Surprising speaker from the KGB
On 18 November 2023, a seminar titled, ‘Secure Belarus: the forms and methods of public safety’, gathered around 20 participants on the premises of the Belarusian Youth Hub. The Hub is a well-known pro-democracy organisation among the Belarusian diaspora in Warsaw. Attendees expected to learn about digital, financial, and physical security from recognised experts. At some point during the seminar, a bearded ‘EU representative’ using the (made-up) name Fabio Zimmer appeared on a big screen via Zoom. He briefly addressed the audience in the Russian language and gave the floor to the ‘seminar organiser and sponsor’ who was sitting next to him. To the surprise of the seminar participants and hosts, there appeared on the screen… Konstantin Bychek, deputy head of the Belarus KGB Investigate Department. He thanked the 59-year-old Belarusian activist Aleh Aksionau for assistance with organising the event, urged participants that ‘attempts to target Belarusian statehood’ are extremist, called upon them ‘to turn yourself in and repent’, and finished by saying, ‘See you in the KGB Investigate Department’.
A screenshot from the ONT report shows a KGB officer addressing seminar participants
KGB pretends to be the European Court of Auditors
The incident became widely known thanks to several TV reports released by the Belarus state-owned TV channel ONT. The fake ‘EU representative’ was key Belarusian propagandist Igor Tur in heavy make-up. The ONT report, entitled ‘Intrepid operation of the Belarusian KGB: a non-staff auditor of the European Court of Auditors turned out to be an agent’, proclaimed that Belarusian activist Aleh Aksionau, residing in Poland, unknowingly provided the KGB with information about events carried out by Belarusian pro-democracy organisations in Warsaw. Aksionau was manipulated into believing that he was cooperating with the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on the auditing of Belarus-related events and their financing. Organising a ‘security seminar’ in Warsaw was actually a KGB initiative. Aksionau thought he was providing a paid service to the ECA.
Interviewed by independent TV channel Belsat about the incident, Aksionau acknowledged that he ‘got trapped’ and mistakenly believed that he was on a trial period for an external auditing position, despite the strange circumstances of his communications with ‘EU auditors’. At the same time, Aksionau denied other claims in the ONT reports, including that he recorded meetings of the Belarusian diaspora. According to Aksionau, he sent ‘auditing reports’ from five public events carried out by Belarusian activists in Poland and received EUR 250 for his services.
Mission: to scare and intimidate, then belittle
Belarusian independent media widely discussed the incident. ‘“We are seeing everything that you do, we are behind your back even when you are discussing how to protect yourselves from us” – this was the message in this sudden [KGB] appearance [at the seminar]’, an op-ed on the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty said. ‘Bychek’s effective appearance via Zoom is aimed at destroying trust between people and organisations in the emigration and democratic underground movement inside the country. (“Agents are everywhere!”) Trust is the most important capital in civic and political activities; therefore Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime is continuously trying to undermine it among its opponents,’ MediaIQ analysis commented.
Belarusian TV and special services are indeed trying hard to sow distrust among Belarusian dissidents and ordinary people in the diaspora. An ONT report tellingly claimed that ‘tens if not hundreds’ of persons like Aksionau reside abroad. TV presenter Igor Tur made a joke out of the intrusion, saying, ‘There are so many agents in Vilnius and Warsaw that if [KGB chief] Ivan Tertel enters one of the next security seminars and orders, “KGB officers and non-staff workers, stand up!”, then it is not clear if anyone would remain seated’. The same TV report alleged that Belarusian special services have access to the closed chats of members of the Coordination Council, a non-governmental body created by Belarusian pro-democracy leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to facilitate a democratic transfer of power in Belarus. To belittle your opponent is a classic trick of manipulation.
Fake assistants of Russian oligarchs are also in the game
This was not the first prank attempted by Belarusian state TV and special services to discredit the Belarusian pro-democracy community abroad. On 7 September 2023, Belarus 1 TV released a report titled, ‘Yes to money: how the Belarusian opposition is being sold. Exposing the Russophobe Kavalkova’, which targeted Belarusian politician Volha Kavalkova. She used to be Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s representative during the presidential campaign of 2020 and was forcibly exiled from Belarus in September 2020. Kavalkova was convicted to 12 years in absentia by a Belarusian court in a politically motivated trial in March 2023. According to the report, Kavalkova communicated over many months with a fake ‘assistant of a Russian oligarch’ who allegedly considered financing her political activities. Belarus 1 TV aired a few segments of talks between Kavalkova and regime propagandist Ekaterina Tikhomirova who played the role of the Russian businessman’s assistant. Kavalkova was claimed to have ambitions to replace Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and said she would consider allowing Russian business to take part in privatising a Belarusian oil refinery if Kavalkova come to power in Belarus.
In contrast to more recent ONT media coverage, the Belarus 1 TV report did not include the open appearance of KGB officers. However, Tikhomirova showed that close cooperation between special agencies and state TV takes place, saying at the report’s end, ‘Believe me, [I had] many hours of talks and revelations with those who call themselves the opposition but are in fact corrupt extremists. Belarusian special services will for sure watch with interest. ’ Interviewed by independent media about the incident, Kavalkova said she had only two calls with the alleged oligarch’s assistant and that her statements were heavily edited to distort the meaning of her responses and present her in a bad light.
In addition to the original report in the Russian language, the TV outlet’s YouTube channel uploaded versions of the report with English and Lithuanian subtitles as well as an additional version with a Polish-language voiceover. While Belarus 1 TV reports were occasionally translated into the English and Polish languages before, the selection of the Lithuanian language version was unusual. The intention seems to be to discredit the Vilnius-based office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the eyes of the Lithuanian public through making derogatory claims about Kavalkova towards the broader pro-democracy Belarusian movement.
Did it spread widely?
Each of the three language versions of the report gathered only around 1,000 views apiece on YouTube as of mid-December 2023, suggesting that foreign audiences hardly found it worth seeing. This suggests that regime propaganda outlets are spotted as such. But Belarus regime outlets tried to amplify it as much as possible. The video was aired on the state ONT News TV channel and published on the ONT News YouTube channel. Later, the video was amplified by at least six Telegram channels (for instance here and here) belonging to Belarusian and Russian manipulation infosphere and on at least four Belarusian websites (such as here and here). None of the Polish-language channels affiliated with the Belarusian manipulation ecosystem has been involved in its amplification so far. No wider amplification in different languages has been successful so far.
Whether the greater caution of Belarusian dissidents living abroad will beat future attempts at creative manipulation remains an open question. Yet similar ‘seminar on security’ events will probably be met with scepticism among members of the Belarusian diaspora for some time to come.
Article and pictures first time published on the EUvsDisinfo web page. Prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.