Kremlin’s Tactic of Transnational Repression Adapted by Belarus

Author of the article Lukas Andriukaitis, exclusively for Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center. Lukas Andriukaitis is an open-source researcher and trainer, focusing on Kremlin disinformation and military involvement in conflicts around the globe. For the past several years he has focused on Russian involvement in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Venezuela.

Opposition supporters hold images of Gen. Yuri Zakharenko on an anniversary of his mysterious disappearance / AP


Recent examples of murder and intimidation of political opponents, suggest that Belarus has followed Kremlin’s footsteps in adopting transnational repression as a tactic. Even though such practices dates back to at least the early 1910s, with dictators across the globe searching for an extension of their power, a visible new wave of transnational repression has been noticed quite recently, through 2000s. Authoritarian regimes recognized transnational repression was as a attention worthy state practice, formally described as process of „targeting of co-national political opponents, civil society advocates, non-compliant business community members and journalists who reside abroad by governments and their internal security and intelligence services“. Transnational repression is being actively used in practice nowadays, including many different extraterritorial acts, such as active monitoring, restricting overseas travels, coercive acts against political exiles by agents, abductions, family intimidations and many more. One of the biggest culprits of this process in its political agenda is the Kremlin and its campaign.


The Russian government has a long tradition of conducting highly aggressive transnational repression activities outside its borders. As catalogued in Freedom House’s global survey of 2021, the Russian campaign accounts for 7 of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014. The Kremlin heavily relies on assassination as a tool, targets former insiders and others who are perceived as threats to the regime’s security. Since the pro-democratic protests and unrest started showing in Belarus, it seems that Lukashenka’s regime is also adapting this method with Kremlin’s blessing. One of the most recent events that hit the media was the murder of an active Belarus dissident Vitaly Shishov.


The case of Vitaly Shishov


On the 3rd of August, 2021, whole Belarus and activists around the globe were shaken with the news of death of Vitaly Shishov.

Nexta‘s news report announcing the killing of Vitaly Shishov. (Twitter/@nexta_tv)


Shishov was found hanging in the park, after not he went missing while going for a jog in the evening. Quickly after that, demonstrations broke through near the Embassy of Belarus in the city of Kyiv. Crowd of people, expressing their condolences with symbolic red and white colors in different shapes, gathered to attract attention to yet another possible act of transnational repression.


Tweets about demonstrations that took places right after the death of Vitaly Shishov. (Twitter/mjluxmoore, Twitter/Liveuamap)


One colleague of Vitaly, Yuri Shchuchko, revealed that police said Shishov had marks on his face when found, suggesting that he had been beaten up, so the already low possibility of suicide became even less plausible. Mr Shchuchko also said Ukrainian security officers and police had privately warned the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BHU) about constant threats to the activists. Shishov has been the head of this NGO, which was actively helping Belarusian citizens who had fled from the dictatorial regime of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, held rallies in Kyiv in support of the Belarusian opposition and was constantly spreading news about the crimes of the Lukashenko regime, thus earning attention from the local and international security services.


Security Service Interdependence


Another important aspect reconsidering actions of already mentioned security services is their (inter)dependence and bias. Countries of Russia and Belarus are interrelated on so many different fields, such as economy, politics, military, etc. Among security services, the Belarusian KGB (BKGB) also works closely with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The relationship between the security services of both countries is so strong that one could hardly tell apart Lukashenko's KGB or SOF or Putin's spy-services - Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU). Latter is believed to have targeted Shishov in Kyiv. Recent example is far away from being one of a kind, but rather a part of a tragic growth and tendency of transnational repression.


Even though this process was pioneered by Russia, it is being widely used around the globe, not omitting the context of Belarus. For quite many years, Russians abroad, who have been engaged in high-profile political opposition, were known to be constantly facing surveillance and sophisticated hacking campaigns with the same techniques the government uses against high-priority national security targets. Many examples throughout the last decade could be mentioned within this context, such as journalist Pavel Sheremet, whose hard-hitting coverage of political oppression in Belarus angered the authorities and he was blown up by a car bomb, or mysterious disappearances of four high-profile Belarusian dissidents (Zakharenko, Gonchar, Krasovsky and Zavadsky), that were later reported to be killed and many others unfortunate fates. Wide and brutal net of security services, well disposed towards authoritarian regimes, is actively shutting down all of those, daring to stand against the established order.


