While You Weren't Looking

Lukashenko Puts Troops on High Alert

The tense move in Belarus comes as the U.N. special rapporteur warns that “another iron curtain” could descend in Europe.

Belarusian servicemen block a street during an opposition rally against the disputed presidential election results in Minsk on Aug. 30, 2020.
Belarusian servicemen block a street during an opposition rally against the disputed presidential election results in Minsk on Aug. 30, 2020. TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko threatens to close the borders with NATO neighbors, renewed sanctions against Iran set the stage for a showdown at the United Nations General Assembly, and U.N. investigators implicate Venezuela’s government in crimes against humanity in a new report.

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An ‘Iron Curtain’ Around Belarus?

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko announced on Thursday that he would put the country’s troops on high alert and close the borders with neighboring NATO members Lithuania and Poland after weeks of street protests posing the biggest threat yet to his 26-year rule. Lukashenko has repeatedly, without evidence, accused NATO of trying to topple him by fomenting unrest.

The protests erupted in the wake of the Aug. 9 presidential election, which both the European Union and the United States say was rigged. On Thursday, the European Parliament voted to no longer recognize Lukashenko as the country’s leader once his current term expires on Nov. 5 and called for sanctions against the embattled president. The vote is not legally binding but will weigh heavily on future EU decisions regarding Belarus.

On Friday, Belarus’s border with Poland and Lithuania remained open, and authorities in those two countries said there was no change in levels of traffic at crossing points.

Iron curtain. Anaïs Marin, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, warned on Friday that conditions in the country were “catastrophic.” At a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Marin said, “Let’s not allow another iron curtain to descend on the European continent.”

Six weeks since the demonstrations began, neither the protesters nor Lukashenko show any signs of backing down. On Sunday, more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk to demand the president’s resignation. The demonstrators have shown remarkable resilience in the face of a brutal crackdown that has seen at least 7,000 people arrested.

Hundreds have been subjected to torture, including beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and, in at least one case, rape, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. “The sweeping brutality of the crackdown shows the lengths to which the Belarusian authorities will go to silence people, but tens of thousands of peaceful protesters continue to demand fair elections and justice for abuses,” said Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was charged this week with incitement to undermine national security and could face up to five years’ imprisonment if found guilty. Of the three women leading the country’s opposition, Kolesnikova is the last to remain in Belarus. She ripped her passport at the border with Ukraine last week after refusing to be forced into exile and is currently imprisoned in Minsk.

Naming and shaming. In recent days, the protesters have discovered one Achilles’ heel of the well-equipped and ruthless security services: exposure. Groups of protesters have begun pulling down police officers’ masks and balaclavas, prompting them to run away covering their faces with their hands. A Telegram channel devoted to exposing the identities of police officers using facial recognition technology and crowd-sourcing has attracted more than 100,000 followers.

“An officer who is no longer anonymous will think twice before he grabs, beats or kidnaps someone,” the founder of the channel, Black Book, told the Guardian. On Wednesday, another Telegram channel that has coordinated many of the protests published the names and dates of birth of 12 officers who it claimed had “blood on their hands.” The founders of both channels denied that they sought to encourage violence against the police, but the founder of Black Book warned that if the state stepped up its attacks, people might take matters into their own hands.

Uncle Vladimir. On Monday, Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the protests erupted. Putin pledged to lend $1.5 billion to Belarus, but analysts were quick to note that the move was more style than substance: The deal mostly consists of refinancing debt that Minsk already owes Moscow. The political turmoil and the pandemic have taken a toll on Belarus’s beleaguered economy.

Belarus spent $1.4 billion of its gold and foreign exchange reserves last month in a bid to prop up its currency, which hit a record low in August.


What We’re Following

U.N. General Assembly showdown. The U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, announced that Hezbollah has been stockpiling weapons and the explosive ammonium nitrate in locations across Europe in preparation for possible terrorist attacks ordered by the group’s backer, Iran. “I can reveal that such [Hezbollah weapons] caches have been moved through Belgium to France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. I can also reveal that significant ammonium nitrate caches have been discovered or destroyed in France, Greece, and Italy,” said Sales, speaking at an online event hosted by the American Jewish Committee on Thursday.

The revelations come amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran: The United States is preparing to reimpose U.N. sanctions against Iran this weekend. Sanctions were eased as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. Most other countries at the U.N., including the other members of the Security Council, oppose their reimposition. This sets the stage for a tense showdown at the U.N. General Assembly session next week, where U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to address Iran in his speech on Tuesday.

Cyber-threats. FBI Director Chris Wray told the U.S. Congress on Thursday that Russia is actively working to undermine Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of the November election. Wray said that most of Moscow’s efforts have so far centered around online disinformation campaigns seeking to “denigrate” Biden, whom the Kremlin views as part of an anti-Russian foreign-policy establishment.

In other malicious cyber-activity news, the U.S. Justice Department has charged five Chinese nationals in connection with hacks against over 100 companies, nonprofits, think tanks, and universities both in the United States and abroad. In three indictments, unsealed on Wednesday, the individuals were accused of working for the prolific hacking group APT41. The Justice Department did not explicitly accuse the group of working on behalf of the Chinese government but said that they were likely working as proxies for Beijing.

“A hacker for profit is not going to hack a pro-democracy group,” said Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney of the District of Columbia.


Keep an Eye On 

Crimes against humanity in Venezuela. On Wednesday, a team of U.N. investigators said that Venezuela’s government had “committed egregious violations,” including killings, torture, disappearances, and violence that amount to crimes against humanity. President Nicolás Maduro and other senior officials were implicated in the crimes detailed in the U.N. report. “Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials,” said Marta Valiñas, the chairperson of the fact-finding mission, in a statement.

Climate change bird-watching. Thousands of migrating birds have been “falling out of the sky” in the southwestern United States in what ornithologists fear may be a mass die-off due to changes in their environment brought about by climate change. Possible causes include the impact of the wildfires, temperature changes, and extremely dry conditions in the southwest. Allison Salas, a graduate researcher at New Mexico State University, wrote on Twitter that the birds were emaciated—“Almost as if they have been flying until they just couldn’t fly anymore.”

Martha Desmond, a professor in the biology department at New Mexico State University, told the Guardian that hundreds of thousands of birds could have died already.

A royal goodbye. The government of Barbados announced this week that it plans to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and become a republic. “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” Barbados Governor-General Sandra Mason said in a speech on behalf of the country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley.

Only 15 countries, including the United Kingdom, still recognize the queen as their head of state. Caribbean nations Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica declared themselves republics in the 1970s.


Odds and Ends

Rebranding Asbestos. A Canadian town called Asbestos is on the hunt for a new name. Mining of the cancer-causing mineral was once the lifeblood of the town, but several years after the mines closed the predominantly French-speaking town in Quebec is looking for a rebrand. Having received around 1,000 suggestions, the town’s council announced the four finalists on Monday: Phénix, Trois-Lacs, Apalone, and Jeffrey, the name of the mine’s first operator.


That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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