Scare tactics The Belarusian authorities are known for playing up ‘security threats’ during times of political instability
With the help of riot police, officers from the Belarusian security services arrested 33 suspected mercenaries from the Russian private military company (PMC) “Wagner” outside of Minsk on July 29, on suspicion of organizing terrorist acts. The arrests took place approximately 10 days before the upcoming Belarusian presidential elections. The campaign season has been marked by massive rallies in support of opposition candidates, as the authorities moved to ban President Alexander Lukashenko’s (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) rivals from the race. After the story about the mercenaries broke, Belarusian media were quick to point out its resemblance to the “White Legion” terrorism case that the authorities launched at the height of major protests back in 2017. It also bears similarity to a number of “threats” that the Belarusian security services claim to have thwarted ahead of past presidential elections. Meduza breaks down how the Belarusian authorities and state media have used alleged security threats to scare citizens during times of political instability.
2020 presidential elections: 200 Russian mercenaries accused of terrorism
On July 24, President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that a foreign private military company (PMC) could attempt to instigate street protests and revolution in Belarus (he used the term “Maidan,” referring to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that overthrew the government and ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine). Five days later, Belarusian state media reported the arrest of 33 suspected mercenaries from the Russian PMC Wagner, who had allegedly come to Belarus “to destabilize the country during the election campaign.” State media released a list with the full names of the arrested Russian citizens. Reports emerged that several of them had fought on the side of Russian-backed separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine.
The head of the Belarusian State Security Council, Andrey Ravkov (Andrey Raukou) announced the launch of a criminal case against the arrested Russians for organizing terrorist acts. The Belarusian Investigative Committee later clarified that it was actually a criminal case for orchestrating mass riots. That said, a Russian source familiar with the details of the arrests told Interfax that the alleged mercenaries weren’t carrying any weapons and didn’t violate any Belarusian laws, claiming that there weren’t any charges brought against them. In Russia, speculation emerged that the alleged Wagner group mercenaries (often referred to as vagnerovtsy) were passing through Belarus on their way to countries in Africa — and that the Belarusian authorities knew about it. Minsk denied that they had been warned about the arrival of any PMC combatants.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission called all registered presidential candidates in for an urgent meeting, where they warned them about potential “provocations” at their campaign rallies. According to the candidates, during the meeting, State Security Council Secretary Andrey Ravkov claimed that there were approximately 170 additional Wagner group mercenaries on Belarusian territory, “trained in subversion and sniper activities.” Moreover, according to Ravkov, two other groups of combatants from outside of the Russian cities of Pskov and Nevel (located near the country’s Western borders with Estonia and Belarus, respectively), were planning on coming to Belarus to orchestrate provocations.
In addition to the alleged Russian mercenaries, political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov was also arrested in Belarus on July 29. Shklyarov is known for his previous campaign work for a range of high-profile politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former U.S. president Barack Obama, and Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak. Allegedly, Shklyarov was arrested for working with Belarusian opposition blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky (Syarhey Tsikhanouski), who was banned from running in the presidential elections and then arrested in connection with an alleged case of violence against police officers at the end of May. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) entered the presidential race in place of her husband following his arrest. The Belarusian Investigative Committee also named Tikhanovsky as a suspect in the “Wagner” case.
2017 protests: Busting through the border and battle preparations in Minsk
In February 2017, Belarus saw sustained protests against the proposed introduction of an unemployment tax, which became known as the “parasite tax.” Thousands of people joined the demonstrations. On March 20, Belarusian border guards reported — against the backdrop of the protests — that a car carrying weapons and explosives had tried to break through the border between Belarus and Ukraine; the people in the car were arrested. Ukraine stated that the car hadn’t crossed its borders. Footage of the car appeared on Belarusian state television several times, but there wasn’t any other information about it, writes RFE/RL’s Belarusian service, Radio Svaboda.
On March 21, 2017, four days before a planned protest rally for Freedom Day, Lukashenko announced the arrest of “a couple dozen militants, who were preparing armed provocations.” These combatants allegedly trained in camps in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine — a Belarusian woman living abroad reported them. According to the government newspaper SB Belarus Today, the whistleblower was a resident of Germany by the name of “Frau A.” She learned from a friend that militants were preparing for “real battles” in Minsk, and wrote a letter to Lukashenko about it, “begging him to take ‘immediate measures’” for the sake of her mother, who remained in Belarus, the state newspaper claimed.
