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Ultimate Resource On Belarus Bitcoin Mining, Elections And More (#GotBitcoin?)

Belarus Could Get A Nuclear-Powered Bitcoin Mining Center (#GotBitcoin?)

Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, met with the country’s IT community to discuss the growth of its native tech industry, amongst other things, the president is reportedly planning to establish a Bitcoin (BTC) mining farm in the country according to the state-owned national news agency, the Belarusian Telegraph Agency. Belarus Could Get A Nuclear-Powered Bitcoin Mining Center (#GotBitcoin?)

The meeting was reportedly set up at the president’s request and he promised government support for Belarusian fintech companies.

Lukashenko also reportedly outlined some of the progress that the government has made with IT development, while also asking participants to suggest ideas that promote growth.

Miner Update reported that the president plans to establish a mining farm adjacent to the Belarusian nuclear power plant. The plant is expected to begin full-fledged operations this year and Lukashenko has proposed an extensive space for Bitcoin mining and trading activities.

Updated: 1-9-2020

A Russian Nuclear Plant Is Renting Space to Energy-Hungry Bitcoin Miners

UDOMLYA, Russia – A state-owned nuclear power plant in Russia may soon fuel a bitcoin mining hub.

Late last month, Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation opened a mining farm near the Kalinin nuclear plant in Udomlya, 200 miles northwest of Moscow. The company spent more than $4.8 million building the 30-megawatt facility, according to Sergei Nemchenkov, the head of data centers and digital products at Rosenergoatom, a Rosatom subsidiary.

Rosenergoatom isn’t planning to mine itself, Nemchenkov said. Rather, it will capitalize on the opportunity to sell additional electricity to heavy users and rent space for their equipment, similar to a data center the firm built near the plant.

“Both data centers and miners are large energy consumers with a stable demand,” Nemchenkov said. “For us, it’s a way to diversify.”

Rosatom is the first big government-related entity to embrace miners in Russia, the world’s eleventh-largest economy, according to the IMF and the World Bank. And with plans to eventually open 240 megawatts or more of its power from several locations to the industry, the company could become a notable player on the global market.

To put that number in perspective, Chinese mining giant Bitmain’s facility under construction in Rockdale, Texas, is expected to start with a capacity of 25 to 50 megawatts and eventually expand to 300 megawatts. Another facility being built in the same town would start at 300 MW and eventually go up to 1 gigawatt; both are claiming the title of world’s largest.

The Kalinin plant (built in 1974 and named after a statesman who was the formal head of the Soviet state from 1919 until 1946) is another example of miners in Russia nesting close to old industrial sites, like the abandoned factories in Siberia that are attracting miners from all over the world.

In Udomlya, a rectangular field of about 215,000 square feet is expected to fit up to 30 containers, each with room for almost 400 individual mining computers.

Electricity for miners will cost 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour – not the cheapest price you can find around the globe, as rates lower than 4 cents can be found in some regions of China and Kazakhstan.

But Rosenergoatom wants to market the project, first of all, as a legitimate, reputable way to mine cryptocurrency, right on the energy producer’s property.

“It’s a totally white deal,” Nemchenkov said.

To find clients, Rosenergoatom partnered with ECOS-M, a mining hotel firm that serves as an intermediary between the venue and miners. Founded in 2017 in Armenia, ECOS-M started by building a mining venue near the country’s Hrazdan thermal power plant.

So far, ECOS-M has set up two containers in Hrazdan, but hopes to expand significantly as the potential capacity of the site is up to 200 megawatts, ECOS-M managing partner Ilya Goldberg said.

But the partnership with Rosenergoatom, which he says is “very comfortable” for ECOS-M, is even more promising.

If ECOS-M manages to fill the field in Udomlya fast, Rosenergoatom will open other venues for mining, said Nemchenkov.

“This is the company we’re planning to go a long way with,” he said.

According to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by ECOS-M and Rosenergoatom in February, in addition to Udomlya, four more Rosatom venues might be filed with miners in the coming years, two of them in Siberia, one in the northern region of Murmansk and one in the Kaliningrad exclave in the West.

One of these venues, located in the Siberian town of Seversk, is an especially ambitious project, Nemchenkov said: With a potential capacity up to 200 megawatts, the site is expected to fit 84 containers for one megawatt each at the beginning, after construction is finished, tentatively scheduled for late 2021.

Some 130 more megawatts of available electricity are waiting for miners near the Kolskaya and Baltic nuclear power plants and Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Plant, according to the MOU.

For Rosenergoatom, building mining venues for rent is a by-product of the company’s ambition to become a large data center provider.

The political situation is conducive to this business: in early December, Russia passed a law prohibiting storage of Russian citizens’ personal data abroad.

This means any company dealing with Russians’ personal data will have to store it on servers inside Russia or pay up to $290,000 in fines and get blocked in the country. Another law, passed in 2016, requires all telecom companies to store their clients’ communication data for up to three years, further stimulating demand for storage.

The data center in Udomlya has a backup diesel generator, which ensured uninterrupted service for clients during a brief outage at the Kalinin power station last year caused by a short circuit in a transformer outside the plant, Nemchenkov said.

While the mining field doesn’t have such generators, an outage there in extreme conditions would only last one or two minutes, he said.

Rosenergoatom seems serious about working with miners: According to Nemchenkov, there will be an option to hire the nuclear giant’s personnel to take care of the mining containers and leverage its engineering and industrial safety expertise. It might also provide the metal containers in the future, Nemchenkov said.

However, the infrastructure the company is building can serve various use cases, Nemchenkov said. If one day Russia bans crypto, or mining in particular, the venue can be upgraded and turned into a normal data center, he said.

“For the time being, we can host miners. If the mining story is over, we can host something else,” Nemchenkov said.

Updated: 6-12-2020

Belarus Banks Announce Upcoming Token Pilot Program

Belarus Central Bank authorizes several banks in the country to begin issuing tokenized offerings.

On June 10, 12 Belarus’ commercial and state-owned banks received permission from the national central bank to issue digital tokens. They will distribute these digital offerings through an upcoming pilot program.

According to Sputnik Belarus, the country has adopted Decree No. 8, “On the development of the digital economy,” giving the power to the Belarus National Bank to implement the banks’ digital economy dynamics.

The governmental framework creates the legal environment required for initial coin offerings, or ICOs, across Belarus. The pilot program will run from January 1, 2021, to January 1, 2024.

Pilot Program To Take Place In A Blockchain Free Trade Zone

Participating banks include Belarusian-Swiss Bank, BTA bank, and Belarusian People’s Bank. It also includes Belarusbank, which is the country’s largest bank.

The pilot program will take place in Hi-Tech Park, a Minsk-based blockchain free trade zone and the home of several crypto mining centers.

The report adds that the National Bank gave banks the authority to raise funds from their ICOs in Belarusian rubles from domestic individuals or companies.

However, the central bank stated that bank entities would not be allowed to receive crypto during the pilot program. Non-citizens could still buy tokens using national or foreign fiat money.

A Final Decision Could Be Taken In March 2024

Sputnik clarifies that participation in the pilot will be limited to 10% of the banks’ regulatory capital.

It is expected that by March 1, 2024, the President of Belarus will decide whether or not to extend the program, or even make it a permanent fixture.

Cointelegraph reported on March 9 that the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus is planning a legal initiative that would allow the authority to confiscate criminally generated cryptocurrency.

In 2019, Belarus’ general prosecutor raised concerns about the role cryptocurrency could be playing in tax evasion within the country.

Updated: 8-10-2020

What Would The Re-Election of Alexander Lukashenko Mean For Crypto?

A contested election between president Alexander Lukashenko and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya leaves the future of crypto in Belarus in limbo.

Protests have erupted in Belarus following the country’s presidential election on Sunday, but the possible continued presidency of Alexander Lukashenko may be good news for crypto.

Lukashenko reportedly won re-election against opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in a landslide victory with more than 80% of the vote on Aug. 9. However, officials from many nations and within Belarus are condemning the election results as flawed, with reports of falsified ballots.

‘Europe’s Last Dictator’

The president of the eastern European nation has served since 1994, during which time he has made a number of statements in favor of blockchain technology since legalizing cryptocurrency and initial coin offerings in Dec. 2017.

In an April 2019 video of Lukashenko addressing a crowd, the president proposed using excess energy from the country’s first nuclear power plant — scheduled to be completed at the end of 2020 — to mine cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC) and sell them.

His words were met with laughter from the audience, but Bitcoin bull Anthony Pompliano responded to them by saying “every country will be mining and every country will be holding Bitcoin.”

Crypto Legislation

Belarus has not been at the forefront of cryptocurrency and blockchain discussions around the world, but the nation has implemented a few legislative changes.

In March, a state authority in Belarus asked lawmakers for the authority to seize cryptocurrency from criminals.

The country’s central bank is also reportedly setting up a program to allow commercial and state-owned banks to launch tokens and conduct business as crypto exchanges.

After Tumultuous Election, Belarus Goes Offline

The Belarus presidential election ended with mass protests and a nationwide internet outage.

The country went offline on Sunday during its presidential election. Major social networks and message sites including Viber, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were inaccessible, as were local news outlets. 

Following weeks of tension, people streamed into the streets of the capital to protest the landslide victory by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected the results, claiming they were falsified.

Internet watchdog NetBlocks first detected network disruptions as early as 3:00 a.m. local time on election day, according to NetBlocks CEO Alp Toker and director of research Isik Mater. Social media restrictions began to pick up around 9:00 a.m. local time. But just as the polls were closing on Sunday, at around 8:19 p.m. local time, NetBlocks observed a near total connectivity drop across the country. 

Toker exclusively told CoinDesk there were indications three Belarusian banks were reconnected simultaneously at around 1:30 p.m. local time Monday, but the core disruptions that began after the election were still in place.

