The repression of the protests following the falsified results of the August 2020 presidential elections, the arrest of Roman Protasevich, the migrant crisis and the referendum on amending the Belarusian Constitution are just some of the events that have highlighted the toughness of the Belarusian regime. At the end of July 2022, the Minsk Regional Court conducted a trial through which eliminated Lukashenko’s last political opponents, thus confirming that this former Soviet republic deserves to be known in the history books as Europe’s last dictatorship.
How did the crises begin?
While on a visit to his home village of Alexandria, the Belarusian president announced at a press conference that the country’s security service, the KGB in conjunction with the FSB of Russia, had managed to prevent an attempted coup d’état carried out by his former adviser Aleksandr Feduta and lawyer Yuri Zenkovich with the support of the US intelligence services. Shortly after Lukashenko’s statements, the ONT state television channel showed footage of their arrest in a restaurant in Moscow, as well as conversations on Zoom in which they allegedly planned the coup that was supposed to take place in Minsk. In one of this recordings, Alexander Feduta proposed to organize it according to the Egyptian model, similar to the one that led to the removal of Anwar Sadat in 1981, while Yuri Zenkovich presented the stages of the coup: the assassination of Lukashenko, the blocking of OMON troops, as well as the occupation of key buildings in the capital, such as the headquarters of the Belarusian radio and television. Then, Russia’s Federal Security Service issued a communique confirming cooperation with the KGB in arresting the two suspects. Despite this, it contains some inaccuracies that contradict both the statements of Alexander Lukashenko and the recordings broadcast by ONT, which could indicate, beyond a lack of coordination between the two institutions, the existence of a kompromat operation planned by the Belarusian president himself. Specifically, in the press release, the FSB mentions that the coup was supposed to have taken place on May 9 during the Victory Day parade with the help of Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists supported by the United States and Poland, details that are not mentioned either by Alexander Lukashenko or in the records transmitted by the ONT.
Two weeks after the FSB statement, the same state television channel published a documentary titled “To Kill the President” (Убить Президента), which showed new details about the coup d’état that was to take place in Belarus. Based on materials sent by the KGB, its authors claimed that the plot to overthrow Lukashenko from power was codenamed “Silence” and was prepared in collaboration with Western intelligence services more than 6 months ago. Moreover, in the same documentary, the authorities revealed the entire list of suspects who were supposed to participate in the coup, as well as the name of the alleged assassin of the president: Nikolai Autukhovich, a 59-year-old activist.
Following the same pattern as in the days after announcing the conspiracy was foiled, Alexander Lukashenko revealed in a press conference held on April 24 three scenarios that the alleged conspirators would have considered for taking power: his assassination at the 9 May parade, attacking the presidential motorcade, as well as storming his countryside residence. But the Belarusian president noted that they had given up on implementing these ideas after watching another documentary about the influence that foreign intelligence services allegedly tried to exert on the previous presidential elections in Belarus. Two days later, two more activists, Denis Kravchuk and Olga Golubovich, were also arrested and accused of participating in the attempted coup. Frantically supported by the televised press, a veritable propaganda tool – as in almost any former Soviet republic – Aleksander Lukashenko accused five political opponents of trying to assassinate him and take over power in Belarus with the support of the United States. For the first time in the country’s post-independence history, the head of state had thus turned it into a besieged fortress, that he was prepared to defend at all costs in order to remain in charge.
Brief Timeline of the Trial
The trial for orchestrating a coup d’état in Belarus began on July 29, after more than a year and a half since the 5 defendants were arrested. On the first day, the prosecutor’s office accused the main suspects, Yuri Zenkovich and Alexander Feduta, of attempting to seize power by unconstitutional means. Then, two people suspected of complicity were heard: Grigory Kostusev and Olga Golubovich. The leader of the Belarusian Popular Front pleaded not guilty in court, claiming that he attended the conferences on Zoom only as an observer. Moreover, Kostusev denied that the participants in the meetings were plotting a plan to seize power in Belarus and branded as false the prosecutor’s office’s accusations that the defendants intended to co-opt generals of the Belarusian army on their side to help them in carrying out the coup. Olga Golubovich admitted instead that she had participated in the protests against the Belarusian president in August 2020, despite the fact that she had been informed by the authorities that they were illegal. She claimed that, since the fall of 2021, she had been hiding in various places in Minsk – in bus or railway stations and even in the cemetery – money offered by Yuri Zenkovich that should have ended up in the pockets of some generals of the Belarusian army so that they would participate in the coup d’état.
On the third day, Alexander Feduta testified before the Court. Unlike Kostusev, he admitted that he had taken part in the talks through which the conspirators had prepared the plot. However, the political scientist denied that, during the meetings, the participants had planned the assassination of Alexander Lukashenko. Instead, he admitted that after the coup, he would have taken over the responsibilities of reforming the electoral and educational systems, as well as convincing some Belarusian officials to be part of the future governing bodies during the transition period: a presidential council and an interim government. While Grigory Kostusev complained about the detention conditions and questioned the way the authorities conducted the investigation, Feduta contradicted him by stating to the Court that ‘the investigation was fairly conducted and the detention conditions were quite tolerable.’