Other cases of disposals


Unfortunate destinies of those, daring to voice against well-established regimes do not limit themselves to mentioned before. On March 4, 2018, in Salisbury, United Kingdom, British citizen Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, his daughter, and a police officer were exposed to a highly toxic and potentially lethal chemical weapon agent. Huge wave of peaceful protests sparked widespread in Belarus, after the openly falsified electoral results in Belarus. They were followed by a brutal state militia crack down, forcing the eligible president - Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – to flee her country. Once again, with taking minor and temporary sanctions aimed at Belarus for lacking democratic legitimacy, the EU did not scare the aggressor and let him move on with further plans. In August 2020, Alexey Navalny, one of Russia's leading opposition activists, was poisoned by a banned nerve agent. After the accident, even though the media was overflowing with Navalny-related messages, the Department of State called the attack an “attempted assassination” and determined Russia had used a chemical weapon in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the EU has not imposed any additional sanctions on Russia. In rather obedient reaction EU did not show any specific actions to confront the agressors and neither stopped nor warned Russia of the consequences of such brutal activities


Going further with the associated examples of internationally working repression mechanisms, one could mention a recent case, bringing back to the death of Shishov. The head of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, Rodion Batulin, was visiting the European Union, but after the tragic news related to the death of Shishov, he immediately returned to Kyiv. However, the deputy of the deceased was not allowed to enter Ukraine on the Polish-Ukrainian border. The border guards ensured that they „did not know the reason for the ban“, as it turned out the ban was issued for a period of three years. Such measure only adds to the wide range of possible tools used to deal with those dangerous to the systematic flow.

Rodion Batulin (glavcom.ua)


Transnational repression goes beyond already mentioned examples. For instance, in quite distinction from the mentioned above, Russian citizens from the Chechen Republic, a province located in the North Caucasus, face a total campaign of transnational repression directed by provincial leader Ramzan Kadyrov, with the approval of the Russian central government. Even in exile, Kadyrov’s brutality follows Chechens. Starting in 2009, when two assassinations were executed, a brutal pattern began and has not stopped ever since. Chechen dissidents abroad have been killed and attacked at alarming rate. To prove the transnational relation, in 2016, two Chechens living in Turkey, Ruslan Israpilov and Abdulwahid Edelgiriev, were killed by people later identified by international media outlets as Russian agents. Besides all of the extreme repression that Chechens face at home, finding asylum in Europe has become quite a task for many individuals as Chechen militancy is usually pictured negatively and bounded to international terrorism, due to their wars for independence and insurgency against Russia. And thus the European authorities appear in a very controversial position, which not only covers the case of Chechens but with other countries as well: while recognizing the extremely harsh nature of dictator’s rule in a specific country, they frequently deny giving asylum to people, trying to flee it. Worst part is the return to the originating country after trying to flee its brutal regime.


Protesters gathering after the killing of vocal Chechen government critic Martin Beck. (freedomhouse.org)


Conclusion


The transnational repression has been out there for many years, but even wider, way more improved, digitalized and even more brutal network has been achieving new standards of opponents’ elimination. Closely tighten security services go beyond the borders of specific country and reaches out far more than one could expect. The international response, including such influential bodies as NATO and the European Union, to this alerting issue is usually atypical: only highprofile, most brutal incidents typically lead to clear consequences for the perpetrator. Despite the fact, that most outrageous examples are outside the European Union, but it is one of the main actors that could, after protecting its own people, stand up to prevent further tragic accidents in the surrounding hostile neighborhood. Nowadays, European Union is quite silent about the actions of the aggressors and hardly takes any specific actions to stop the ongoing brutal actions within the context of transnational repression. Seeing the negligence of the EU, together with other organizations, dictators are left with all the possibilities to continue the hunt of vocal dissidents. Even though the transnational repression is hard to track by design, it is vital for stopping it. United States of America seems to be in a leading position considering the tracking of “politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country”. State Department, with its issued reports, has shown increasing interest considering this specific issue, although, it still lacks particular actions. In order to stop the bodies of anti-regime activists piling up, European Union must confront the aggressors and hold them accountable for their brutal activities.

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