Thursday, June 30, 2022

Belarus Weekly: Minsk continues to keep Ukraine on high alert by conducting military drills near border

June 17, 2022 5:30 pmby Maria Yeryoma
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Members of the local Ukrainian and Belarusian diaspora hold a rally against Russia’s war, on June 12, in Krakow, Poland. (Getty Images)

Belarus continues to keep Ukraine on high alert by conducting military drills near the border. Government-sponsored disinformation is inciting panic, claiming that Belarus’ border is being breached by Ukrainian forces. Russian military vehicles are also seen withdrawing from the country.

Belaruskali, Belarus’ main potash company, struggles to receive payments under sanctions. Meanwhile, Belarusian exports to Russia have doubled, as Putin pledges to allocate an additional $1.5 billion to Belarus to bolster trade.

A trial against a major independent Belarusian news agency and mass detentions of TikTok bloggers in the country marked another week of the regime's war on independent media. 

Human Rights Watch published a report about the migration crisis orchestrated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2021. The cited victims report abuse, extortion, and rape. 

Belarus conducts wartime drills 

On June 7, Belarus’ Defense Ministry announced that the ongoing military drills will be conducted in a “wartime setting.” The drills are intended to maintain Belarusian forces on high alert, as well as to conduct checks on military equipment in the case of war. Units are set to be combat-ready.

According to political analyst Andrei Porotnikov, the drills are routine and are typically carried out once every two years or so. However, in an interview with local media, Porotnikov emphasized that the Belarusian government is under no legal obligation to make the decision to hold drills public, meaning the announcement likely serves as “sending signals” to the country’s neighbors.

Belarusian propaganda delivers new allegations of border breach

On June 8, government-controlled Belarusian media released a new report accusing Ukraine of sending an armed drone into Belarus on May 26. This was followed by an additional accusation on June 9 that Ukraine breached Belarus’ border.

Independent journalists have analyzed the video clip in the report deeming it staged. For example, three separate drones are portrayed as being one single drone. Also, it is critical to note that the VOG-17 grenade featured in the clip has a standard fuse that unlocks after being fired from a grenade launcher. The drone-delivered ammunition could not have detonated without a grenade launcher.

Belarusian propaganda continues to disseminate false reports on alleged “provocations” by Ukraine. Belarus’ Security Council Secretary Alexander Volfovich and First Deputy Head of the State Border Guard Committee Igor Butkevich, claimed to have observed Ukrainian sabotage groups at the border in May to June 2022.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said the allegations are "nonsense.” By contrast, the General Staff reported that Belarus deployed the means of electronic warfare along the border.

Belarusian monitoring group reports 700 Russian soldiers remain in Belarus

On June 11, a Belarusian monitoring group, Belaruski Hayun, which follows the movement of Russian troops in Belarus, observed two military convoys with equipment from Russian and Belarusian forces moving from western Brest Oblast to eastern Gomel Oblast. S-400 and Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems were reportedly transported out of Belarus.

Belaruski Hayun says a number of troops have been withdrawn to Russia alongside the equipment, leaving only around 700 soldiers in Belarus. This number is sufficient to operate the remaining Iskander short range ballistic missile systems stationed in Belarus and directed at Ukraine.

Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, said that, while Ukraine has not observed indications that Belarus is forming offensive groups, Russian forces are continuing to carry out airstrikes on Ukraine from Belarusian territory. 

Human Rights Watch: Migrants face violence, extortion, rape in Belarusian refugee camp Bruzgi

On June 8, Human Rights Watch published a report stating that migrants from the Middle East and Africa stuck at the Belarusian-organized Bruzgi refugee facility at Belarus’s border with Poland face beating, extortion, and sexual abuse.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the migrants, Polish border guards, and human rights advocates to gain insight into the conditions at the facility, which reportedly held 4,000 people.

According to the report, the facility had no heating or electricity, people were sleeping on wooden pallets, and the one free meal consisted of biscuits. Those in the camp were also extorted for money. The interviewed migrants had to pay $20 to $40 to charge their electronic devices. 

Polish human rights activist Ola Chrzanowska, on behalf of her client, a 35-year-old female refugee that resided in the facility, said that Belarusian personnel removed her and her daughter from the facility and raped her. 