The next day, lawyer Yuri Zenkovich testified before the Court. He was the only one of the defendants who plead guilty on all counts and concluded an agreement with the prosecutor’s office, through which he promised to expose all the participants involved in the attempt to seize power in Belarus. Zenkovich therefore admitted that he was behind the organization of both the coup and the plan that should have resulted in the death of Alexander Lukashenko. According to prosecutors, he arrived in Minsk in August 2020 and sought support among the citizens so as to start preparing the putsch. He gained the assistance of several trade unions, as well as former presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, who promised to help him in his attempt to change the Belarusian government. Moreover, Zenkovich confessed that he tried to meet with Svetlana Tikhanovkaia in Vilnius to invite her to the coup, but the attempt failed because she insisted that representatives of the Lithuanian special services also attend the talks, which the lawyer did not agree with. Since he had found that the leader of the democratic opposition had lost any chance of gaining power in Belarus, Zenkovich then turned to a general from the Belarusian Army – Ivan Juravsky, who promised him that he would use several army units to trigger the coup. Later, however, it turned out that the general was in fact an undercover KGB officer, tasked with uncovering the attempted takeover of power in Belarus. At the end of his testimony, Zenkovich admitted that he had failed in his attempt to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko from power and apologized for the fact that, due to the faulty planning of the conspiracy, four of his friends had been arrested. The last suspect in the plot, Denis Kravchuk, was also heard on the same day. The activist admitted that he participated in the August 2020 protests and was involved in attempts to bribe members of Belarus’s security forces to join the plot to oust the Belarusian president.
The last day of the trial was devoted to hearing witnesses. Olga Golubovich’s husband confirmed that she was involved in co-opting some generals of the Belarusian army, claiming that Zenkovich paid her $200 a month for this service. For his part, Ivan Juravsky said that, during the meeting in Moscow, he had told Zenkovych and Feduta that the 4th and 5th units of the Belarusian army were ready to join their efforts and trigger the coup d’état. Moreover, the KGB officer suggested that Zenkovich request the involvement of the US embassy in organizing the putsch, but he refused, because he considered that American diplomats would not intervene in Belarus for fear of a possible confrontation with Russia. Philosopher Olga Abramova, on the other hand, argued that Alexander Feduta was innocent and that he had always advocated for the peaceful implementation of reforms in Belarusian politics. Abramova also said before the Court that Feduta participated in the conferences on Zoom due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, and was in fact drawn into the conspiracy by Dmitri Shighelsky, another defendant in the trail, who had fled to the United States. The surprise witness in this trial, however, was Roman Protasevich – former editor of the Telegram channel NEXTA, arrested in June 2021 following the hijacking of the Ryannair plane. He admitted to the Court that he had known Yuri Zenkovich for several years and had attended one of his Zoom conferences. Moreover, Protasevich claimed that he had tried to facilitate the meeting of the defendants with Svetlana Tihanovskaya and confirmed that they were aiming to overthrow the Belarusian president from power using force.
The Court Ruling
After nearly three weeks of deliberations, the Minsk Regional Court announced the verdicts. Among the accused, lawyer Yuri Zenkovich received the toughest sentence – 11 years –, although he had concluded an agreement with the prosecutor’s office and, according to the Criminal Code of Belarus, the sentence should have been halved. Alexander Feduta and Grigory Kostusev were sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Olga Golubovich and Denis Kravchuk would spend 30 months for disorderly behaviour. The defendants’ conflicting testimonies, witness statements and records used as evidence in Court eased the judge’s decision. Although this is not at all surprising in a country where the political opponents of the president are systematically imprisoned, the moment the verdict was announced – during the war in Ukraine – seems to confirm the main anti-Western narrative supported by Lukashenko (the United States is trying to destroy Belarus) and to create an illusion of legitimacy in a period of continuous diplomatic isolation in the dictator’s mind.
With the end of the trial, the last members of the Belarusian opposition were removed from the political life of this former Soviet republic. This is not a first, however, since during its existence, all the opponents of Lukashenko either disappeared (the cases of Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Goncear or Dmitri Zavadsky being notorious in the ’90s) or were sentenced to harsh years of imprisonment (the last sentences were handed down in the cases of Sergey Tihanovsky, Viktor Babariko or Maria Kolesnilova). Only those who managed to escape from Belarus, like Svetlana Tihanovskaya or Veronika Tepkalo, escaped convictions. However, just a day after the verdicts in the conspiracists’ case were announced, Interior Minister Ivan Kubrakov presented a draft law that, once implemented, would lead to the revocation of Belarusian citizenship to all persons living abroad if they carried out actions that harmed the country’s national interests or were involved in actions of an extremist nature. As members of the opposition in exile have been accused of carrying out terrorist acts, they will surely fall under this law. Beyond the loss of Belarusian citizenship for this terrorism charge, they can be sentenced to death, which confirms the dictatorial character of the Belarusian political regime.