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Belarus Cracks Down on Journalists Amid Continued Protests

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  • Belarus has experienced nearly a month of constant protests against President Alexander Lukashenko over what is widely viewed as a stolen election.
  • Lukashenko has turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help, who has slowly increased his rhetoric from helping protect Belarus against external threats to authorizing a police force to help against protesters if the situation turns bad enough.
  • However, despite instances of brutal crackdowns, the protests have been largely peaceful, and Lukashenko has no intention of stepping down.
  • On the recommendation of the country’s counter-terrorism office, Belarus revoked the credentials of nearly two dozen journalists, even going so far as to deport some.

Unrest in Belarus

Over the last week, Belarus has revoked the media credentials for journalists, seen some of its largest protests to date, and had Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening the use of Russian security forces against protesters in the country.

The unrest in Belarus stems from the country’s August 9 presidential elections, which saw its longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko going against political outsider Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Despite her widespread popularity, official results had Lukashenko winning 80% of the vote, triggering massive protests across the country that have continued on since. Shortly after the results, Tikhanovskaya appeared in neighboring Lithuania, with different reports emerging about whether she fled to the country or was escorted there by Belarusian security personnel.

The initial protests against the allegedly fraudulent election results saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets, with over 7,000 people being detained. Since then, there’s been a pattern of large protests, nearly all of which are peaceful, and differing police responses. Initially, security forces would severely crackdown on the protests but then back off and let the protesters march at Independence Square, only to crackdown again if protesters approached government buildings.

Revoking Journalist Credentials

While security forces have been trying to contain the protests through various methods, the regime focused on a new target this week: journalists.

On Saturday, it was reported by various news agencies that their reporters either lost their accreditation to report in Belarus or were even deported from the country. The Associated Press, Germany’s ARD Television, and the BBC each had two reporters lose accreditation, and four of those journalists were also deported. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said five of its journalists lost accreditation, while the Belarusian Association of Journalists said 17 Belarusians working for foreign outlets lost their credentials. 

Alarmingly, the decision to revoke credentials was taken on the recommendation of Belarus’ counter-terrorism unit, with no other information given out as to why these journalists were targeted.

In response to this news, exiled-candidate Tikhanovskaya said, “If true, it is another sign that this regime is morally bankrupt and the only way it will attempt to cling onto power is by fear and intimidation.”

“This tactic will not work. Belarusian people are not afraid anymore. We will win. The darkest hour is always before the dawn.”

The U.S. Embassy condemned the move, saying in a statement: “We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a democratic, prosperous future and support their call for the government of Belarus to carry out democratic reforms and respect human rights.”

Germany also responded by calling on the Belarusian ambassador to answer questions about the removal of journalists.

Sunday’s Renewal of Protests

The backdrop for the situation in Belarus over the last month has been nearly non-stop protests. Sunday saw some of the biggest to-date, with between tens and hundreds of thousands taking to the streets.

The weekend was also Lukashenko’s birthday, and protesters sent well-wishes by chanting “Happy Birthday, You Rat!”

Although Sunday was largely a peaceful event, there were scenes of armored personnel carriers heading towards Independence Palace and protesters shouting “shame!” as they passed.

Independence Palace was also the scene of a face off against police. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 140 people were arrested because of Sunday’s events.

Lukashenko, for his part, has tried to maintain a strongman image during all of this, vowing that no re-election or recount would take place. He’s been spotted at least twice in public with a flak jacket and carrying rifles.

Putin Offers His Help

Despite attempts to look strong, Lukashenko has turned to outside help, notably to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Lukashenko’s birthday, Putin called the leader to invite the embattled Belarusian to Moscow for a visit.

This is just the latest show of support by Putin. Since the start of the massive protests, Putin has been active in trying to keep Lukashenko in power. Some of those efforts include promising a Russian presence in Belarus if necessary.

Both countries are justifying the remarks and promises by claiming that ‘foreign powers’ are trying to oust Lukashenko, and that NATO was amassing troops in neighboring Poland, which NATO denies.

That language was also used by Putin and Lukashenko to invoke a defense pact between the nations. Belarus has strong linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, and unlike most former-Soviet nations, it has kept a close relationship with Russia.

The relationship was so close that in the late ’90s Russia and Belarus were working out deals to become a unified nation. Those deals were more-or-less frozen after Putin first became the Russian president, but they still resulted in Russia and Belarus having an extremely strong defense treaty and a system for citizens of either nation to freely live in the other.

The defense pact was used to justify an initial Russian presence in Belarus just in case there was an external military threat, but that seems to have changed on Friday. Putin told state television that he ordered the creation of a “certain reserve of law enforcement officers” at Lukashenko’s request that would be ready to intervene in Belarus if things got out of hand.

He also ominously warned protesters, “We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain boundaries and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings.”

There’s now a cloud hovering over the protests in Belarus: if protesters push the protests to the levels Ukraine saw when it ousted its pro-Russian leader in 2014, then Russia claims it will directly intervene.

Ukraine during the 2014 Orange Revolution. Via: New York Times

For Putin this is multilayered: many media outlets, like the New York Times, think this is an effort for not only Lukashenko to look like he has support, but also for Putin to look strong. The Russian leader is currently facing his own struggles internally. One state in eastern Russia has been rocked by months of constant protests after Putin arrested the popular governor of the region. This is a marked difference from past Russian protests, which are often in the urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Additionally, the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition member in Russia, has led to widespread discontent. The Russian government denies any poisoning took place, while doctors in Russia and Germany, where Navalny was transferred to for recovery, say he was without-a-doubt poisoned.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (BBC) (EuroNews)

International

Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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