As of 9:00 p.m. local time on Monday, many Internet blockages remained. “Only Telegram is working now via some proxy servers; those get cut from time to time, too,” said Nadia Venzhina of the Cyber Academy educational project in Belarus. “Those who set up a [virtual private network] in advance still can use Facebook and YouTube, but all the commonly used VPNs are down now, and you can’t install them,” she added.

Thirty human rights organizations signed a petition to the United Nations against the internet outage Monday, including Russia’s Moscow Helsinki Group, the U.K.’s Article19, South African Legal Resources Center and others. 

According to NetBlocks’ reports, in 2020 alone at least 10 countries including Zimbabwe and Venezuela at some point resorted to blocking access or use of the internet and social media to suppress communication during elections, or as a means of curbing public protests.  

System Overwhelmed

On Saturday, a local news report claimed a cellular company confirmed all forms of communication in Minsk, including telephone lines and the internet, would not work on election day. According to the report, employees of hotels and retail outlets received an “unspoken warning” about the communications shutdown but were asked to show up to work.  

According to the chief technology officer of the Belarussian hosting service, Denis Otvalko, the reason for the outage might be the deep packet inspection (DPI) software analyzing web traffic to the country via national internet providers, reported local publication

“It might be that those filtering devices failed to proceed all the requests they got yesterday, we can only guess,” Otvalko said, noting that “the government has 100% control over the incoming traffic.”

Belarus President Lukashenko denied shutting down the internet, blaming the attacks from abroad, especially the U.K., Czech Republic and Poland. Belarus’ major internet provider Beltelecom said it had been dealing with increased traffic from abroad since Aug. 8. 

“Our systems registered multiple cyber attacks on the government agencies’ websites and Beltelecom servers. That led to the communications channels getting overwhelmed and our infrastructure malfunctioning, leading to the disruption of access to some Internet resources and services,” the provider wrote, promising to fix the issues until the end of the day Aug. 8. 

Political Unrest

Days before, in an interview that aired on Aug. 6, President Lukashenko said it would be embarrassing for him if Belarusians took to the streets on election day, and he would do everything in his power to curb the “protest mood,” reported a journalist for Russian tech publication Kod

The election protests were largely peaceful, but protestors were attacked by law enforcement. Tear gas and water cannons were used and at least one person reportedly was hurt by a flash-bang grenade, while another was hit by a police vehicle. Thousands of protesters have been detained

Reporters from two Russian-language media outlets, Current Time and TV Rain, were denied accreditation and deported. Another Russian journalist, Maxim Solopov, a reporter for Meduza, was beaten and went missing, Meduza wrote.

Updated: 8-11-2020

Belarus Protest Movement Faces Turning Point As Opposition Leader Leaves Country

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s backers promise to continue demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed 80% of vote in Sunday’s disputed poll.

Belarus’s growing protest movement is at a turning point after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left for Lithuania, saying she had to consider the future of her two children following the country’s disputed presidential elections and a worsening crackdown against her supporters.

Many of her backers have promised to continue demonstrations against Belarus’s veteran leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed 80% of the vote in Sunday’s poll despite growing anger over his handling of the country’s stagnating economy and his increasingly heavy-handed rule.

Some suggested Ms. Tikhanovskaya had been coerced into leaving the country and telling people on Tuesday to end the protests, pointing out that she only stepped into role of opposition candidate after husband, popular YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, was barred after being detained in May for allegedly inciting unrest. He remains in detention.

Staff on Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign team also released a statement later Tuesday supporting the protests that have been taking place in the Belarus capital Minsk and other cities. They urged authorities to avoid violence and instead begin discussion on what they called a peaceful transfer of power to the people.

But Ms. Tihkanovskaya’s role in the opposition movement appears to be over, potentially providing some respite for Mr. Lukashenko, 26 years after he first took control of this former Soviet republic.

“I made a very difficult decision for myself. I made this decision absolutely independently,” she said in an emotional video posted on social media Tuesday. She said not even her husband had influenced her.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya, 37, didn’t reveal her whereabouts, but her campaign team confirmed she was in Lithuania, whose capital is a 112-mile drive across the border from Minsk. The Lithuanian foreign minister also said Tuesday on Twitter that Ms. Tikhanovskaya was in the country. He provided no further details.

Mr. Lukashenko’s government didn’t respond to a request for comment on the departure of Ms. Tikhanovskaya and the continued protests against the president’s rule.

The election contest between Mr. Lukashenko and Ms. Tikhanovskaya was the hardest-fought vote in Belarus since the fall of the Iron Curtain and was closely watched by both Russia and the West, which have been competing for influence Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and some European countries urged Belarus’s government to exercise restraint and criticized the conduct of the election, adding some weight to opposition allegations of election fraud. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contrast, offered Mr. Lukashenko his congratulations and suggested the two countries work to build their already substantial economic and security ties.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya, a teacher by training, had promised radical changes if she won. She said she would release political prisoners and order a referendum on amending the constitution to cap the number of terms a president can serve. She had also pledged to give up the presidency after six months to hold a new election because she wasn’t interested in holding office.

“I don’t need this power. I don’t want this power. I want to be with my children and my husband and be among my family. That’s why I want this situation to end for me personally,” she said in an interview last week.

Despite her lack of experience, she succeeded in uniting the opposition behind her.

“I am very grateful to her for the tremendous work that she did,” said Anna Krasulina, who served as press secretary during Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s election campaign. “She simply raised and inspired the whole country. She was the banner people followed and they believed in their strength. The people of Belarus became a people who began to fight for their rights. And now we see this struggle.”

Since Sunday, thousands of people have taken to the streets to vent their frustration against Belarus’s leadership and what they say is a corrupted political system, prompting a ferocious response from security forces.

Many of the reported clashes were filmed and uploaded to social media. They showed police using stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, but some protesters fought back, in some cases building barricades or throwing Molotov cocktails. At least one protester was killed and over 2,000 people were detained overnight Monday, authorities said. Twenty-one law-enforcement and military personnel were injured.

In a second video posted Tuesday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya appealed to her supporters to keep off the streets and observe the law.

“The people of Belarus have made their choice,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said as she sat on a sofa, her eyes lowered reading a prepared text. “Belarusians, I am urging you to show wisdom and respect for the law. I don’t want any bloodshed or violence, so I’m asking you not to confront the police and not to gather on squares in order to not put your lives at risk,” she said.

Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consulting firm Sense Analytics, said the road forward for Belarus was unclear, but protests were likely to continue.

“I don’t know what the scale of them would be, how long they could sustain, and how much more brutality the authorities are ready to perform,” Mr. Shraibman said. “There is no disappointment about Svetlana, she was not perceived as a leader of the protest movement, more a symbol of hope. The protests are not about her, but about the authorities.”

Some opposition supporters are now calling for a general strike to pressure Mr. Lukashenko, 65, to step down. Again, many didn’t believe that Ms. Tikhanovskaya would ask them to give up unless she was under duress.

“She read from a piece of paper, with a red face, and her style of speech is usually different,” said Zakhar Yanovsky, a university student in Minsk. “It seems to me she was simply forced to record this appeal.”

Fears for Ms. Tikhanvoskaya’s safety had grown in the run-up to Sunday’s election. She left her home to stay in an undisclosed location the night before the vote, appearing only to cast her ballot and make periodic statements.

In Tuesday’s video, she said she was faced with a difficult choice and acknowledged that many people might condemn her for choosing to leave.

“I thought that all this campaigning had toughened me very much and gave me so much strength that I could withstand everything,” she said in the video. “But, probably, I remained the weak woman I was originally.”

Updated: 8-12-2020

Pompeo, EU Officials Warn Belarus Over Election, Protests

‘We want the people in Belarus to have the freedoms that they’re demanding,’ says U.S. secretary of state.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on authorities in Belarus to protect protesters and give the country’s citizens more political freedom, the latest pressure on a regime that might now face new sanctions from the neighboring European Union.

“We want the people in Belarus to have the freedoms that they’re demanding,” Mr. Pompeo said at a press conference Wednesday with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš at the Czech Republic’s government headquarters in Prague. He said a Belarusian election Sunday “wasn’t held in a way that was free or fair.”

On Tuesday, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell criticized authorities in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, for “disproportionate and unacceptable violence” and said the bloc was considering “taking measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results.” EU foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss possible Belarusian sanctions.

“We will be assessing the Belarusian authorities’ actions to address the current situation and conducting an in-depth review of the EU’s relations with Belarus,” Mr. Borrell said.

Mr. Pompeo, in the middle of a four-country tour of Central Europe, is warning European officials about the threat of cooperation with authoritarian regimes, referring to nearby Russia and also to China.

On Tuesday at a wreath-laying ceremony at a World War II memorial, Mr. Pompeo said, “It’s worth remembering, even as we celebrate, that because authoritarianism is still alive in Beijing and in Moscow and Tehran, there remains work to do.”

Russia moved swiftly to congratulate President Alexander Lukashenko for his electoral victory and to press for stronger ties with its neighbor amid protests in Belarus.

Meanwhile, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left for Lithuania, saying she had to consider the future of her two children following the country’s disputed presidential elections and a crackdown against her supporters.

Many of her backers have promised to continue demonstrations against Mr. Lukashenko, Belarus’s veteran leader, who claimed 80% of the vote in Sunday’s election despite growing anger over his handling of the country’s stagnating economy and his increasingly heavy-handed rule.

“We urge that the nonviolent protesters be protected and not harmed,” Mr. Pompeo said in Prague, adding that the U.S. would continue to speak about the risks to Belarusian freedom.

Mr. Babiš said he expects the EU not only to issue a declaration but also to “take some actions, take some measures.”

