Belarusian dissidents eye Belarus’ mobilization as a time to strike

  • 2023-03-06
  • Lachlan Hyatt, Warsaw

Grabbing a cappuccino at a small cafe inside Warsaw’s grand Palace of Arts and Culture, it would be easy to mistake Aliaksandr Azarau as any one of the hundreds of typical tourists or Poles that visit the building each day. Dressed smartly in jeans, a tweed jacket, and with a short cropped beard, one would not immediately think this man has been declared a terrorist by Belarus’ KGB and would face the death penalty if captured by the country. Only the pin of a sword and arm, part of the traditional Belarusian coat of arms, gives away any hint of Azarau’s status as an opposition agent working against the country’s authoritarian government. 

Sipping his coffee, Azarau explains how his resistance organization, BYPOL, is waiting for the right time to begin a full-scale effort to overthrow Belarus’ Russian-backed regime.

“I think Lukashenko will send Belarusian troops into Ukraine this year,” said Azarau about the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. “It can be a chance to launch our plan. We are preparing and waiting.”

With Belarus’ increasing support of Russia’s war against Ukraine, many experts and military figures are concerned about the possibility of the country mobilizing its troops and fully entering the conflict against its southern neighbor. In 2021, Belarus provided the staging ground for Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine and reopening the northern front, only around 150 km from Kyiv, would drastically escalate the war. While the world waits to see what develops, BYPOL, the opposition group Azarau heads, is using the war as an opportunity to continue their efforts against President Lukashenko, Putin’s strongest ally in the war, and looking for their chance at revolution.

Formed after President Lukashenko victory in the 2020 Belarus election, which many view as rigged and led to months of protests against the incumbent who has ruled since 1994, BYPOL is made up of former police and security force agents. Over 600 members strong, the group operates out of Warsaw where they have organized efforts to bring democracy to Belarus. 

After serving 21 years with the Belarusian police, including working as a lecturer in the country’s police academy, Azarau remembers the moment he made his decision to switch from an agent of the state into a leading dissident. 

Helping at a voting station to verify results, Azarau recalls how an election official told him that the results were in and opponent leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya had beaten Lukashenko, though his regime had changed the results to the incumbent’s favor.

“After that, I saw with my own eyes the biggest protests in the streets of Minsk in the history of independent Belarus, and I saw blood on the street,” said Azarau. “A lot of crimes committed by special forces against people- torturing people in the places of detention. So I decided to resign because I didn't want to follow unlawful orders.” Soon, Azarau learned calls were made for his arrest as a result of his resignation. Fleeing first to Ukraine and then to Poland, Azarau met up with other exiled former Belarusian security agents where they formed BYPOL to “fight against the power of Lukashenko '' and eventually restore Ms. Tsikhanouskaya to the presidency.

In addition to leading BYPOL, Azarau is also a part of the United Transitional Cabinet, where he serves as the Cabinet Representative for the Restoration of Law and Order. Founded by Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya in August 2022, the cabinet aims to “restore constitutional legality and the rule of law” and “ensure the transit of power from dictatorship to democracy”, according to its website.

While some political commentators question if Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after the 2020 election and whom BYPOL supports, is still popular enough to be the face for Belarusian opposition, Azarau says she is the rightful leader of the country, that most dissidents back her, and the United Transitional Cabinet is the only organ of power outside Belarus citizens follow. 

“A lot of different Belarusian organizations maybe don't recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the leader,” said Azarau. “It's a fight between different Belarusian political organizations, but everyone knows Tsikhanouskaya has legitimacy.”Azarau was also quick to dismiss Zianon Pazniak, a Belarusian opposition leader who fled the country to the U.S. in 1996 as unlikely to hold sway over the current opposition.

Azarau touts BYPOL’s “Peramoga” Victory Plan, announced in May of 2021, as a promising operation that will mobilize dissident Belarus citizens into a widespread and coordinated effort to remove Lukashenko. According to Azarau, 200,000 Belarusians have signed on to participate in the mass effort via Telegram.

