MS Risk Blog

The Belarus Crisis and its Implications for Eastern European Security and Businesses

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The recent upheaval in Belarus following the presidential election and its aftermath has gained international attention. On the morning of August 10, Belarus’ electoral commission reported that Lukashenko won 80.3 percent of the vote. Later that night, heavily armed security forces deployed onto the streets of Minsk, using rubber bullets and tear gas, and arresting people voicing their suspicions of electoral fraud. Workers also participated in the protests and a strike was initiated at Belaruskali, a huge potash factory in Soligorsk. However, they were pressured into ending it by agents of Belarus’ State Security Committee and the strike’s organiser was handed a jail sentence. Consequently, organisers of other strikes fled the country. On August 16, the biggest mass protests in the country’s history occurred when over 200 thousand people took to the streets in Minsk to protest Lukashenko’s regime and the election results. The number of people participating in protests throughout August makes the situation unique for Belarus: for the first time, its authorities have experienced opposition from the majority of citizens, not only a minority.

On August 21, Amnesty International said that the human rights crisis in the country “caused by the vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters requires businesses, both foreign and national, to exercise particular diligence when operating in the country and upholding their responsibility to respect human rights.” Businesses have the responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world, and to take pro-active steps to make sure that they neither cause or contribute to human rights violations within their global operations and respond when violations do occur. Amnesty International warned businesses that authorities in Belarus may place demands on them that would lead to human rights violations, and that if this occurs, businesses must make their opposition known to the government and to the public, in addition to pursuing legal options to challenge it.

For instance, it has been alleged that the near-total internet shutdown on August 9-11 throughout Belarus was the result of instructions made by authorities to internet providers. On the morning of August 9, when the polls opened, multiple internet providers in the country lost routing. Journalists present in Belarus confirmed that there were significant disruptions to WIFI, LAN and mobile data networks. Twenty-four hours later, internet users still found it difficult to get online. Belarus’ largest telecom providers, A1; Life; and MTS, apologised and said the reasons for the outages were outside their control. Maksimas Milta, Head of the Communication and Development Unit at European Humanities University, told CyberNews that YouTube and Messenger were the first to stop working. Then, Goals, an election platform designed to register votes and report possible violations in constituencies, and Zubr, a map for reporting electoral law violations in real-time via a Telegram bot, were blocked. “So first the authorities blocked these platforms so that people could not observe news about possible violations in real-time,” said Milta. Later in the afternoon, most of the media outlets became unavailable as the whole mobile internet shut down. Independent media such as Free Radio Europe became inaccessible. Belarus’ two largest independent news platforms, Naviny and Tut., both became inaccessible following the closure of the polls.

The fact that these specific websites became inaccessible raised suspicions. Klimarev, executive director at the Internet Protection Society, told CyberNews that once “they shut down the internet, it was clear they are hiding something. To put it mildly, the elections were not transparent.” He explained further that they “foresaw this would happen. Shutdowns are not rare in the world. We just didn’t know how it would be done in Belarus.” He noted that they did not succeed as some information was still getting through. However, businesses were still hurt as the “ATMs, various services, Github and Google Docs, Slack, and other online services that are vital to business operators were down… If that lasts for a short period, it’s ok, but if it goes on for a week, the consequences for the business will be immense.” Milta said he was sure that if protests continue the disruption of the internet will too. On August 10, over 20 NGOs and human rights defenders voiced their concern about the internet shutdown in an open letter. It said: “During the whole day of 9 August 2020 Internet access in Belarus was wholly or partly limited. Blockings were either total or concerned specific Internet services, web sites, social networks, messaging services, whether local or global. It is alleged that the Belarusian authorities decided to block data transfer protocols which led to the disruption of connectivity of the Belarusian networks. All foreign traffic was directed through one channel only in an attempt to allow for deep-packet inspection making VPN services ineffective.”