Russia and Belarus are closely linked by language and culture. Belarus was once a Soviet state and is strategically located in the center of Eastern Europe, on Russia’s western flank. In recent years, Mr. Lukashenko has sought a closer relationship with Europe and the U.S.

But now Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to detect an opportunity to re-establish Russia’s influence in Belarus by shoring up Mr. Lukashenko.

Mr. Lukashenko’s government didn’t respond to a request for comment on Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s departure and the continued protests against the president’s rule.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets since Sunday to vent their frustration against Belarus’s leadership and what they say is a corrupted political system, prompting a ferocious response from security forces.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lukashenko blamed the protests on unemployed criminals.

“The core of these so-called protesters are people with criminal records who are jobless right now,” Mr. Lukashenko was quoted by the Belarusian state-run news agency BelTA as saying at a government meeting on security and other matters. “No job means ‘Go out to ramble along the streets and avenues.’ Therefore, I’m asking nicely and warning everyone: To those who don’t have jobs, get one!”

Some opposition supporters are now calling for a general strike to pressure the 65-year-old Mr. Lukashenko to step down.

Updated: 8-13-2020

Belarus Is Back Online, With Lessons About Censorship Resistance

The internet is back in Belarus, according to reports, but the outage sheds light on what kind of technologies might help ordinary citizens get around such blackouts in future.

The internet was down nationwide for almost three days this week during protests following a controversial presidential election that resulted in an apparent landslide for President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko was announced a winner, but many people believe opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya actually won. After attempting to dispute the results, she quickly left the country for Lithuania and went silent.

The internet returned on Wednesday. But before that happened, Belarusians figured out ways to get around the blockade via services such as virtual private networks (VPN) and proxies. CoinDesk spoke to experts about the limited options citizens have for staying online during internet shutdowns.

Pirate Cables

Mikhail Klimarev, an IT expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes the outage was an attempt by Belarus authorities to control communications via deep packet inspection (DPI) filtering, which created a bottleneck in internet traffic. In other words, the internet wasn’t completely shut down, it was impossibly slow.

People in Belarus were able to use VPN and proxy software, which help data get around DPI filters. With these tools, internet traffic mimics auxiliary data, which the DPI software ignores, Klimarev said.

However, if a VPN has an open-source code, filtering software can learn to stop and filter it as well. Such VPNs were successfully blocked in Belarus during the shutdown, he added.

If a government decides to pull the plug and leave the country with no internet, there is not much residents can do, Klimarev said. You could, of course, leave the country, he said, but a less-radical option is to move to a region near the border and connect to foreign internet providers.

“I know that one large IT company in Belarus moved to a hotel near the Lithuania border and pulled the internet cable from across the border. About one hundred people relocated to work from there,” Klimarev said.

Other solutions might include using a SIM card from a foreign cell phone service provider or a dial-up connection between computers, Moscow-based cybersecurity expert Alexey Lukatsky told CoinDesk. However, the government can still cut any channel it has under its control.

“If the government has internet connection under its control in the country and uses DPI filtering, 99% of the population has zero chance in the case of an outage,” he explained.

Satellite Out Of Reach

If moving abroad is not an option, there are other possible solutions. Satellite internet, for instance, but that is extremely expensive, Klimarev says, with the hardware alone costing tens of thousands of dollars plus about $1,000 each month for an internet connection at a decent speed.

However, even satellite internet might get blocked by a national government, said Ilya Kharlamov, a former engineer at Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center. He posted a tweet storm on Thursday explaining that satellite internet is delivered via radio waves, which are normally under government control. This means satellites are not a realistic option for countries like Belarus and Russia, Kharlamov wrote.

For example, if Elon Musk’s Starlink wanted to broadcast the internet from its satellites to Russia, it would need Russian government permission. Another satellite internet company, OneWeb, did not succeed in getting this permission last year.

“Technically, it’s possible to broadcast censorship-free internet to another country, but legally it’s subject to the national laws and regulated on the U.N. level,” Kharlamov wrote, explaining that if a company violates national laws regarding the radio waves usage, the country can complain to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, and even shoot the satellites down when they fly above the country’s territory.

This is true for any country that’s a U.N. member., Kharlamov told CoinDesk, and this means that without getting permission first, the satellites will have to turn off their transmitters while flying above the country that did not allow its service.

“This is what’s happening above North Korea,” he said, adding: “Right now, 500 Starlink satellites are flying above us already, but they stay silent and only broadcast above the U.S.”

Mesh Networks In The Works

The blockchain world loves the concept of mesh networks, which rely on multiple mobile devices. Messages bounce from one device to another until they get the message through. In practice, however, it’s extremely difficult to build such a network with a really large number of nodes, Klimarev said.

What’s more, as the number of nodes increase, it’s getting harder to compute the route that a message needs to travel to hit the desired receiver.

“And if those nodes are moving, the amount of computational power needed to find the right route increases immensely. This is why this method (mesh networks) is not considered reliable,” Klimarev said.

There is, however, ongoing experimentation around static mesh networks where the communicating devices don’t move together with their owners. The limit of such networks is 3,000 nodes, Klimarev said, but they might work for cases when there is no particular receiver, but the information is just broadcast around, like for media publications to keep informing their readers in the situation of an outage.

Klimarev is currently working with one such service, NewNode, a project from the same team of developers that created FireChat – a Bluetooth-based messenger designed for use in a crowd.

NewNode is designed to transfer data using the distributed hash table (DHT) – the same technology used in torrents, where information is split into parts and hashed.

Using such software devices would connect utilizing any connection protocols available to them. In the absence of cellular networks, they can use Wi-Fi beacons, signal their presence to nearby devices and then exchange information on what bits of data each one has stored.

However, “nobody has tested these technologies in combat conditions yet,” Klimarev said.

Reasons For Outage

During the three-day outage from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, people in Belarus couldn’t read news on media websites, use social networks (except Telegram, which worked intermittently) or call their families. Belarus authorities claimed the communications infrastructure failed due to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

Klimarev doubts the internet went down because of a DDos attack. “I got data from internet providers in Belarus, and it doesn’t show the uptick in traffic as it would be during a DDoS attack,” Klimarev told Coindesk. “On the charts, we can see there was a limit at the certain speed, and it won’t go higher than that level.”

“Our hypothesis is that someone manually plugged all cables into one central server, which might have been running DPI [deep packet inspection] software,” Klimarev said. DPI software allows for close surveillance of data sent over the internet. That central channel, in turn, was not enough to let all traffic through at the normal speed, so the internet went down.

Analytics company NetBlocks also wrote that DPI filtering could be the reason for the outage. Alexey Lukatsky believes it’s still unclear if the authorities in Belarus were just deliberately blocking particular websites and services or the reason was different.

Klimarev also does not believe the Belarus government would intentionally cut off the entire country from the internet because doing so would hurt the vital infrastructure that the government uses (the DPI filtering technically allowed some traffic through).

“The banking system would grind to a halt, even some phone calls would be impossible, because they all are now going through the internet,” Klimarev said.

Even companies delivering food to grocery stores need the internet to use GPS navigation tools, so a total shutdown would eventually lead to problems with food supply in the cities, he added.

On Thursday, over 500 CEOs of Belarus’ IT companies, some of which are now Silicon Valley success stories, signed a letter to the country’s leadership, demanding it stop the violence against protesters, free political prisoners, conduct fair elections and provide free access to information to the people of Belarus, wrote.

Updated: 8-15-2020

Can Belarus Use Crypto To Bypass Sanctions? Experts Are Skeptical

Sanctions could be coming to Belarus. Can the crypto-friendly country beat it with Bitcoin or Ethereum?

As the massive protests in Belarus continue after a controversial election that saw President Alexander Lukashenko extend his mandate, questions arose about how Belarus could deal with potential U.S. and European Union sanctions and how cryptos such as Bitcoin (BTC) and Ethereum (ETH) could help bypass them.

An article published by Russian outlet, RBC, suggested that using cryptocurrencies could not be an effective option for the Belarussian government to beat financial sanctions that may be imposed by the EU and Washington on Minsk. According to The Guardian, the EU is moving forward with sanctions against Belarus.

Valery Petrov, vice president of Market Development and Regulation for the Russian Association of the Crypto Industry and Blockchain, said in the article that the usage of cryptos is “a realistic option” to escape from sanctions. However, he clarifies, this is possible only “if it does not contradict external and internal legislation.”

Belarus has been showing a crypto-friendly attitude, as the recent developments in the sector across the country prove that the industry represents a significant business opportunity.

In May, Belarusian authorities said that they consider digital technology a top priority issue, and are preparing a digital economy resolution for the OSCE session in Berlin.

Belarus has also drafted a bill in July that addresses high tech IT spheres, including blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, among others, in the hope of attracting international investment in technology that were once forbidden or seen as too risky.

Petrov pointed to Venezuela and Iran’s case, as he says that the usage of cryptos to deal with economic crises or circumvent sanctions proves that cryptocurrencies are only a “palliative” solution.

Even other experts such as Nikita Zuboreb, a Russian analyst at crypto exchange, Bestchange, believes it could be only a “band-aid” solution for an economy that could be profoundly hurt by the sanctions.

However, he recalled that the IT infrastructure is “much more developed and prepared” than other countries and Lukashenko could still consider it an option.

Updated: 8-17-2020

Lukashenko Built Belarus in His Own Image. Now His Position Is Under Threat

After years of intimidation and allegations of election fraud, a young newcomer leads Belarusians in saying the time has come for change

When Svetlana Tikhanovskaya walked into Belarus’s election commission to complain she had been cheated out of a win in last weekend’s presidential election, her campaign team expected her to quickly emerge to carry on the fight.

Instead, she disappeared, resurfacing the next day in Lithuania. In a video posted on social media, she called for her supporters to end their protests and accept the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, as their president.

