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Belarus: Sentencing of Marya Kaliesnikava and Maksim Znak

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Today (6 September) in Minsk political prisoners Marya Kaliesnikava and Maksim Znak were sentenced to 11 and 10 years in prison respectively. In August 2020, Marya Kaliesnikava, together with Ms Tsikhanouskaya and Ms Tsepkalo, became a symbol of the movement for democratic Belarus. In a trial behind closed doors, together with a prominent lawyer, Mr Znak, she was tried on unfounded charges of “conspiring to seize state power in an unconstitutional way”, “calling for actions aimed at damaging the national security of Belarus through the use of media and the internet” and “establishing and leading and an extremist group”.

In a statement the EU's External Action Service said: "The EU deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus. The EU also reiterates its demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus (now numbering more than 650), including Ms Kaliesnikava and Mr Znak, journalists and all people who are behind bars for exercising their rights. Belarus must adhere to its international commitments and obligations within the UN and OSCE. The EU will continue its efforts to promote accountability for the brutal repression by the Belarusian authorities."

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Is the West hypocritical in blaming Belarus for a humanitarian crisis when sanctions have hurt the lives of millions?

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European Union foreign ministers arrived in Brussels on Monday (29 November) to extend sanctions placed on Belarus last year following the brutal repression of opponents of the encumbered Lukashenko regime, writes Louis Auge.

This decision followed the first high-level meeting between Brussels and Minsk since the beginning of the crisis on the EU's eastern border. Belarus' authoritarian leader has been accused of manipulating a manufactured migrant crisis” to threaten the security of the bloc. These actions have come amid serious EU concern over the deaths of refugees stranded in camps and freezing temperatures, as well as Russian troops gathering on Berlarus’s and Ukraine’s borders.

Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, urged Putin this weekend to intervene in the crisis as Belarus is seen now as an unruly enemy of the UK, EU, and US. With the country isolated from European energy and investments, Putin has supported the Lukashenko regime with $630 million in loans earlier this year and deployed fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to bolster the small state’s western border.

Although Lukashenko has emerged as the visible face of the escalating conflict, the outgoing head of the UK’s armed forces, Gen Sir Nick Carter, said on Sunday that the UK’s most imminent threat remains war with Russia. Carter told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that Moscow was reading from a “hybrid playbook where you link disinformation to destabilisation.”

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He continued to say that the Belarus and Ukraine border situations are evidence of a “classic distraction” by the Russian government of the type that had been going on “for years and years and years”.

Poland has similarly accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the crisis from behind the scenes. Earlier this week, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister, appealed to NATO to step in. He also repeated his demands of the EU to finance a wall to stop the influx.

Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, meanwhile spoke directly to his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir Makei, about what he described as “the precarious humanitarian situation”. He tweeted: "The current situation is unacceptable and must stop. People should not be used as weapons."

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Some commentators have pointed the blame at the EU, however, citing hypocrisy for its mismanagement of Belarus. Under the current sanctions regime, the Belarussian public could be seen as having been weaponised to serve a geopolitical proxy war between two powers. They have since born the greatest consequences instead of Lukashenko, with a democratic future between Belarus and the EU effectively sundered.

In fact, support for the EU among the general population has grown rapidly in recent years, with 77% of respondents reporting a positive or neutral stance towards the EU in a 2018 poll and a third favouring integration with Brussels in November 2020.  

However, this goodwill does not extend both ways. The EU as a whole has never expressed much enthusiasm for incorporating Belarus into the bloc. They condemn the Belarussian government for its "lack of commitment to democracy" yet provide little economic support for its democratic transition. Russia remains historically Belarus’s largest trading partner, representing nearly half of the country’s international trade. EU-Belarus trade makes up just 18% of the total. Reckless EU, UK and US sanctions have only served to further serve this growing co-dependency and harm public support for the West.

The failure to protect post-Soviet democracies is not new, with little resistance from NATO upon Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the recent approval of the Nord Stream 2 which will severely undermine Ukraine’s protection against Russian expansionist interests. In all cases, the public have born the costs of the EU’s profit-minded pursuits, as sanctions have disproportionately put pressure on the democratic youth rather than the Lukashenko regime.

Truss has promised that the UK would not look away as Belarus used “desperate migrants as pawns” in “a carefully crafted crisis”. However, until London, alongside Brussels and Washington, is held accountable for its own humanitarian violations, it may be proven hypocritical to point fingers at Belarus for taking orders from Moscow.

With the future of Belarus tethered to the growing influence of Russia, sanctions are hopeless and counterproductive. The claims by EU on their success at improving bilateral relations do not correspond with reality. Instead, their intent is seemingly to wield as much economic damage on the public as possible, with little regard for the livelihoods and democratic futures for the millions of Belarussians.

