Security forces are Lukashenko’s strong right arm – and Achilles’ heel

So far the Belorusian security forces have been the loyal and brutal guarantee for the survival of president Lukashenko. The opposition is trying to undermine this loyalty by offering police officers who resign moral and financial support. With some succes. But many of them realise that they already have gone too far and have to continue, says Mark Galeotti. Not necessarily out of respect for their leader. 

belarus bondarenkoSecurity forces face citizens who defend the memorial for slain Roman Bondarenko in Minsk

by Mark Galeotti

President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s decision to eschew any possibility of political accommodation with the opposition in favour of brutal repression means that he has become dependent on the discipline, morale and loyalty of the security forces.

So far they seem to have largely been willing to play their assigned role with thuggish enthusiasm, however it is significant that the opposition has begun trying to connect with disgruntled current and former members of the security community. If past experiences of similar situations offer any lessons, it is that there are two main circumstances in which such a foundation for a regime quickly can crumble.

The first is if a critical mass of officers begin to refuse to follow orders. The sense of being part of a team and on the winning side is crucial, and if those two come under pressure, then the apparent unity of the security forces quickly can break. After all, while it is dangerous to be the first to break ranks, it is potentially even more dangerous to be left behind when everyone else has gone. Certainly members of Ukraine’s infamous Berkut riot police have publicly admitted that those who stuck with the regime longest in 2014 felt they had little option but to flee to Russia or the Donbas, whereas those who had calibrated their defections better were able to ‘recant’ and in most cases avoid serious trouble. Indeed, several Berkutovtsy apparently now serve in the Belarus security forces.

The second circumstance is if other armed services end up supporting the protesters, or at least threatening retaliation in the event of further repression. It is, after all, important to stress that the Belarusian military has not been called on for policing the streets – not yet, at least. Indeed, even within the police, almost all the most heavy-handed repression has been carried out by the OMON public order units (AMAP in Belarusian), along with some instances of the use of the Almaz police commando team and units from GUBOPiK, the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption. There seems to be a tacit agreement between Lukashenko and his army, that they will stay out of politics so long as he does not try to drag them into it.

Defections and subversions

Although accounts from their number make it clear how far the OMON and Interior Troops are bombarded with propaganda about the opposition, there certainly have been defections. According to Evgeny Yushkevich, a former senior police investigator who is now in Lithuania, at least 350 officers from the police and other law enforcement agencies have resigned in protest. They are mainly from the regular police rather than the OMON – although there are claims that perhaps 100 of them have also chosen to leave the service – but nonetheless they represent a potential chink in Lukashenko’s armour.

belarus omon 20 septOMON against protesters (picture TUT.BY)

Rather than simply seeking asylum and anonymity abroad, many are now trying to encourage their erstwhile colleagues also to leave, or at least to obey the law rather than their orders. Some of the regular militsiya have followed their lead in mistreating prisoners in detention and the like, but the beat cops have generally not been deployed. Nor, for that matter, have the paramilitary Interior Troops since the violence of repressions stepped up, with the exception of elements of their 3rd and 6th Independent Special Police Brigades, based in Minsk and Gomel respectively, which are especially trained and prepared for OMON-style operations.

The Belarusian opposition, which has proven unexpectedly imaginative and entrepreneurial, is supporting these defectors in several ways. There are programmes to offer them legal and practical assistance if they resign and others to help them resettle and retrain abroad, so they know they have options. Reportedly, hundreds have already reached out to the organisations in question to learn more.

There are also more direct challenges. Increasingly, there have been opposition campaigns of going ‘under the balaclava’ and outing members of the security forces involved in violence, through means such as facial recognition searches and leaks of documents. The most prominent opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has also thrown her weight behind a campaign to have the international community declare the OMON and GUBOPiK terrorist organisations.

These kinds of moves are tempting, not least because they speak to a very human desire for justice and revenge. They often can help peel away the half-hearted, and there certainly have been cases of police officers resigning as a result, or simply publicly affirming that they are not and will not take part in repressions.

However, they also burn bridges. Many OMON have little real respect for Lukashenko (as the recently-leaked video of officers deriding him for carrying a gun attests), but if they feel they have no option but to redouble their efforts because they would face prosecution or persecution if the regime falls, then that is what they will likely do. As one defector put it, ‘an OMON officer said that they understand everything, but they will not stop doing it because they have already done so much that there is no turning back.’ It is a difficult judgement whether the advantage in such confrontational methods outweighs the risks.

Lukashenko’s response

The state’s response has largely been to take the time-honoured route. OMON are being paid generous overtime and hazard bonuses to try and keep them happy, and officers showing particular zeal are being decorated and promoted, not least as an example to the others of the advantages to be gained from embracing their new role as stormtroopers.

belarus militaire topMilitary brass of Belarus so far didnot play a role in the crushing of the uprising (picture presidential administration)

The need to keep the OMON on side may have been part of the reason for the decision at the end of October to elevate Interior Minister Yuri Karaev to an honorific role as presidential aide and inspector and replace him with 45-year-old Major General Ivan Kubrakov. As city police chief for Minsk, the high-flying Kubrakov had personally commanded the repression of the largest protests there. (And Nikolai Karpenkov, who had headed GUBOPiK and personally joined attacks on the streets, was made a deputy minister.)

More to the point, Kubrakov has a close association with the OMON. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, they underwent a whole series of reorganisations and renamings, in part because of their notoriety following previous crackdowns.  It was Kubrakov who, in 2012, took the lead in having their name and role returned to them. He was involved in a special task force which addressed everything from their uniforms to their tactics, and is thus considered in many ways a father of the modern ‘black berets.’

On 22 November, the OMON’s ‘birthday', Kubrakov delivered an enthusiastic greeting, saying they aroused ‘awe among criminals and deserved respect among law-abiding citizens’ because they ‘fulfil their official duty in the most difficult conditions, without flinching in the face of any danger'.

In short, his selection was both a sign of the regime’s priorities – controlling the streets rather than law and order – and also that there was a need to consider the public face of repression. Karaev had become something of a liability, not least given his often clumsy and intemperate language. His infamous October interview in which he told serving police officers that ‘the future of your children and the happiness of your wife depends on how quickly you grab your gun’ probably sealed his fate.

Such are the perils of sitting on a throne of bayonets

Kubrakov’s reputation is as a hard-liner, but also as someone who knows better how to put a positive spin on police repression. Even opposition figures consider Kubrakov ‘noticeably smarter than Karaev… a strong contender'. His tenure as Minsk police chief was marked with a more pro-active relationship with the media, even when his OMON were out cracking skulls. He claimed, after all, that 50-60% of protesters had a criminal record, and that ‘all Minsk police are against violence. We just suppress illegal actions... When citizens stop taking to the streets and breaking the law, then there will be no use of physical force, no grounds for the use of special means.’

As a fallback, though, the Belarusian KGB has stepped up its activities not only against opposition activists at home and abroad, but also monitoring the security forces for signs of disaffection. UVKR, the Military Counter-Intelligence Directorate, also covers the Interior Troops and OMON, while GUKR, the Main Counter-Intelligence Directorate, is increasingly shifting its focus to efforts to influence police officers from abroad.

After all, Lukashenko and his loyalists realise that if the security forces lose the will or capacity to defend the regime, it will fall. Such are the perils of sitting on a throne of bayonets.

belarus omon geweldOMON uses indiscriminate violence against protesters