To his critics, it was a glaring example of how Mr. Lukashenko controls the political system in Belarus, the former Soviet republic he has run since the fall of the Iron Curtain. For years, the 65-year-old longtime Moscow ally has appointed judges and key leaders of the security services and state media.

He handpicked the leader of the election commission, who has been in the role since 1996. Among his most feared tools is the country’s secret police, which still carries its old Soviet-era name, the State Security Committee, or KGB.

But as protests and strikes spread over his handling of the Aug. 9 election, in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote, the edifice he created is under threat.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people gathered in Minsk for an eighth consecutive day, chanting at Mr. Lukashenko to “go away” and waving an opposition flag. Across town, a rival rally that the interior ministry said grew to more than 65,000 gathered in support of Mr. Lukashenko.

What happens in Belarus, a country of just under 10 million people, could determine the next steps in a long and frequently testy struggle for influence between the West and Moscow in Eastern Europe, right on Russia’s western border.

On Friday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya, 37, appeared to distance herself from the video, calling for more demonstrations and urging her supporters to sign an online petition for a recount of the election.

Mr. Lukashenko’s government quickly cracked down on protests, detaining almost 7,000 people. Though the government has since released thousands and the interior minister issued a public apology, the president has been unwilling to back down and accused other countries of plotting his downfall. He talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin on both Saturday and Sunday about how to strengthen ties to Moscow.

“This is a threat not only to Belarus,” he said before their Saturday phone call. “I want to say that the protection of Belarus today is no less than the protection of our entire space.”

Russia on Sunday “reaffirmed its readiness to provide the necessary assistance in resolving the problems that have arisen” in Belarus, based on the countries’ mutual cooperation treaties that include providing help under a mutual military pact, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Mr. Lukashenko appealed to his supporters at the government-backed rally, saying they needed to protect their country from chaos.

“Do not push people to a violent confrontation,” state news agency, Belta, cited him as saying. “Do not dishonor a country—peaceful, prosperous and calm, which everyone in the world envied,” he said.

The European Union has been critical of the election and is considering sanctions on individuals aligned with the government, as a show of support for the Belarusian opposition.

“These people have the same rights as every other European nation: right to freedom, to dignity, to democracy,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an email. “We must stand by their side, take a strong stand and don’t allow the Belarusian government to get away with an electoral fraud. Elections must be repeated, free and fair, in a transparent way, with international observers allowed.“

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said Washington and Brussels should work together to stop Belarus slipping further into Russia’s sphere of influence if Mr. Lukashenko remains in power.

Belarusians say they are worried about what Russia might be planning given its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 following a civil uprising that brought down the then Moscow-backed Ukrainian president.

“Nobody knows how the Kremlin will react in case Lukashenko is overthrown,” said Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “It is highly unlikely that the Kremlin will just sit back and watch the transfer of power in Belarus. Russia may be interested in annexing the country altogether.”

For years, Mr. Lukashenko played the role of “Batka,” or father, of the Belarusian nation. His supporters credit the one-time farm boss with securing the stability and independence of the country following the demise of the Soviet Union. With a penchant for uniforms and ice hockey—he still plays regularly—he projected himself as a symbol for the entire nation, at times strengthening ties with Russia and, at others, building bridges to Europe.

In his earlier years, he spoke energetically against corruption before becoming president in 1994.

“This is how he became popular,” opposition politician Alexander Dabravolski recalled. “Mr. Lukashenko offered society a concept of justice based on the envy of the rich, whose cottages he promised to confiscate.”

But by the early 2000s, the euphoria began to fade. Mr. Lukeshenko began using referendums to bypass parliament, and changed the constitution to remove term limits, allowing himself to stay in power indefinitely. Mr. Lukashenko appeared to revel in his reputation as a strongman, too.

“An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me and I have always admitted it,” he told a news conference in 2003.

But the system he built, dominated by political appointees and state-owned enterprises, was ill-suited to the demands of the modern, global economy. By 2010, real incomes had started to decline and young people felt their ambitions were being smothered and began to push for change at the top. Mr. Lukashenko pushed back, blocking opposition candidates that year and again in 2015.

The turning point came earlier this year, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the virus as a psychosis, and suggested treating it with saunas and shots of vodka. Belarus, which has recorded over 69,000 infections, kept its borders open and didn’t issue any quarantine or social-distancing orders. Soccer fans around the world tuned in to watch the Belarusian league, one of few still running. Mr. Lukashenko also instructed schools to remain open.

“He didn’t hide the fact that many old people would die and this would not be bad for the budget,” said Andrei Sannikov, who challenged Mr. Lukashenko for the presidency in 2010 and now lives in Warsaw. “He even crossed this red line: he started to accuse people, that it was their fault they were dying. People were simply shocked.”

Businesses struggled, especially the retail sector, as consumption declined.

A move by Russia, Belarus’s main trading partner, to close its borders to stem the spread of the virus added to the economic pain, but the government didn’t do anything to help small businesses survive.

As the August election approached, several candidates made plans to challenge Mr. Lukashenko, including a banker, a former ambassador to the U.S., and Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber and Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband.

Mr. Lukashenko managed to fend them off. The banker was detained on charges of financial wrongdoing, which his supporters say were falsified. The former ambassador was disqualified and then left the country in fear that he would be arrested, too. Mr. Tikhanovsky was detained in May for allegedly inciting social unrest.

Then Ms. Tikhanovskaya, a newcomer who previously focused on raising her two children, stepped into the ring. She attracted tens of thousands of people to her rallies, vowing to reset Belarus’s political system if she won and open the way for new, fairer elections.

When election day came on Aug. 9, exit polls indicated that Mr. Lukashenko had swept the ballot again. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to protest what they said was a sham election. Riot police beat them back, sometimes brutally.

A day later, Ms. Tikhanovskaya entered the election commission to file her complaint—the last time she was seen in Belarus.

The head of the commission confirmed that the video in which Ms. Tikhanovskaya was filmed calling on her followers to stand down occurred in her office.

Instead of quelling the protests, Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s video emboldened them. At least two people were killed. Strikes emerged at some of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises, temporarily halting production at some.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya has said she has evidence, including copies of documents from some polling stations, proving that if the ballots were honestly counted, she would have won up to 70% of the vote.

Updated: 8-18-2020

Belarus President Considers Power Share, On His Terms

Alexander Lukashenko says authorities are working on a new constitution to allow a redistribution of powers.

Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, facing growing nationwide protests, said he was ready to share power, but only on his own terms, as the main opposition leader said she was ready to lead the Eastern European country.

Demonstrators took to the streets in cities and towns around Belarus for a ninth consecutive day Monday, while some state-enterprise workers went on strike, venting their frustration over the country’s disputed Aug. 9 presidential vote.

Mr. Lukashenko—who claimed 80% of the vote in what opponents insist was a rigged election—blamed the country’s unrest on foreign provocateurs. He told workers at a state factory in Minsk that authorities were working on versions of a new constitution that would allow a redistribution of powers.

The Belarusian leader has said he would be willing to hand over power, but only after a referendum and the adoption of a new constitution and not because of street protests.

“You will never expect me to do something under pressure,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to state news agency, Belta.

Mr. Lukashenko has indicated that if necessary he would call on longtime ally Russia to assist with resolving the country’s crisis, in the event of any outside aggression or external military threat toward Belarus. He has accused NATO of building up its military forces, including deploying tanks and aircraft, on Belarus’s western border.

On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that while NATO allies were closely watching developments in Belarus, the alliance “does not pose a threat to Belarus and has no military buildup in the region.” He added: “We remain vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against NATO allies. We support a sovereign and independent Belarus.”

Moscow has “reaffirmed its readiness to provide the necessary assistance” to Belarus, the Kremlin said Sunday. Russia and Belarus have cooperation agreements that include providing help under a mutual military pact.

Mr. Lukashenko’s comments followed the release of a video message from exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in which she called for the creation of a legal mechanism to organize a fresh and fair vote.

“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period,” said the 37-year-old political newcomer, who stepped forward as a candidate after her husband was detained in May.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania shortly after the election and has called for her supporters to keep up the pressure on Mr. Lukashenko through peaceful protests.

Thousands of protesters crowded downtown Minsk on Sunday, calling for Mr. Lukashenko to leave as they waved opposition flags. Across town, a much smaller rival rally gathered in his support. Crowds continued to gather on Monday.

Reports from several state enterprises, carried by local media outlets, confirmed that some workers had joined calls for a strike and left their jobs to join the protesters. Video on social media showed crowds gathered near the state-owned All-National Television channel, chanting “Join us!”

But there was no indication of an all-out general strike paralyzing businesses across the country.

Ultimate Resource On Belarus Bitcoin Mining, Elections And More (#GotBitcoin?)

Opposition Leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Has Called For The Creation Of A Legal Mechanism To Organize A Fresh And Fair Vote.

Thousands of people have been detained and two killed in violence since the election. Some of the demonstrators said they were beaten and tortured by security forces, according to testimonies published on social media and accounts from human-rights activists.

The Belarus General Prosecutor’s office said Monday that all those detained had been freed, except for 122 people who were still in detention centers in various parts of the country.

On Monday, European Union Council President Charles Michel said in a tweet that he would convene a video call with EU leaders on Wednesday to discuss the Belarus elections and the ensuing crackdown.

“The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader,” Mr. Michel said. “Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed.”

Updated: 8-19-2020

Wary of Treading On Russia’s Toes, Europe Plans Targeted Sanctions Against Belarus Officials

Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned EU against interfering in former Soviet Republic.

