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02/08/2020 | Belarus arrests 33 Russians, accuses Kremlin of trying to subvert upcoming elections

Joseph Fitsanakis

Belarussian secret services announced on Wednesday the arrest of 33 Russian citizens, who are allegedly members of a Kremlin-backed private military firm. The government of Belarus accuses the Russians of trying to subvert next month’s presidential elections on behalf of Moscow.

 

The 33 Russians were charged with terrorism against the state on Thursday. They are allegedly employees of Wagner Group, a private Russian military company that some believe is in reality a private paramilitary wing of the Russian Armed Forces. However, the Kremlin has denied these accusations and says it has no connections with Wagner.

On Wednesday the state-owned Belarus 1 television channel aired footage of the 33 Russians being placed under arrest by the Belarussian State Security Committee (KGB). The arrests were later confirmed by Andrey Rawkow, secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, an interdepartmental body that supervises national security operations in the country. Rankow said the Investigative Committee, Belarus’ primary investigating authority, had determined that the 33 had entered the country as part of a 200-strong group of Russians working for Wagner, in order to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign”.

Rankow was referring to the upcoming presidential elections of August 9, in which the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, will be seeking a sixth term in office. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist. This time, however, partly because of the growing coronavirus crisis, his leadership is in dispute more than ever before and opposition protests have gripped the country in recent months.

Meanwhile, the close relationship between Minsk and Moscow has suffered numerous setbacks since 2018, as Russia’s economic struggles have forced the Kremlin to curtail its financial outreach to Belarus. There have been differences between the two countries over the price of energy that Belarus imports from Russia each year. Sensing his faltering support among the population, which is broadly mistrustful of Moscow, Lukashenko has campaigned on a largely anti-Russian ticket this time around, hoping to attract independent voters.

According to Belarussian state television, the 33 Russians were found in possession of Sudanese currency and a Sudanese smartphone card. Sudan is one of the Wagner Group’s most active areas of operation, according to some observers, and in the past the company has used Belarus as a transit center from which it coordinates its operations in the African continent. There were also reports in the state-owned Belarussian media that the 33 Russians were connected with the jailed husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a leading opposition presidential candidate. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, is a blogger with substantial social-media following among younger voters. Some now suspect that the government will use this opportunity to bar Tsikhanouskaya from running for office.

Late on Wednesday, Belarus’ state-owned Belta news agency published the names and birth dates of all 33 Russian suspects. Soon afterwards, the government of Ukraine said its intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), had asked it to file extradition requests for the 33 Russians, who are believed to have worked with separatists in eastern Ukraine in recent years.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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