Before a loud bang shakes the backyards of Orlovskaya Street in Minsk, there is a brief flash. Covered by the rising smoke, black-hooded guards push the protesters back. With one stun grenade after another, the officers drive fleeing people ahead of them.
Often it is recordings from cell phones like this one from last weekend documenting the brutal actions of Belarusian special forces. Because journalists are hindered in their work on the ground, independent media outlets such as “Tut.by” and “Nexta” are forced to turn to private sources. They show how protesters are beaten up, harassed arbitrarily or taken away in minibuses without official identification. According to a decision of the Ministry of the Interior, the use of live ammunition is now even allowed.
The protests against Lukashenko come from the middle of society and the protesters are likely to include family members and friends of many security agents. Nevertheless, experts do not believe the device will side with the protesters.
Only in a short period, at the beginning of August, did some lower-ranking officials take off their uniforms in public. In the end, the action fell, and neither the flowers handed over by the protesters nor the promise of impunity from opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya changed anything.
The movement has yet to convince anyone in the upper echelons, said Andrei Yeliseyeu, the research director of the Eastern European think tank EAST Center: “The president’s decision to use such a level of violence was both brutal and highly calculated. ” If there were serious human rights violations, he can now be sure of their loyalty.
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“The people in the key positions are afraid of switching sides because they fear punishment,” said Yeliseyeu. Even when officials mask themselves in the street, this is done by order from above. It is less about protecting individual police officers from exclusion in their private sphere. On the contrary, they want to make it impossible to draw conclusions about the commanding authority through anonymization.
Many elderly people can also be found at the protests. Photo: REUTERS / Stringer
Therefore, the anonymization of the Men in Black has proven to be an effective means of fighting for the protesters in the streets. Time and again they try to expose police officers in front of cell phone cameras. If it succeeds, the officials will run away. Belarusian hackers have published the personal information of more than 1,000 members of the security device online, and the opposition plans to reveal more names.
Belarus has one of the highest police densities in Europe
The state responds with draconian penalties. A woman with Belarusian and Swiss citizenship was sentenced to five years in prison after removing the mask from an official’s head. More than 16,000 people are reported to have been arrested since the election. At the same time, victims of police violence are denied the right to prosecution. Thousands of complaints from Belarusian citizens to the authorities have not been heard so far.
The opposition is faced with a massive and overwhelming security apparatus. Nadja Douglas from the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) is a specialist in state power structures in the post-Soviet area. For her new study, she tried to get an idea of the size of the Belarusian police. In her investigation, Douglas relies on information from individual politicians and independent media in Belarus. The government keeps official figures under lock and key.
“Belarus has one of the highest police densities in Europe,” said Douglas. While the EU average between 2016 and 2018 is 318 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, Belarus has 405 officers. “The Belarusian security apparatus is actually only surpassed by Russia at the moment.” There are 508 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants, in Germany, for example, 297.
Omon’s special unit is at the forefront
Within Belarusian power structures there are a number of police and paramilitary organizations, which are summarized under the term “siloviki”. The agents with the word “Omon” on their back are particularly notorious during operations against protesters. Behind this lurks a special police force, subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, whose members are trained to be brutal and ruthless even during their training.
Anonymous law enforcement officers: OMON is present on the streets of Minsk Photo: BelaPAN via REUTERS
“In units like the Omon, people are subjected to a real brainwashing process, even more so than normal soldiers,” says Yeliseyeu. The officials would be provided with abundant state propaganda and should join the appropriate channels of the Telegram news service: “These people think they are protecting their families and their country from a coup d’état financed from abroad.”
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Aside from ideological support, there is also a rumor that members of the Omon may be given psychotropic substances before being called to a demonstration. This assumption was made by a former member of the organization in an interview with the Russian branch of the BBC. Funds could possibly be managed under the pretext of physical fitness, which at the same time lowers the inhibition threshold of the emergency services, the outage said. However, there are no indications for this.
As with the processes within Omon, there is also little information about the requirements for employment. According to Douglas, mostly very young men under the age of 25 are dedicated to the special forces. “The recruits often come from structurally weak regions,” she says. A diploma is not required. However, there are high standards for men’s physical and mental fitness.
No more respect for the security forces
At the same time, living as part of the security apparatus has some financial benefits. Omon members are exempt from military service and receive higher salaries and pensions than the average citizen – even when compared to other government employees. Depending on the position and duration, special bonuses are added.
In the past, the siloviki enjoyed respect among the Belarusian population. “Together with the church, the army was especially highly regarded,” says Yeliseyeu. Meanwhile, the researcher knows, the siloviki have lost most of its sympathies: “All involved suffered from the fact that the state used such violence.”