Mindful of Russia’s warning against interfering in Belarus, European Union leaders have taken a nuanced approach to the unfolding crisis, preparing sanctions against officials they say are responsible for rigging this month’s presidential election and violently dispersing protesters, while emphasizing that only Belarusians can resolve the turmoil there.

The EU’s 27 heads of state and government met over a video call Wednesday in a rare emergency meeting to discuss the bloc’s response to the mass protests that erupted in the former Soviet republic after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won 80% of the vote on Aug. 9.

Tens of thousands of people have since taken to the streets of the Belarus capital Minsk and other cities, calling the vote a sham and demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down after 26 years in power.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lukashenko, 65, again ordered police to clear the streets of demonstrators, raising fears of a renewed crackdown after nearly 7,000 people were detained in earlier attempts to quash the protests.

But European Council President Charles Michel, who spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, said the EU had no intention of taking further action against Belarus beyond finalizing a list of individuals to be sanctioned, expected next week, and refusing to recognize the result of the disputed election.

He pointed out that the Kremlin had said it didn’t plan to intervene militarily in Belarus, which sits in the heart of Eastern Europe, between several EU countries and Russia’s western border.

“We think that the future of Belarus has to be decided by the people of Belarus, not in Brussels, not in Moscow,” Mr. Michel said.

Speaking in a news conference after the video call, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also suggested there was no need for any large-scale external intervention.

“Large parts of the Belarusian opposition are not against Russia, but against the practices of Lukashenko,” she said. She added that any Russian military intervention to shore its ally would complicate the situation.

Ms. Merkel also said she sought to mediate in the Belarusian conflict, as she has done between Russia and Ukraine, but Mr. Lukashenko had declined to take her call.

EU officials are wary of a repeat of the situation in Ukraine in 2014, when a popular revolt toppled a pro-Kremlin president. Mr. Putin blamed the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for suggesting Kyiv might be able to join the trade and security blocs, and responded by annexing Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, and supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier Wednesday, Moscow again accused what it described as outside powers of trying to intervene in Belarus’s affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the involvement of any other countries would be unacceptable, echoing Mr. Putin’s own comments in conversations the Russian leader had with Ms. Merkel, Mr. Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron the day before.

“The main thing is that there is no outside influence,” Mr. Peskov said. “We consider such attempts unacceptable. The Belarusians should solve their problems themselves.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a talk show on a state-run television network that the comments from the EU leadership were driven by geopolitics. He said there was no need for outside mediation to ease the impasse in Belarus, adding that he hoped the opposition would show its willingness to talk with Belarusian authorities to find a way forward.

The Kremlin and Mr. Lukashenko’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the EU’s sanctions proposal.

Both Mr. Lukashenko and his opponents appear to be hardening their positions, however.

Besides authorizing sterner action against protesters, the Belarusian president ordered his defense chiefs to pay closer attention to what he said was the movement of NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania. “We must track the directions of their movements and their plans,” he said.

NATO has denied adding to the forces it has on Europe’s western borders.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 37-year-old newcomer who emerged at the head of the opposition movement when her activist husband was detained, early on Wednesday released a video message from neighboring Lithuania calling on the EU to reject the Aug. 9 election result, which it did.

She previously said she left the country to protect her two children, but has since called on more protesters to dislodge Mr. Lukashenko. Her campaign team has also formed the National Coordination Council to help transfer power peacefully to a new government that would then announce new elections, which would include international observers.

Mr. Lukashenko Wednesday accused the council of plotting to overthrow him, calling it an attempt to create an illegal, parallel government.

Updated: 8-24-2020

Protests In Belarus Continue In Hopes of Forcing New Election

Demonstration marks 15th consecutive day Belarusians have rallied following disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to protest the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko and the fierce crackdown that followed the disputed presidential vote as the country’s defense ministry warned that disorder in the city wouldn’t be tolerated.

Sunday’s demonstration, dubbed “March for a New Belarus” marked the 15th consecutive day that Belarusians have rallied in the hopes of forcing a new election following the Aug. 9 poll in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed an 80% victory over his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Supporters of Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee Belarus for neighboring Lithuania shortly after the election, believe the vote was neither free nor fair. The European Union is preparing sanctions against officials they say are responsible for rigging the poll and violently dispersing protesters, while emphasizing that only Belarusians can resolve the turmoil there.

Footage on social media showed swarms of people waving flags and calling on Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, to leave. Opposition activists said Sunday’s crowd swelled to some 200,000 people, while the interior ministry said attendance didn’t exceed 6,100 people.

There was a heavy presence of security forces and the interior ministry urged people not to attend the rally.

“We remind you that it is illegal to hold unauthorized mass events, and there is a liability for participating in them,” the interior ministry said in a statement. “Dear Citizens, Show Your Prudence! Do not give in to calls for violations of the letter of the Law!

Reports on social media from participants at the rally said military units were guarding monuments and memorials.

In a statement published ahead of the demonstration, Belarus’s ministry of defense said that it wouldn’t allow the desecration of memorials paying tribute to the sacrifices the country made during World War II.

“We are strictly warning: In case of disruption of the order and peace in these places—you will have to deal not with the police, but with the Army,” the statement said.

Some 7,000 people were detained during a harsh crackdown in immediate aftermath of the presidential vote and at least two people were reported killed in the violence. Officials in Belarus said most all those detained had been released, but human-rights activists say some people are still missing.

Authorities have also employed other tactics to try to silence the dissent. Internet service has been disrupted and on Saturday Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that access to the websites of dozens of media organizations and political movements that have been covering the demonstrations were blocked.

On Friday, the state-owned Belarusian Printing House disrupted the publication of two independent newspapers, Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing problems with equipment, the journalism organization said. For Komsomolskaya Pravda, it was the third time since the presidential election that this had occurred, the group said.

The printing house couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

In video statements, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has called on her supporters to continue to protest to keep up the pressure on Mr. Lukashenko. Her campaign team has formed a National Coordination Council to help transfer power peacefully to a new government that would then announce new elections, and would include international observers.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has blamed the unrest in his country on outside provocateurs, has accused the council of plotting to overthrow him, calling it an attempt to create an illegal, parallel government, which he has vowed to stop.

“We are used to living in a calm, quiet, tolerant country,” he told a rally in the western Belarus city of Grodno on Saturday, according to the Belta state news agency. “People are tired, they ask for a quiet life. And we must give them this life,” he said.

Updated: 8-29-2020

Belarus’s Struggle To Escape Its Soviet Past Pushes It Into Russia’s Embrace

Amid protests over Lukashenko, many fear the country’s economic weakness could bind it more tightly to Moscow.

The long rule of Alexander Lukashenko, the embattled president of Belarus, has left his country economically depleted and reliant on Russia, largely trapped in its Soviet-era past and likely bound to Moscow for many years to come.

Mr. Lukashenko, Belarus’s president for 26 years and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has presided over a top-down political and economic system that he tightly controls, with much of the economy still in the hands of the state.

Now, as popular anger with Mr. Lukashenko boils over into large-scale protests, some fear that even if the president does fall, the country’s economic weakness means Russia’s leverage over its neighbor will only grow.

“Russia has always been the lender of last resort, and now we find ourselves again at the mercy of Russia because there’s nobody else to turn to,” said Kateryna Bornukova, academic director of Beroc, a Minsk-based think tank.

Belarus has been slower to escape its past than most other countries in the old Soviet bloc. Some key sectors are controlled by the state. State-controlled enterprises are responsible for around 50% of gross domestic product and 75% of industrial output, according to a 2018 World Bank paper.

At the same time, average wages of around $400 a month lag far behind those next door in Poland and Lithuania. That has added to the anger felt by hundreds of thousands of protesters when they took to the streets after Mr. Lukashenko claimed victory this month in a presidential election, the latest in a number of votes that critics say were marred by irregularities.

Russia’s role in the Belarus economy looms large. Last year, Russia bought 42% of Belarus’s exports, mostly agricultural produce and trucks. In return, Minsk gets 100% of its natural gas and most of its oil from its energy-rich neighbor.

Russia has tried to expand the two countries’ current customs and security agreements for years, and both have been working toward closer political integration into what Moscow calls a Union State, though negotiations have stalled as Mr. Lukashenko has resisted Belarus being fully absorbed into its larger neighbor.

The current turmoil has largely cut off Belarus’s access to foreign funding. The Belarusian ruble has slumped to record lows against the U.S. dollar and some 90% of its debt is denominated in foreign currencies, making it harder to repay.

On Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko said his government was in discussions with Moscow, its largest creditor, on refinancing a $1 billion payment, state news agency Belta reported.

Sensing an opportunity to strengthen Russia’s influence, the Kremlin says it is discussing the request. Mr. Putin has also warned European countries from interfering and assembled a special security team to shore up the Belarus government if it appears close to toppling.

Russia has long viewed Belarus, which is around the size of Kansas, as an important buffer between the heartland and the West that must stay under Moscow’s control. Napoleon and Hitler each attempted to invade Russia through Belarus, and the country is a major transit route for Russian oil and gas to Europe, Moscow’s largest energy market. Its fertile plains are an important source of grain.

On Thursday, Mr. Putin noted in a television interview that some 90% of Russia’s agricultural imports come from Belarus. “We aren’t indifferent to what happens there,” he said.

Mr. Lukashenko’s government is warning street protesters not to go too far and risk losing Russia’s economic support, both in trade and in credit lines.

“Considering that cooperation with Russia forms over 50% of gross domestic product, approximately half of that amount will be immediately gone from our balance sheet,” Valery Belsky, Mr. Lukashenko’s aide for financial and credit affairs, told state news agency Belta last week. “Living standards will dip at least by the same percentage.”

The extent of Russia’s leverage makes it unlikely that any new government in Belarus will attempt to turn too hard to the West, as Ukraine did in 2014, political analysts say. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate in the Aug. 9 election, has said repeatedly that the protests aren’t anti-Russian, and that the crisis is for Belarusians to resolve.