The day after Lukashenko’s announcement, reports emerged that a group of people had been arrested in connection with a case on organizing acts of terrorism. Among those arrested were former members of the “White Legion” — a nationalist organization that had long ceased to exist. The Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) referred to them as “professional militants” and reported seizing guns and ammunition from the detainees. Thirty-five people were involved in the case in total — 20 of them were charged orchestrating mass riots, as well as for participation in an illegal armed group
In June of that year, the Belarusian KGB dropped the criminal rioting case, and the investigation on the illegal armed group was handed over to the country’s Investigative Committee. The Investigative Committee closed the case that November, deeming the suspects’ actions “insignificant” and releasing them from custody. The detainees fought for compensation on the grounds of illegal criminal prosecution, but their case was ultimately unsuccessful.
2010 presidential elections: A candidate coup attempt
On December 19, 2010, after voting in the presidential elections had ended (the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenko had won with 79.65 percent of the vote), Minsk saw one of the biggest protests rallies in the history of modern Belarus. According to various estimates, between 15,000 and 40,000 people came out to protest. During the rally, someone started breaking the windows of the Government House located on Independence Square (opposition presidential candidates later claimed that this was a provocation). Special police units (the OMON) quickly and violently dispersed the protesters. Hundreds of people were issued fines and put under administrative arrest; around 50 people were charged in a case for mass rioting.
Seven of the 10 former presidential candidates were accused in the case. State television ran a film called “Square. Iron on Glass.” The film claimed that the opposition was preparing a government coup; that cars containing weapons had been stopped at the border before the elections, and machine guns and grenade launchers were found in a Minsk garage. It also claimed that presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich’s fellow party members had ordered the production of pointed rods, and that the minibuses that brought candidate Vladimir Neklyaev’s (Uladzimir Nyaklyayew) supporters to the protests contained explosives and steel bars.
In 2011, the Belarusian court handling the mass rioting case gave out a variety of sentences, including both probation and prison terms, to five of the former presidential candidates. Neklyaev was sentenced to two years in prison, but was exempted from punishment. Statkevich, the only former candidate in the 2010 elections who refused to ask Lukashenko for a pardon, was handed six years in a maximum-security prison. According to the Belarusian news outlet TUT.by, the reports about explosives and weapons broadcast on state television were not reflected in the sentencing.
2006 presidential elections: Thwarted explosions and rats in the water supply
In February 2006, a month before Lukashenko was re-elected as president, four activists from the unregistered election monitoring initiative “Partnerstvo” (Partnership) were arrested in Belarus. KGB head Stepan Sukharenko (Stsiapan Sukharenka) claimed that they had been involved in preparations for a “violent seizure of power.” Allegedly, Partnership was supposed to declare the election results invalid on March 19, while the opposition gathered people at a rally, with the intention of setting off an explosion in the crowd.
“The emergence of blood and victims [would] untie the hands of the protest rally’s organizers, after which the seizure of government organs and railway stations [would] begin, railways [would be] blocked off in order to completely stop the state from functioning,” Sukharenko claimed. Militants from Georgia, Ukraine, and countries from former Yugoslavia were also supposed to take part in the power grab, according to Sukharenko.
Sukharenko showed journalists cash and weapons seized in the case, as well as a video recording in which one of the arrested suspects explains that he underwent special training at a militant camp in Georgia. The alleged suspect says that among other things, he was taught how to orchestrate mass poisonings. “They taught me to throw a poisoned rat in a bucket of water and, after it decomposes, to pour the contents [of the bucket] into the water supply,” he said
Lukashenko won 82.6 percent of the vote in the elections. The opposition organized a tent city in central Minsk, which was dispersed after several days. State television channels claimed that they found syringes and erotic magazines in the tents. Around 300 opposition supporters were issued fines or sentenced to administrative arrest. One of the presidential candidates, former Belarusian State University rector Alexander Kozulin (Alyaksandr Kazulin), was sentenced to five years in prison for hooliganism and violations of public order. Lukashenko pardoned him in 2008.
The activists from Partnership were tried on charges of working for an unregistered organization. They were given sentences ranging from a few months to a few years in jail. The story about poisoning the water supply with rats became symbolic of pre-election “horror stories” in Belarus. To this day, no one knows anything about the man who told this story.
Translation by Eilish Hart