Creating cells of no more than three members to reduce the chance of moles jeopardizing the plan, Victory Plan members register to take part in the movement via a chatbot on Telegram where they then await BYPOL mobilization orders. While the majority of the actions planned are non-violent, willing Victory Plan members with military experience could be used to counter government crackdowns with force. Member information is kept by BYPOL’s Situational Analytical Center in a secure, encrypted database. 

In preparation for the enactment of their plan, BYPOL has been organizing training centers in Poland and Lithuania taught by retired soldiers and veterans from JW Grom, Poland’s special forces. Here, Belarusian dissidents are instructed to fight against Lukashenko’s forces. Additionally, BYPOL conducts counter espionage operations and combats Belarusian state disinformation through their Telegram and Youtube channels

In one recent case from January 2023, BYPOL exposed a ​​provocateur with Russian ties who used web chats to find Belarusians who disapproved of the dictator's regime. The provocateur then baited Belarusians into saying compromising anti-government statements while he secretly recorded and publically leaked the videos. BYPOL alleges that Belarusian security forces then used facial recognition software to find the dissenters where they were then detained, beaten, and prosecuted. 

If Belarus joins Russia against Ukraine, Azarau says it would be the ideal time to trigger the Victory Plan as the majority of Belarusians oppose joining the war and do not see Ukraine as an enemy.

“We think that time [to enact the Victory Plan] can be when Lukashenko announces mobilization,” said Azarau.  “I communicated with Belarusians who can be mobilized and they said that about 70% of Belarusian men maybe are going to fight against Russians, not against Ukrainians.”

To Azarau, the fate of a democratic Belarus and an independent Ukraine are deeply intertwined. 

For decades, Russian president Putin has played an essential role in propping up Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. Russia has provided vast loans and trading support over the years. Following the 2020 election, Russia sent security units to crack down on dissidents as Putin aims to maintain Russia’s influence over what it sees as a NATO buffer state. A weakening of Putin’s power as a result of a Ukrainian victory in the war would mean a great weakening of Lukashenko’s grasp of Belarus as well. 

“We know that Russia is the only country that can help Lukasheno to be in power,” said Azarau. “A victory against Russia can help us to be free.” 

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, BYPOL and other Belarusian resistance groups were quick to support Ukraine. 

While some BYPOL members and Belarusian activists went to Ukraine to help battle Russian invaders, others participated in clandestine efforts to disrupt Russian weapon supplies moving through Belarus. In the so-called “Railway Wars'', Belarusian dissident operatives, hackers, and partisan railway workers sabotaged rail lines in the country that were being used by the Russian military.  According to Azarau, the disruption efforts stopped Russian railway movement for one week in March 2022, protecting Kyiv. 

The work of Belarusian rail partisans was lauded by Ukrainian officials, though Lukashenko’s government was quick to retaliate against activists and instituted a death penalty for these types of actions in May 2022. With intense crackdowns on dissidents brought on by the war, BYPOL has focussed on building its Victory Plan. 

Looking ahead to the future, Azarau says BYPOL has also been documenting human rights violations committed by Lukashenko’s regime. Working with the Belarusian hacktivist group known as the “Cyber Partisans” BYPOL hacked into Belarus’ Ministry of Interior and download documents concerning the government’s repression of citizens. BYPOL has helped set up a database of potential human rights violations and their investigations with the goal of using the evidence to try members of the regime in international criminal court after the government’s ousting. 

Though Azarau says he has been informed by Belarusian generals that Lukashenko’s regime has sent death squads out to kill him and other opposition leaders, he remains unafraid and continues his work. If Belarus does not end up joining Russia’s war in Ukraine this year, Azarau says that BYPOL will still be building strength and waiting for the right time to strike. 

“We will work on our plan and we are going to work until that moment when Belarusians want to go outside to protest anew,” Azarrau said. “We can't say it can be for one year, two, three, or 10 years, we are going to work until the end. Until the victory.”