Meanwhile general director of Beltelekom, Shaybakov, suggested that the internet difficulties resulted from the large volumes of foreign traffic. Furthermore, the National Digital Response Centre claimed that the difficulties can be attributed to a significant amount of DDoS attacks against Belarusian telecom operators’ infrastructure. However, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Belarusian authorities are interfering with internet access and restricting content online, apparently to demobilize protests and disconnect people in Belarus from information they have the right to get.” Since August 12, we have seen repeated internet disruptions. On August 17, a 15-minute nationwide disruption was recorded and on August 23 mobile internet services were disrupted for over three hours while protesters were moving toward the presidential palace. Ahead of the latter disruptions, privately-owned internet service provider A1 told users that temporary restrictions of their 3G networks would occur because of “requests by the authorities related to ensuring national security.”

Independent media outlets and human rights groups continue to operate in the country. Protesters have used Telegram to update each other on police movements and guide each other to certain areas. This, Katsiaryna Shmatsina, political analyst with the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, said can make it more difficult for security services to quash protesters’ coordination. “If we had one clear leader, especially if this leader was in Belarus, we don’t know how long he or she would have lasted.” However, protesters, media outlets and human rights groups routinely experience harassment from the authorities and the threat of being arrested. Following the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate, fled to Lithuania due to safety concerns. Furthermore, several opposition politicians have been detained during the last month. Amnesty International and local human rights groups have also collected testimonies from protesters who described being tortured and subjected to other ill-treatment while detained in detention centres. AI says these testimonies, in addition to video footage showing that screams of torture victims were heard from outside, evidences “a campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment by the Belarusian authorities who are intent on crushing peaceful protests by any means.”

The protests have provoked newfound international interest in the often-overlooked country. Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko recently wrote that the international community must prioritise support for the civic movement as this is vital to defend Europe’s geopolitical interests and prevent Putin from taking advantage of Lukashenko’s weakness to advance his own foreign policy. If Lukashenko is cut off from the rest of the word, he might find himself in a position where he has to accept Putin’s terms. This list of terms, Goncharenko wrote, would likely include Belarus selling its strategic industrial assets to Kremlin-friendly Russian oligarchs and establishing Russian military bases in the country. Complying with these terms “would transform the geopolitical landscape in Eastern Europe, cutting off the Baltic States and bringing the Russian military to Poland’s eastern border in a far more comprehensive manner than the current limited threat posed by Moscow’s Kaliningrad enclave.” Comprehensive outside support to protesters could be key to prevent Lukashenko’s security apparatus from overpowering them and reduce the chances of Putin gaining more power over the former Soviet empire.

While Lukashenko should not be isolated too much from the international community as this may drive him towards Russian support, international leaders must continue to put pressure on Belarus’ government to stop the human rights violations. Steps have been taken here as the EU released a statement on September 8 saying that it will impose sanctions on individuals responsible for violence, repression, and falsification of election results in Belarus. Furthermore, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia imposed travel bans on President Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials. In addition, Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, says the country “urgently needs credible outside mediation in order to prevent a potentially deadly deterioration from taking place”. Åslund suggests the experience of Ukraine and the 2004 Orange Revolution as a possibly ideal mediation model. The people involved, including EU’s Javier Solana and then ambassador to Kyiv Chernomyrdin, were diplomats who knew Ukraine and its top politicians well. Åslund recommends that the top mediator should be a senior politician who knows Belarus well, but who has not in the past antagonized Lukashenko too much. Recently, OSCE reiterated its offer to mediate, with diplomats Edi Rama of Albania and Ann Linde of Sweden offering to participate. Such actions should be prioritised now as mediation should be initiated as quickly as possible to prevent further escalation of the crisis.

For now, Amnesty International recommends that should the Belarusian government make requests of businesses which would breach international human rights they must make their opposition known both to the authorities and to the public. If the government demands that internet providers cause disruptions, they should oppose them and challenge them legally as such measures adversely impact human rights such as freedom of expression and ability to freely seek, receive and impart information. Furthermore, Amnesty International recommends that should businesses make any agreements with the authorities or comply with government orders, these should be made transparent to the public.