland has provided extensive military and humanitarian support to Kyiv as a NATO and EU member since 2022.

Previously, Warsaw uncovered a Russian spy network, detaining 15 foreign nationals, and broke up another espionage ring involving at least one Belarusian citizen in March.

A protestor holds a banner “Free All Political Prisoners” during a demonstrate of solidarity with Belarusian political prisoners and against Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship in Krakow, Poland on Jan. 16, 2022. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Financial Times: EU urges big tech to support Belarusian independent media

The European Commission urged tech giants like Google and Meta to help promote the work of independent Belarusian media exiled by the Lukashenko regime, rather than that of Belarusian propaganda channels, the Financial Times reported on Jan. 8.

Belarusian journalists reportedly told the Commission that search algorithms currently wrongfully comply with Belarusian media censorship rules and favor propaganda over news critical of the regime.

“Fighting disinformation and promoting media freedom are two sides of the same coin – and we want Big Tech to do both,” European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Jourova said she had raised the concerns about Belarusian media at a meeting with Google’s president of global affairs, Kent Walker, in December.

While Meta has not commented on the issue, Google said that it would work to ensure that the products and policies of the company “don’t take political leanings into account,” but warned that hundreds of factors influence search results.

European Parliament member Juozas Olekas, who is in charge of EU relations with the Belarusian democratic movement, said that the world’s big technology companies have thus far “shown no desire or interest in solving the problem.”

Indexing pages written in Belarusian is another sore point: Google News is unavailable in Belarusian, and Google Ads does not support the language, complicating the promotion of Belarusian-language content on YouTube.

This reportedly aids the Belarusian regime, which views the use of Belarusian as a marker of opposition and has pushed the language to the margins of public life.

The Union of Belarusian Writers published a report in July 2022 detailing the increasing marginalization of the Belarusian language and the growing use of Russian by the government, as well as in the educational sphere.

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