“This is absolutely pragmatic: to have the best relations with Russia,” Pavel Latushko, a former government official and member of the opposition-led National Coordination Council, told reporters in Minsk last week. No politician can afford to “build a wall between Belarus and Russia,” he said.

Ordinary Belarusians, scarred by previous currency devaluations, have flocked to banks to withdraw foreign currency. Economic analysts say some banks haven’t been able to meet demand. On Wednesday, the Belarusian central bank advised banks to boost supply of foreign currencies given the increased demand.

Foreign investors fear a possible default if Belarus’s financial position continues to slide, amid international pressure over its violent crackdown on protesters, which has brought condemnation from the U.S. and sanctions from the European Union.

“I’d be pretty nervous if I was holding Belarusian debt right now,” said Tim Ash, emerging-market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management. He said his firm had sold its holdings before the election.

There was a time when Belarus showed some promise. Supported in part by cheap Russian gas, Belarus had one of the fastest-growing economies in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, as it bought energy at a quarter of the rate that Poland paid, for instance.

But instead of using the proceeds of its rapid growth to reform and diversify its command-style economy, the government invested in poorly run and unproductive state enterprises. Annual real GDP growth averaged just 0.1% over the five years to 2019.

Some economists argue that only by modernizing its economy will Belarus achieve a degree of genuine political freedom. There is a small but vibrant tech sector, but some of those companies are now looking at moving elsewhere after authorities throttled internet speeds and access to social-media sites as street protests began to grow.

“Startups aren’t born in an atmosphere of fear and violence. Startups are born in an atmosphere of freedom and openness,” read an open letter signed by hundreds of Belarusian tech entrepreneurs earlier this month.

To modernize, the Belarusian economy has to diversify away from Russia, analysts say. Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led economic bloc uniting former Soviet republics, but is one of only a handful of countries around the world not part of the World Trade Organization, which facilitates lowering trade barriers between members.

Meanwhile, said Ms. Bornukova at the Minsk think tank, “the economic situation is unraveling in crisis mode.”

Updated: 9-4-2020

In Belarus, Torture Allegations Dog Lukashenko As He Tries To Hold On To Power

U.S. and Europe have condemned a violent crackdown on protesters since President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in August’s election.

Alexander Cherevach, a software engineer in Belarus, said he was returning from work when police stopped him on the street in Minsk and accused him of participating in mass demonstrations against the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr. Cherevach, 26, said that when he wouldn’t unlock his computer and phone, the officers shoved him into a van and punched and kicked him before threatening to rape him with a baton.

Beatings during three days in detention left Mr. Cherevach with a concussion, a fractured lumbar vertebra, a bruised kidney and hematomas across his body, according to medical reports reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. He was hospitalized for six days.

“I haven’t processed it all yet, but of course I’m afraid,” said Mr. Cherevach, who spoke by phone from the Belarusian capital.

Human-rights groups, political analysts and opposition activists say that during Mr. Lukashenko’s more than two decades as head of state, security forces have used arbitrary detentions, beatings and torture against those viewed as a threat to his power.

After Mr. Lukashenko claimed victory in an Aug. 9 presidential election that opposition supporters and the European Union dismissed as fraudulent, roughly 7,000 people were detained for protesting, though nearly all were subsequently released. Human-rights researchers say they have documented more than 500 cases of people being beaten and tortured while detained by security forces or at detention centers.

“This is not repression light. It’s full-fledged repression,” said Andrei Sannikov, an exiled former opposition leader who was imprisoned and tortured a few months after challenging Mr. Lukashenko in a 2010 election. “This is about a brutal dictatorship.”

Neither Mr. Lukashenko’s office nor Belarus’s Interior Ministry responded to several requests for comment about the treatment of detainees, though the ministry had previously apologized for how riot police treated protesters on the streets. Nor did Belarus’s Committee for State Security, still known as the KGB, respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian leader previously has denied that security forces detained or otherwise repressed opposition supporters. On Aug. 9, he called such allegations “fake or far-fetched” and has blamed the protest violence on foreign provocateurs and people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

He has said that law-enforcement officials have a right to defend themselves and, a week after the vote, awarded medals to security forces, who opposition leaders and rights activists said were involved in violently suppressing the protests. The country’s investigative committee said 124 law-enforcement officers complained about violence directed at them.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged Wednesday receiving complaints about the treatment of detainees, state media reported, while Belarus’s prosecutor general’s office said in August it had created a commission to conduct preliminary checks regarding allegations of violence against civilians during the protests.

However, authorities haven’t launched a single criminal investigation, rights activists said. Investigators didn’t respond to requests for comment on why no criminal probes have been launched. Their public statements indicate they are currently conducting preliminary checks.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Wednesday for an end to violence directed at protesters, and said Washington was reviewing with its trans-Atlantic partners significant, targeted sanctions on anyone involved in human-rights abuses in Belarus.

A team of independent experts assembled by the United Nations has demanded that Belarus stop the alleged torture of detainees, while the European Union has called for a “thorough and transparent” investigation of abuses as it weighs the scope of sanctions it might apply.

“The use of torture is illegal under all circumstances and can never be justified,” Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission, said. “State violence and repression is in no way a proportionate reaction to peaceful protests.”

Russia, on the other hand, has said it would stand by Mr. Lukashenko. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would send Russian security forces to defend him if necessary.

Valentin Stefanovich, deputy director of the Belarusian human rights-group Viasna, said abuse of prisoners detained in the wake of the August election and the protests over the results was widespread and systematic.

The group interviewed hundreds of people who said they were tortured. Men taken to detention centers over the past month told Viasna investigators that they were stripped naked and told to kneel, before being kicked, punched, and struck with batons.

Female detainees said they were made to sit in nearby cells and listen to the men’s screams. Both men and women said they were threatened with rape. Others said they were subjected to electric shocks.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, a researcher for rights group Amnesty International. He said he suspects many instances of torture go unreported. “When most of these people are released they are very depressed, very scared. It’s quite a difficult psychological situation and people try to suppress this trauma.”

Belarus hasn’t ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and the country doesn’t have an independent agency to investigate abuses. Human-rights groups are typically barred from visiting detention centers and monitoring court cases, rights activists say. Government officials couldn’t be reached to verify or explain this policy.

Ruslan Khamidullin, a 30-year-old software engineer, said security officers shoved him off his bike and threw him into a police truck, where he was beaten with “batons and their boots and fists,” he said. The abuse became more violent when officers confiscated his phone and found images of street protests and clashes he had filmed from his apartment window.

Later at a police station, masked officers beat him with batons and punched and kicked him, he said. They forced him to lie face down, hogtied, for nine hours with other prisoners. The following day he was forced to stand facing a wall for another nine hours before the beatings resumed, Mr. Khamidullin said.

Mr. Khamidullin said he and other prisoners were made to run a gantlet between two lines of policemen who hit them with batons, before being crammed into a cell with around 120 other people.

Doctors later found he had suffered a concussion and deep bruises among other serious injuries, according to records seen by The Journal.

The ordeal was enough, Mr. Khamidullin said, to scare him off any protests, at least in the short term.

“For now, for me, it’s safety first,” he said. “I hope to find justice one day.”

Robert Kiselev, 24, a business consultant, who voted for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the election, thinks his white wristbands—a symbol of the protest movement—gave him away as a potential opposition supporter when he was walking home from a shopping center on Aug. 12.

He said he hadn’t been taking part in any protests that evening, but security forces threw him against a bus and began to beat him with batons.

The beating continued when he was bundled inside the bus, his hands bound behind his back. In pain, he said he begged for a doctor, even as his captors ate takeaway food and smoked electronic cigarettes.

“To be honest, I now fear for my life,” Mr. Kiselev said. After he was taken to the hospital under police guard, doctors found hemorrhaging in the soft tissues of a thigh and shin and severe trauma and bruising to his chest, according to a medical report seen by The Journal, in addition to a concussion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cherevach said police mocked him as he lay on the floor of the van, being kicked and punched. He could hear the moans of another detainee who was being ordered to eat the white bracelet he wore.

When his captors threatened to penetrate Mr. Cherevach with a baton, he gave in and disclosed the passcode to his computer and phone, where his interrogators found he followed antigovernment social media groups. This led to further beatings, he said, and his transfer to Minsk’s notorious detention center on Okrestino lane, where he spent two nights in a small concrete cell with dozens of other people. The detainees took turns to sit and stand.

Mr. Cherevach was released without being charged, but agreed—under duress, he said—to sign documents promising not to participate in antigovernment protests.

“I was mentally shaken, so I agreed to sign the papers,” he said. “I’m very upset with what happened to me and others.”

Updated: 9-7-2020

Belarus Opposition Leader Has Been Abducted, Colleagues Say

Maria Kalesnikava’s disappearance comes after a wave of arrests of foes of President Lukashenko.

A Belarus opposition leader has been abducted, an opposition council said, raising fears that government authorities are stepping up efforts to crack down on the protest movement after nearly a month of rallies against the disputed election of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The opposition’s Coordination Council said the leader, Maria Kalesnikava, and two other members of the panel were kidnapped by unknown people in the center of Minsk, without providing more details. Earlier, the independent Belarusian news website cited a witness saying that unidentified masked men had bundled Ms. Kalesnikava into a minibus and drove her off early Monday.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said it had no information on the alleged detentions of opposition members, according to Russian Interfax news agency. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The reports drew condemnation from the European Union. “Arbitrary arrests and kidnappings on political grounds in Belarus, including this morning’s brutal actions against Andrei Yahorau, Irina Sukhiy & Maria Kalesnikova, are unacceptable,” EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said in a tweet, using an alternate spelling of the opposition leader’s name. “State authorities must stop intimidating citizens & violating their own laws and int. obligations.”

