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Belarus Weekly: Moscow, Minsk sign agreement on nuclear weapons in Belarus

by Maria Yeryoma May 26, 2023 3:06 PM 10 min read
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and Belarus' Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin (right) shake hands during their meeting in Belarusian capital Minsk on May 25, 2023. (Belarus' Defense Ministry/Telegram)
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Eduard Babaryka, the son of jailed ex-presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, goes on trial after spending three years in a pre-trial detention center. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

In an unprecedented move, Belarusian authorities "pardon" jailed Belarusian activist Raman Pratasevich, who was given an eight-year prison sentence just two weeks ago. Experts consider the decision a propaganda move.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly recognizes Russian crimes in Ukraine as genocide and condemned Belarus' role as a co-aggressor in the war.

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Kyiv starts an investigation into Minsk's role in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied territories.

An all-Belarusian volunteer group fighting for Ukraine faces losses on the battlefield near Bakhmut.

These events take place against the backdrop of the Day of Solidarity with Belarusian Political Prisoners on May 21, as the number of political prisoners in Belarus reaches over 1,500.

Steven Pifer: Russian nukes in Belarus - much ado about little?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent. In a March 25 interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for use by the Belarusian milit…

Moscow, Minsk sign agreement on placing nuclear weapons in Belarus

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed documents on placing Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.

According to Belarus' Defense Ministry, the two officials met in Minsk on May 25.

Control over the weaponry and decision on its use remains with Moscow, Shoigu said during the meeting, as cited by Russian state-controlled news agency Interfax.

He added that Russia may take "additional measures" in the future "to ensure the security of the Union State (of Russia and Belarus) and respond to the military-political situation."

On April 4, Shoigu claimed that Russia had provided Belarus with aircraft and Iskander-M missile complexes capable of delivering nuclear strikes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened on March 25 that his country intended to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for training, the latest in Moscow's series of nuclear threats against Ukraine and the West.

Putin said the "special storage facility" for tactical nuclear weapons would be ready by July 1.

Belarus' Foreign Ministry later claimed the regime was "forced" to do so amid so-called "unprecedented political, economic, and informational pressure" from the West.

NATO and the EU criticized the move, urging Belarus not to go through with it. The European Union's chief diplomat Josep Borrell called the decision an "irresponsible escalation and threat to European security."

Son of ex-presidential candidate Babaryka goes on trial

Eduard Babaryka, the son of former Belarusian presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, is on trial after three years in custody at a pre-trial detention center. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Belarusian authorities have accused the 33-year-old of tax evasion, money laundering, helping organize "mass riots," and "inciting social hatred," among other allegations. Eduard has rejected the charges, saying they're politically motivated.

Eduard's father, Viktar Babaryka, is currently serving a 14-year sentence in Belarus for politically motivated charges.

Considered one of Lukashenko's primary political opponents during the last presidential election campaign, the move was widely considered an attempt to take Babaryka out of the presidential race.

Viktar Babaryka was hospitalized on April 27 with a collapsed lung and traces of severe beating. He has since gone missing. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on May 11 calling for his release.

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Before joining his father's campaign staff in 2020, Eduard ran crowdfunding platform Ulej which, among other humanitarian projects, funded the publication of a collection of Belarusian works by Nobel Prize-winning writer Sviatlana Aleksievich.

Belarusian authorities claim they helped fund so-called "destructive projects."

Eduard and Viktar were arrested by Belarusian authorities in June 2020 while en route to file signatures in favor of Viktar's presidential candidacy.

Belarus 'pardons' jailed activist Raman Pratasevich

Belarus has "pardoned" jailed Belarusian activist Raman Pratasevich, Belarusian state news agency BelTA claimed on May 22.

The Minsk regional court sentenced Pratasevich, a former editor of the Belarusian Telegram channel Nexta, a mouthpiece for the protests against the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian elections, to eight years in prison on May 8.

The court accused him of participating in a so-called "extremist group," undermining national security, and other politically motivated charges.

Co-defendants Yan Rudzik and Stsiapan Putsila, who were tried in absentia, were sentenced to 19 and 20 years in prison, respectively.

Pratasevich fled Belarus in 2021 but was detained when his commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk while flying over the country.

"Literally, I just signed all the relevant documents stating that I was pardoned. This, of course, is just great news," Pratasevich told reporters in Minsk.

Pratasevich has been called the regime's "hostage," appearing in official press conferences and on state-owned TV as an alleged "remorseful opposition activist" now loyal to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Human rights groups say his confessions have been extracted through torture.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya dismissed Pratasevich's pardon as a "smokescreen" for the regime's crimes. She said the move was a "predictable attempt to divert attention" from the new trial against Eduard Babaryka and missing political prisoners.

"All of them (political prisoners) have to be released and allowed to live free without coercion or threats," Tsikhanouskaya said.

Pratasevich's pardon is the first granted by Lukashenko's regime for a political prisoner. In September 2022, Lukashenko claimed he intended to grant amnesty to prisoners who "really deserve it." The regime has fallen short of this promise.

Some experts suggest the move to pardon Pratasevich may help Belarusian authorities bolster pro-regime propaganda or coax other political prisoners into false repentance.

