The socio-political conflict in Belarus has the potential to grow even more acute, even though street rallies have all but disappeared and the authorities have, for several months now, pursued a harsh counter-offensive. Those arrests and firings continue. Thus, in Grodno, Andrzej Pisalnik, the secretary of the unrecognized Union of Poles, was arrested together with his wife—in addition to earlier apprehensions of this entity’s activists (see EDM, April 7). In Minsk, Yelena Baranova, a pediatric cardiologist with 25 years of experience, was fired from both a state-run healthcare center and a private clinic for her Facebook posts, in which she expressed her loathing of riot police who mistreated her son (Euroradio, April 14).
An avalanche of media reactions followed the arrest of Alexander Feduta, a member of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 1994 victorious electoral campaign and his first press secretary, but who switched to the opposition as early as 1995. In 2010–2011, Feduta, then a member of Vladimir Neklyaev’s 2020 electoral campaign, spent 3.5 months in a Belarusian KGB detention center and, subsequently, received a conditional two-year sentence. Feduta is a prolific journalist and literary critic with a doctorate from Jagiellonian University, in Kraków, Poland (Uj.edu.pl, 2017). He suffers from various health maladies and has trouble walking.
The crucial aspect of Feduta’s latest arrest, on April 12, is that it took place in Moscow, where he had arrived from Poland. That day, his wife, Marina Shibko, a publisher, who had maintained constant contact with Feduta from Minsk, announced that his phone was no longer responding (Regnum, April 12). She flew to Moscow on April 13 and filed a search request with district police headquarters, but within hours Feduta was “found” in the same detention center in Minsk where he served time in 2010–2011. Likewise, Yury Zenkovich, an attorney and a dual citizen of Belarus and the United States, was also arrested in the Russian capital (Interfax, April 14). And law enforcement detained Grigory Kostusev, the chairperson of the Belarusian Popular Front opposition party, in his native town of Shklov, Mogilev Oblast, at around the same time (Tut.by, April 14).
What happened next clarified the situation for those on one side of the political barricade, while confusing the issue for those on the other. Namely, on April 17, while taking a break from planting trees in his home village of Alexandria, Mogilev Oblast, President Lukashenka disclosed to a circle of trusted journalists that US intelligence (“either the FBI or CIA,” as he put it) was staging a coup, in which he and his children would be killed (YouTube, April 17). And allegedly it was in conjunction with this coup, thwarted jointly by Belarusian and Russian counterintelligence, that Feduta, Zenkovich and Kostusev were apprehended. According to Lukashenka, he solicited help from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who raised the issue in his recent phone conversation with US President Joseph Biden but did not receive any intelligible explanation. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, subsequently confirmed that his boss, indeed, touched on this issue in an exchange with Biden (Belta, April 19). Lukashenka emphasized he could not fathom the purported US actions; after all, a decision to eliminate a foreign leader can only be taken at the top. Finally, the Belarusian head of state acknowledged that the thwarted coup was the last straw and that he made some crucial decisions, which he would soon formalize in a decree.
Shortly thereafter, on April 17, Belarusian television aired some supposedly revealing footage showing a meeting between Feduta and Zenkovich, on the one hand, and three “Belarusian army generals,” on the other, in a restaurant on Moscow’s Garden Ring (YouTube, April 17). The gathered group allegedly discussed a detailed plan of the anti-Lukashenka coup during that meeting, which would include, among other operations, the elimination of at least 30 top-ranking Belarusians, a blockade of Minsk, and the seizure of some public utilities. Subsequently, the televised exposé presented captured fragments from a Zoom conference in which, in addition to the aforementioned characters, four others participated, including Dmitry Shchigelsky, a former Belarusian psychiatrist, now based in New York City. Shchigelsky is famous for, in the mid-1990s, “diagnosing” Lukashenka from afar with so-called mosaic psychopathy—a condition not listed in any international registers of psychiatric conditions. At one point, Shchigelsky acknowledged online that he is engaged in a business selling healthcare products. One other notable participant of the purported intercepted virtual conference was Alexander Perepechko, born in Minsk but currently residing in Seattle, Washington; he is a professional geographer who publishes his English-language texts on his own site, Geostrategy.info, and in Russian on Belorusskie Novosti (Naviny, November 5, 2020). In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service, Perepechko claimed that during such Zoom conferences, potential coup plans were, indeed, discussed but only as possible scenarios—these talks never approached anything close to implementation (Svaboda.org, April 18).
Following the disclosures from the Belarusian authorities, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) issued a statement: “Together with Belarus’s KGB, the FSB conducted a special operation that thwarted the illegal activities of Zenkovich […] and Feduta […] who were planning to carry out a military coup in Belarus according to a worked-out scenario of ‘color revolutions’ with the involvement of local and Ukrainian nationalists, as well as the physical elimination of President A. Lukashenko [sic]” (Fsb.ru, April 17).
Equally notably, less than a week earlier, Lukashenka paid a visit to Azerbaijan, where he had a five-hour-long talk with President Ilham Aliyev (Belta, April 13). Upon his return to Minsk, Lukashenka received Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, reportedly to discuss the harmonization of the two countries’ tax systems. And he is now bracing for yet another meeting with Putin, on April 22, in Moscow (Tut.by, April 16). Tighter integration with Russia is expected to be on the agenda.
The political commentator Artyom Shraibman shared the view that repressions in Belarus will last until the authorities feel a sense of security—which, apparently, they have yet to. He also acknowledged that “a society divided so starkly is very difficult to sew together” (Svaboda.org, April 15). Along these lines, one possible interpretation of the goings-on is that anxiety and insecurity at the helm of power in Belarus have reached an apogee. While Western sanctions have not yet gained momentum, Russia and Belarus are already tightening relations across the board. The recent arrests in Moscow certainly fall in line with this interpretation.