Interviewed migrants said the only way out of the camp was to bribe the guards and return to Minsk. 

The migration crisis coordinated by Belarus started to unfold in May 2021, when Lukashenko said he was no longer willing to protect the EU borders from migration and facilitated an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Belarus. It peaked in November 2021 when thousands of asylum-seekers tried to push through the EU border.

Human Rights Watch also stated that Polish border guards would prevent the migrants from crossing the border, citing a violation of international law, leaving them stranded in a neutral zone. An earlier report by Human Rights Watch stated that at least 13 migrants have died at the border.

While the facility closed in March 2022, the crisis persists as dozens of crossing attempts are registered daily, prompting Poland to build a 180-km wall at the border.

Belarus overtakes Germany as Russia’s key European trade partner, Moscow promises more cash

According to Bloomberg, Belarus is now exporting $1.5 billion worth of goods to Russia monthly, toppling Germany as Russia’s main European importer, despite Minsk’s economy being 60 times smaller than that of Berlin.

Russia is now promising additional funds in return for Belarus increasing its volume of imports to the country, so as to salvage Russian markets by providing products that have disappeared from shelves due to sanctions imposed on Russia for its full-scale war against Ukraine.

At a meeting with Governor of Kursk Oblast Roman Starovoit on June 9, Lukashenko announced that Russia is going to provide up to $1.5 billion for Belarus.

Indian company tries to bypass sanctions to buy Belarusian potash

On June 6, Reuters reported that Indian Potash Ltd. had created an account in rupees at the Indian branch of Russian Sberbank to buy potash from Belaruskali, currently under sanctions.

However, the payment was stuck, as Sberbank came under sanctions and was cut off from SWIFT on June 2.

Indian Potash Ltd. has sent a $23 million tranche for the 2021 contract using the rupee-ruble exchange, aiming to avoid sanctions imposed by the U.S. that came into effect on April 1.The money has reportedly not reached Belaruskali. According to Reuters, the Indian Government is now set to keep the “rupee-rouble payment mechanism on hold until there were signs of de-escalation in Ukraine.”

The trade was to comprise 13% of Belaruskali exports, reaching up to a million tons of potash fertilizers per year.

Belarus begins trial against oldest independent news agency BelaPAN

On June 6, the case against the management of independent media Belarusian Private News Agency, or BelaPAN, was brought to trial. The outlet’s editor-in-chief, Iryna Levshina, former agency director, Dzmitry Navazhylau, and media manager, Andrei Aliaksandrov, are alleged to have created and led an “extremist organization.”

The case against BelaPAN is a part of the Belarusian government’s war against independent media since 2020.

The wave of raids and arrests has touched virtually every independent media outlet in the country. Currently, 28 journalists and media employees have been convicted and are widely considered political prisoners.

Authorities withdraw books by Belarusian Nobel Prize winner from schools, libraries

Belarusian authorities began withdrawing books by Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, from public use.

According to the Belarusian Council for Culture, 27 writers that were part of the Union of Belarusian Writers, a non-government organization that opposed Lukashenko’s regime and Russia’s war against Ukraine, were banned from appearing in the school curriculum.

Libraries have also begun clearing their shelves of  “opposition writers.”  However, the country's Ministry of Education denied withdrawing books.

Belarusian police harass TikTok bloggers  

During the past three months, the Belarusian police detained 10 TikTok bloggers. The most recent detention took place on June 7, when blogger lexmask got arrested for “hyping on the war” and has been recognised as a participant of the 2020 protests sparked by the fraudulent presidential elections. 
The platform that initially sparked little interest among the law enforcement in Belarus is now a focus for the Belarusian General Directorate for Combating Organized Crimes, also known as GUBOP.

Maria Yeryoma
Author: Maria Yeryoma

Maria Yeryoma is a Belarusian media manager and a contributing author at the Kyiv Independent. She recently led the commercial "special projects" at TUT.BY — the biggest independent online media in the country. In May 2021, TUT.BY was raided by Belarus authorities leaving 15 employees in custody and forcing the team to leave the country to continue their work. Maria moved to Kyiv and helped establishing a new media outlet — Zerkalo.