The Nexta Telegram channel published videos criticizing Lukashenko's regime on topics like the country's elections, the death penalty, and protests over various government policies. It extensively covered the protests that followed the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

NATO Parliamentary Assembly recognizes Russian crimes in Ukraine as genocide, Belarus complicit

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) unanimously recognized Russia's crimes against Ukraine as genocide on May 22 and condemned the role of Lukashenko's regime as a "co-aggressor."

At the Luxembourg Assembly session, we managed to adopt an extremely strong declaration that will have far-reaching political consequences," the head of Ukraine's delegation, Yehor Cherniev, said on May 22.

The NATO PA statement said the organization would hold Russia's "co-aggressors in the Belarusian regime" accountable for its crimes in Ukraine, adding that it is "concerned about the Belarusian regime's growing support of Russia's war of aggression."

At the NATO PA meeting, Tsikhanouskaya reiterated Lukashenko's complicity in Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine and hand in the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. She called on the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for Lukashenko's arrest, just as it had done for Putin.

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"We cannot allow Belarus to become a consolation prize for Putin," Tsikhanouskaya said. "Belarus is part of the problem, but it should also be part of the solution."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution on April 28 recognizing the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia as genocide, noting that Lukashenko is one of the "named individuals for whom direct responsibility has been alleged" by international human rights organizations.

Reuters: Ukraine investigating Belarus' role in child abductions

Kyiv is investigating Belarus' potential role in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories, Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office told Reuters on May 23.

The announcement was a response to a report published by exiled Belarusian opposition members alleging that over 2,000 Ukrainian children, including orphans between the ages of six and 15, were forcibly relocated to so-called recreation camps and sanatoriums in Belarus.

The report accuses Lukashenko of personally facilitating the abduction of Ukrainian orphans to Belarusian territory, which would implicate him in war crimes.

The Prosecutor General's Office told Reuters it has launched criminal investigations into the "forced transportation/deportation of over 19,000 children" from the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, including to Belarus.

The office hasn't made an official announcement on the subject.

The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, who has allegedly been overseeing the forced deportations of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia.

PACE adopted a resolution in April recognizing Lukashenko as being potentially complicit in Russia's forced deportation of Ukrainian children.

Kastus Kalinouski regiment suffers losses in Bakhmut

The Kastus Kalinouski regiment, an all-Belarusian regiment fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, reported the deaths of five of its soldiers near Bakhmut on May 17.

Russian forces reportedly struck a building with members of the regiment inside, causing it to collapse and killing four fighters. The regiment said attempts to retrieve the fighters' bodies failed.

One of the regiment's commanders died while trying to evacuate during a Russian assault.

The Kyiv Independent reported on May 22 that Bakhmut has effectively been occupied by Russian troops. However, Ukraine's General Staff reported the same day that Bakhmut remains the "epicenter" of fighting.

As of July, there are over 1,500 Belarusian nationals fighting against Russia, with the Kastus Kalinouski regiment currently the largest group among them.

Local Belarusian and Ukrainian diaspora members gathered at the main Market Square in Krakow for the 'Freedom to Political Prisoners of Belarus' protest, on Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Day of Solidarity with Belarusian Political Prisoners

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

May 21 marked the Day of Solidarity with Belarusian Political Prisoners. People around the world expressed solidarity with those imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges.

The day first came about after 50-year-old Belarusian activist Vitold Ashurak, who was sentenced to five years in prison for politically motivated charges, died in a penal colony on May 21, 2021. He was arrested for having taken part in protests against the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian presidential election, which tightened Lukashenko's grip on the country.

While Belarusian authorities say his cause of death was cardiac arrest, his family members say Ashurak had no pre-existing conditions prior to his sentence – they suggest he was beaten to death.

An official investigation has yet to be conducted into the cause of his death.

In Belarus, political prisoners face extremely harsh conditions, and there have been many reports of torture and arbitrary punishment. They are often refused contact with their family, friends, and lawyers, and are subject to solitary confinement.

Ashurak was the first to report that political prisoners are forced to wear yellow tags on their clothes, which exposes them to further mistreatment.

Former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, currently serving a 14-year sentence, has been missing for nearly three weeks after he was hospitalized with a collapsed lung and signs of beating.

Meanwhile, Siarhei Tsikhanouskiy and Ihar Losik have been missing for over two months.

Belarusian anti-regime blogger and political prisoner Mikalai Klimovich died in custody at a penal colony in Belarus on May 7. The 61-year-old was arrested for reacting to a caricature depicting Lukashenko on social media.

These men and women have been arrested and incarcerated for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms in pursuit of Belarusian democracy, for protesting a fraudulent election, or for opposing Russia's war against Ukraine," the U.S. State Secretary said, calling for their "immediate and unconditional release.

The EU also issued a statement of solidarity with Belarus, noting that Lukashenko's regime has made over 40,000 politically motivated arrests and pursued at least 12,000 politically motivated criminal cases since the summer of 2020.

The Polish and Lithuanian embassies in the Vatican organized a mass to "pray for freedom and express the solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus."

Writers association PEN International released a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates expressing solidarity with jailed Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski. "In the words of Bialiatski – we, too, believe, because we know that spring always comes after winter."

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