The EU claims that the migrants are the hostages of Lukashenko’s regime, but the future of the entire state has likewise been held hostage by the failure of the West to protect democratic citizens from the encroaching Russian empire.

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EU vows unity on Belarus as Poland flags more border incidents

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Thousands of people stranded on the European Union's eastern border represent an attempt by Belarus to destabilize the bloc, rather than a migrant crisis, and as such call for a co-ordinated response, the head of EU executive said on Tuesday (23 November), write Alan Charlish, Marine Strauss, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Jan Strupczewski, Sabine Siebold, Andrius Sytas, Yara Abi Nader, Marko Djurica, Fedja Grulovic, Stephan Schepers, Felix Hoske, Sergiy Karazy, Andreas Rinke and Tomasz Janowsk.

Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament the 27-nation bloc was standing in solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, who are bearing the brunt of what the EU says is President Alexander Lukashenko's ploy to engineer a crisis by flying in migrants into Belarus and then pushing them across EU borders.

"It is the EU as a whole that is being challenged," von der Leyen said. "This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours." Read more.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Warsaw's diplomatic efforts were helping reduce the numbers of migrants travelling to Belarus in the hope of entering the EU, but Poland and its neighbours warned the border crisis was far from over.

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Morawiecki, speaking after meeting the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Budapest, said Poland had been in talks with the governments of Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and others.

Poland, at loggerheads with Brussels over accusations it was subverting the rule of law, has also been reaching out to its European partners.

A government spokesman tweeted Morawiecki would meet French President Emanuel Macron on Wednesday and Polish media reported plans for meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the meetings with Merkel and Johnson.

Von der Leyen said the EU was also coordinating its response to Lukashenko's challenge with its non-EU partners - the United States, Canada and Britain.

To deter intermediaries transporting migrants to Belarus from helping Minsk, the EU would create a blacklist of travel companies involved in trafficking and smuggling of migrants, she said.

It would provide the EU with a legal tool to suspend or limit the operations of companies, or even ban them from the EU if they were engaged in human trafficking, according to EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas.

"This is not a migration crisis, this is a security crisis," Schinas noted. According to the EU, over 40,000 attempts to enter the EU via the Belarus border were prevented in 2021.

A migrant walks with a child during snowfall, at a transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border, in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Migrants stay in the transport and logistics centre Bruzgi on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. Andrei Pokumeiko/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

The EU hit Belarus with sanctions after Lukashenko's violent crackdown on protests against his disputed re-election last year, and Brussels earlier this month agreed to expand those to airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in the movement of migrants.

Minsk cleared migrant camps at the border and agreed to the first repatriation flights in months last week and on Tuesday reported that about 120 migrants had left on Nov. 22 and more were due to follow.

But authorities in Warsaw said repeated incidents at the border showed Minsk may have changed tactics but had not given up plans to use migrants fleeing the Middle East and other hotspots as a weapon in the stand-off with the EU.

Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said about 50 migrants tried to cross on Monday evening, with 18 briefly making it across the barbed wire barrier.

Another group of similar size gathered but ultimately gave up an attempt to cross at another location.

"There are repeated attempts to cross the border and they will continue," Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesperson for Poland's special services, told reporters.

Polish authorities estimate about 10,000 or more migrants could be still in Belarus, he said, creating the potential for further problems.

Lukashenko, who denies the allegation that he fomented the crisis, has pressured the EU and Germany in particular to accept some migrants while Belarus repatriates others, a demand the bloc has so far flatly rejected.

Humanitarian agencies say as many as 13 migrants have died at the border, where many have suffered in a cold, damp forest with little food or water as winter sets in.

Reuters was present when Syrian siblings who had crossed into Poland from Belarus were detained by border guards near the town of Siemiatycze on Tuesday, as the first snow of the winter fell on the forests around the frontier. Read more.

In a stark reminder of the human toll of the crisis, the imam of the Polish village Bohoniki buried on Tuesday an unborn child who died by the Polish-Belarusian border in the womb of its mother.

Halikari Dhaker's mother miscarried him while she, her husband and their five children crossed the border through dense forests and wetlands. Read more.

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Belarus waiting for answer from EU on taking 2,000 migrants, Lukashenko says

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A migrant woman carries a child as they exit a tent outside the transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 21, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Belarus is waiting for an answer from the European Union on whether the bloc will accept 2,000 stranded migrants from the Belarusian border, President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying on Monday by the official Belta news agency, write Maria Kiselyova and Matthias Williams, Reuters.

Lukashenko said Belarus would demand Germany takes in the migrants and said the EU was not making contact with Minsk on the issue.

He also warned that Poland should consider the consequences of acting on a threat to close a border railway crossing, saying rail traffic could be diverted to run through a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in such a scenario.

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The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the EU in response to European sanctions. Minsk denies fomenting the crisis. Read more.

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