Ms. Kalesnikava has been instrumental in leading the monthslong protests which have mushroomed into the biggest challenge to Mr. Lukashenko’s 26-year reign over the former Soviet state, a close Russian ally.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people, many draped in the red-and-white flag of the opposition, marched in Minsk, demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down. Security forces detained 633 protesters, Belarusian authorities said.

Roughly 7,000 people were detained for protesting after the election, and nearly all were subsequently released. Human-rights researchers said they have documented more than 500 cases of people being beaten and tortured while detained by security forces or at detention centers.

Since then, authorities have employed less violent methods but a more targeted approach, by detaining or harassing leading opposition members.

“Instead of talking to the people of #Belarus, the outgoing leadership is trying cynically eliminate one by one,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted Monday about what he called the kidnapping of Ms. Kalesnikava. “Stalinist NKVD methods are being applied in 21st century’s Europe,” he said, referring to the Soviet security agency.

Ms. Kalesnikava is the last left in Belarus of a trio of women that jointly challenged Mr. Lukashenko ahead of the Aug. 9 vote.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee Belarus for neighboring Lithuania shortly after the election. Veronika Tsepkalo has also left Belarus; she had joined Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s team after her husband, a former ambassador to the U.S., fled the country out of fear of arrest.


Updated: 9-8-2020

Belarusian Protest Leader Ripped Up Passport to Avoid Expulsion, Supporters Say

A critic of President Lukashenko, Maria Kalesnikava went missing Monday when opposition activists say she was abducted.

Maria Kalesnikava, one of the last core opposition leaders left in Belarus, was detained at the border with Ukraine after thwarting an attempt to expel her from the country, Ukrainian authorities and her supporters said, a day after she was allegedly abducted amid a crackdown on antigovernment protesters.

Pavel Latushko, an opposition member, said on his Instagram profile that Ms. Kalesnikava had stymied the attempt to force her to leave Belarus by tearing up her passport at the checkpoint.

Several prominent opposition figures have left the former Soviet state, some in fear of arrest, others by force, after longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed election in August.

Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said that Belarusian authorities had attempted to force Ms. Kalesnikava out of Belarus to weaken its opposition movement, which has organized weeks of mass protests against President Lukashenko.

“It wasn’t a voluntary trip,” Mr. Gerashchenko said in a Facebook post. “Maria Kalesnikava was not able to be removed from Belarus because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border.”

The Belarus State Border Committee said Tuesday that Ms. Kalesnikava was detained while attempting to cross overnight into Ukraine with two colleagues, who were allowed through. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service confirmed that the others were in Ukraine, while Ms. Kalesnikava hadn’t entered the country.

A vocal critic of Mr. Lukashenko, Ms. Kalesnikava was one of the principal figures behind the recent protests. The Coordination Council, a Belarusian opposition body formed in the wake of the election, said she and two other activists were kidnapped by unknown people from the center of Minsk early Monday. It later confirmed that her two colleagues are currently in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

Maria Kalesnikava has been one of the principal figures behind mass demonstrations following August’s disputed election.

Maria Kalesnikava, one of the last core opposition leaders left in Belarus, was detained at the border with Ukraine after thwarting an attempt to expel her from the country, Ukrainian authorities and her supporters said, a day after she was allegedly abducted amid a crackdown on antigovernment protesters.

Pavel Latushko, an opposition member, said on his Instagram profile that Ms. Kalesnikava had stymied the attempt to force her to leave Belarus by tearing up her passport at the checkpoint.

Several prominent opposition figures have left the former Soviet state, some in fear of arrest, others by force, after longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed election in August.

Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said that Belarusian authorities had attempted to force Ms. Kalesnikava out of Belarus to weaken its opposition movement, which has organized weeks of mass protests against President Lukashenko.

“It wasn’t a voluntary trip,” Mr. Gerashchenko said in a Facebook post. “Maria Kalesnikava was not able to be removed from Belarus because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border.”

The Belarus State Border Committee said Tuesday that Ms. Kalesnikava was detained while attempting to cross overnight into Ukraine with two colleagues, who were allowed through. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service confirmed that the others were in Ukraine, while Ms. Kalesnikava hadn’t entered the country.

A vocal critic of Mr. Lukashenko, Ms. Kalesnikava was one of the principal figures behind the recent protests. The Coordination Council, a Belarusian opposition body formed in the wake of the election, said she and two other activists were kidnapped by unknown people from the center of Minsk early Monday. It later confirmed that her two colleagues are currently in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

“We can confirm the fact that earlier Maria Kalesnikava was not planning to voluntarily leave Belarus,” the body said.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus for neighboring Lithuania shortly after the election, called for Ms. Kalesnikava’s immediate release.

“You can’t hold people hostage,” she said. “By kidnapping people in the middle of the day, Lukashenko demonstrates his weakness and fear.”

The reports of Ms. Kalesnikava’s alleged abduction drew condemnation from the European Union and came amid fears that the Belarusian government was stepping up its efforts to crack down on protests.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched in Minsk, demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down. Security forces detained 633 demonstrators, Belarusian authorities said.

After the Aug. 9 election, more than 7,000 people were detained for protesting, though nearly all were subsequently released. Human-rights researchers said they documented more than 500 cases of people being beaten and tortured while detained by security forces or in detention centers.

Since then, authorities have employed less violent, but more focused methods, targeting leading opposition members.

Several members of the Coordination Council have been detained, while Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has been summoned for questioning. Another council member, Olga Kovalkova, was forced to leave for Poland over the weekend, the opposition body said.

Updated: 9-22-2020

EU Hardens Stance Toward Belarus Leader Amid Talks on Sanctions

A majority of member states spoke in favor of targeting President Alexander Lukashenko with sanctions, according to diplomats.

Support is growing in Europe for targeting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with sanctions, as the European Union looks to toughen its response to the political crisis in the former Soviet republic.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers discussed hitting Mr. Lukashenko with a travel ban and asset freeze for his responsibility in the continued repression of peaceful protests.

EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell has already called for a rerun of Belarus’s August election, with the bloc saying the vote wasn’t free and fair. Mr. Borrell said last week that he no longer considers Mr. Lukashenko the legitimate leader of the country.

Until recently, EU leaders didn’t seriously consider sanctioning Mr. Lukashenko, who has accumulated huge power during his 26 years in charge. The bloc had prepared a sanctions package targeting around 40 people, excluding Mr. Lukashenko, but many capitals said it was important to maintain open channels to top leaders in Minsk.

The U.S. has kept Mr. Lukashenko under sanctions since 2006.

On Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said a rethink was necessary because large-scale protests were still being met with violence from the authorities and mass arrests were being made.

“We must also ask ourselves the question whether Mr. Lukashenko—the one who has the main responsibility—must not also be sanctioned by the European Union,” he said, ahead of Monday’s foreign ministers gathering in Brussels.

The three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—have already imposed unilateral sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and the European Parliament last week backed the moves. Diplomats said other countries, including Sweden, remain opposed for now.

Human-rights groups, political analysts and opposition activists say that during Mr. Lukashenko’s decades in charge, he has given security forces free rein to use arbitrary detentions, beatings and torture against those viewed as a threat to his power.

Around 7,000 people were detained for protesting immediately following the Aug. 9 vote, though nearly all were subsequently released.

The detentions have continued as protests against Mr. Lukashenko have flowed into their seventh week, often attracting more than 100,000 participants on Sundays.

Neither Mr. Lukashenko’s office nor Belarus’s Interior Ministry have responded to several requests from The Wall Street Journal for comment about the treatment of detainees and the strong-arm tactics of law-enforcement officers, though the ministry has previously apologized for how riot police treated protesters on the streets.

Foreign ministers discussed Belarus and Mr. Lukashenko on Monday, a few hours after meeting with one of Belarus’s main opposition leaders, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. A majority of member states spoke in favor of targeting Mr. Lukashenko, according to diplomats involved, but that fell far short of the unanimity required for such decisions.

“This is something that is still in discussion as a matter of tactics, as a matter of gradation,” Mr. Borrell said in a press conference after the talks.

EU policy toward Belarus has vacillated in recent years. In 2016, Mr. Lukashenko was one of about 170 people who had EU sanctions on them removed, amid hopes that he was easing pressure on opponents and looking to distance his country from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the election and Mr. Lukashenko’s appeals to Mr. Putin to help him restore order, the EU stance has made an about face. Mr. Lukashenko blames the protests on Western interference. The U.S. has broadened already wide sanctions against the Belarus leadership.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya appealed to European officials to be braver in confronting Belarusian authorities. Mr. Lukashenko has brushed off the threat and threatened counter measures, including restricting the transit of trade.

For weeks, the EU’s sanctions push against Belarus has been bogged down by foreign-policy differences, the latest sign of fragmentation in the bloc on geopolitical and security issues.

The EU initially struck a political agreement on a list of about 20 people at a meeting late August in Berlin. However, Cyprus has insisted that sanctions can only be approved once the EU adopts sanctions against Turkish officials over Ankara’s gas drilling off the Cypriot coast.

Mr. Borrell on Monday urged the EU’s governments not to keep its Belarus policy “in limbo” as violence in Belarus continues. That appeal came in vain, with Cyprus continuing to block a decision, although the EU foreign policy chief said he hoped EU leaders can provide “political guidance” to resolve the issue later this week when they meet.

He said afterward that failure to agree on sanctions by a meeting in early October would challenge the bloc’s foreign-policy credibility.

Updated: 9-28-2020

Russia’s Embrace Of Lukashenko Puts The West On Alert

NATO worries Putin’s push for military bases on Belarus’s territory could pressure the alliance’s weak northeast corner.

Russia’s tightening embrace of embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is raising concerns at NATO that the balance of military power in the alliance’s weak northeast corner could tip further in the Kremlin’s favor.

Western capitals have lambasted Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, for declaring himself the winner of a disputed election last month and cracking down on street protests. The U.S., U.K. and Canada are preparing sanctions. The European Union is debating similar moves.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is using Belarus’s crisis to press Mr. Lukashenko—who has long tried to use the EU as a hedge against Moscow’s overwhelming influence—to accede to Russian demands for greater sway, which have long included putting military bases on Belarusian territory.

That could position Russian forces as a pincer on either side of the 60-mile Polish-Lithuanian border, which is the only land route between the Baltic states and the rest of North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory. Dubbed the Suwalki Gap after the small Polish city in its middle, it is seen as the alliance’s weak point.

“Suwalki is much less of a concern if you don’t have Russian troops in Belarus,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “If you do, it’s a different calculation in terms of the time, speed and power they can bring.”

“It would dramatically change the calculations we have for the defense of the Baltics,” said a Lithuanian defense official. Belarus as a Russian buffer “gives us breathing space of a few days, which are vital.”

The protests against Mr. Lukashenko show no signs of dwindling despite the brutal police crackdown. The West has shown little of the support it did for Ukraine’s opposition in 2014, which eventually forced out a pro-Russian leader, sparking Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Since then, NATO has focused on increasing defense and deterrence on its eastern flank, primarily by stationing four multinational battalions totaling some 4,000 troops in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. NATO strategists worry about the Suwalki Gap because Russia’s military superiority in the region means it could seek quickly to cut the Baltics off from allied reinforcements by land.

“Securing the Suwalki Gap is regularly tested in allied exercises, and free movement of NATO forces within allied territory is an important part of our defense posture,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. NATO’s presence in the region is aimed at preventing conflict, she said, and the alliance “remains vigilant, defensive and prepared to deter any aggression against allies.”

Russia has also bolstered its military might in the region, particularly in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Its amphibious landing exercises from the Baltic Sea caused alarm earlier this year among Baltic states and prompted Sweden, a partner of NATO but not a member, to boost its military presence on its island of Gotland. Russia has denied any aggressive intent and accuses NATO of massing forces on Russia’s border.

The West had sought in recent years quietly to bolster the ability of Mr. Lukashenko’s government to resist Russia’s pressure for tighter integration. Belarus held joint training with 28 U.K. marines in March, but Mr. Lukashenko has since blamed NATO and Belarus’s neighbors for his domestic problems, suggesting they are trying to overthrow him.

The deterioration in ties between Minsk and the West has coincided with Mr. Lukashenko’s efforts to bolster his relations with Moscow, the only regional player whom the Belarus leader sees as a guarantor of his continued rule. Numerous calls have been made between Messrs. Putin and Lukashenko and the Belarus leader visited Sochi earlier this month in a display of loyalty.

“All these events have shown us that we need to have closer ties with our elder brother and cooperate on all issues,” Mr. Lukashenko said ahead of talks with Mr. Putin in Sochi.

The Kremlin has long craved more control over Belarus, where it already dominates the economy through gas and oil supplies and loans. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, to Belarus’s south, Mr. Lukashenko fended off Russian requests for an air force base on Belarusian territory. Mr. Lukashenko has also worked to slow Russian efforts to integrate the two countries’ militaries, intelligence services and economies.

“Lukashenko doesn’t have the space he had before for maneuver and Russia’s leverage over him is now higher than ever before,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin advisory board on defense and foreign policy.

Moscow, however, is aware of the danger of clinching too many agreements with a leader who has been rejected by his own people. After its experience in Ukraine, where Moscow saw popular support in that country turn against the Kremlin, Mr. Putin is careful not to swing sentiment against Russia and toward the West.

On the military front, Russia is already working toward greater cooperation.

Bilateral military exercises that were planned before the August elections started earlier this month, with live-fire drills and paratrooper landings with 1,000 Russian troops.

Those exercises, called Slavic Brotherhood 2020, ended on Sept. 25, but Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has suggested more drills in October.

NATO countries are also flexing their muscles.

Around 500 U.S. troops arrived in Lithuania this month, with armored vehicles including tanks for a near two-month deployment that includes live-fire exercises. The U.S. Army said it was a routine exercise and “is evidence of the strong and unremitting U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe.”

NATO’s defense plan relies on quickly reinforcing Europe in case of an attack. The U.S. had hoped to practice such an operation this year, in a large military exercise that had been set to involve 37,000 service members across Europe but was curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gen. Hodges, the former U.S. Army Europe commander, said Moscow may feel emboldened by squabbles and delays over Western sanctions on Belarus and questions over the U.S. commitment to Europe caused by plans to reduce U.S. troop numbers.

“The cohesion of NATO and the EU, the unmistakable U.S. commitment to Europe—that’s why Russia hasn’t attacked,” he said. When that is less evident, “the risk goes up,” he said.

Updated: 10-25-2020

Why Protesters In Belarus Continue To Take To The Streets By The Thousands

A miner, a teacher, an Olympic coach: Belarusians from all walks of life have united, hoping to pressure President Alexander Lukashenko to step down.

For almost three months, thousands of Belarusians from across the social spectrum have joined weekly protests demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko step down after 26 years in power, following an election in August that critics say was neither free nor fair.

The rallies often attract more than 100,000 people, who contend that the victory should have gone to opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya . They include a disparate assortment of civil servants, manual laborers, tech professionals, students and pensioners.

What unites them is growing anger with a leader who they say governs through fear, cronyism and a ruthless determination to stay in power. They say they are willing to take the risk of standing against Mr. Lukashenko, despite thousands of arrests, reports of torture and acts of retribution over the past few months.

Officials didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding claims that the government mistreats its citizens or takes revenge against those who oppose it.

Yuri Korzun , 42

Yuri Korzun had a job for life at Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest miners of potash fertilizer. He risked it by chaining himself to mining equipment 1,000 feet below ground in a one-man protest against what he said was Mr. Lukashenko’s cavalier response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lukashenko has largely dismissed the virus, despite contracting it himself. He has suggested vodka and dry saunas as suitable remedies and refused to limit border crossings or introduce social-distancing measures.

Mr. Korzun, however, spent 21 days quarantining at home when he was infected in August. A colleague died after contracting the disease, enraging him further.

“It was incomprehensible to me,” Mr. Korzun said. “I realized that…I must do everything to protest the fact that he was president.”

Mr. Korzun bought the handcuffs he used to attach himself to the mining machinery online. It took law enforcement hours to free him, after which he lost his job and the $1,500 a month that came with it—a sizable sum in a country where average monthly take home pay is $458. He was subsequently sentenced to 30 days in prison for participating in two unauthorized demonstrations.

“I have no regrets,” he said.

Tatyana Martinovich , 45

Tatyana Martinovich used to work as a criminal investigator with Belarus’s interior ministry. For years she didn’t question Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. But the country’s depleted economy began to weigh on her when she left work to look after one of her two adult children, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She says it is tough for the family financially. Their joint monthly allowance from the government amounts to around $220.

When she heard that Mr. Lukashenko had claimed victory in the Aug. 9 election with more than 80% of the vote, her anger boiled over, she said.

“It was nonsense,” she said. Since then she has attended almost all the Sunday protests with her disabled son, who is 21 and has gained a new sense of purpose from attending the events, she said.

“He doesn’t want to stay away,” she said. “It’s so important for him to be there. He lives from rally to rally.”

She has begun draping herself in the red-and-white flag of the opposition movement and hopes that things could change if Mr. Lukashenko were removed from power.

“This year, our nation woke up and there was an evolution of our country and of Belarusians in general, in their self-consciousness, judgment and reassessment of values,” Ms. Martinovich said.

Vladislav Shakhnovich , 22

As a high-school student, Vladislav Shakhnovich won a prestigious presidential award for his academic achievements. But now he says he can’t stand the sight of the certificate, carefully mounted in a red binder, and is ashamed of Mr. Lukashenko.

Now an English teacher living in the town of Smorgon, around 60 miles northwest of the capital city of Minsk, Mr. Shakhnovich says he was appalled by the way riot police treated protesters.

He blames Mr. Lukashenko for the flood of young people who have left the country in recent years to seek better opportunities, including some of his friends. Government data shows that annual emigration from the nation of 9.5 million more than doubled between 2014 and 2019 to almost 21,000 people from about 9,200.

In recent weeks, security forces have raided the offices of technology companies where staff and executives have supported the demonstrations, sometimes detaining employees. Some companies are now relocating employees to other countries out of fear for their safety.

Mr. Shakhnovich feels strongly about building a new Belarus and says it is his duty to stay and make the case for Mr. Lukashenko to stand down.

“One of the most respected acts a man could undertake is to accept defeat,” he said.

Nikolai Kozeko , 70

Olympic ski coach Nikolai Kozeko voted for Mr. Lukashenko in all six presidential elections since he first came to power in 1994. But the violence inflicted by riot police on protesters after the August vote disgusted him.

“It was a shock for me,” he said. “The notion that any dissent is generally unacceptable.”

Around 7,000 people were detained immediately after the election, according to information released by the interior ministry. Nearly all were subsequently released.

Human-rights groups have documented more than 500 cases of people being beaten and tortured while detained by security forces.

Political rivals have been jailed and many forced to flee, including Ms. Tikhanovskaya.

Mr. Kozeko, who has coached four Olympics gold medalists, signed a letter along with hundreds of other athletes and coaches demanding the elections be annulled. He was then ordered to repay a presidential grant worth more than $27,000.

“This is an absurd demand. It’s clearly political,” Mr. Kozeko said, complaining that Mr. Lukashenko has changed from the man of three decades ago, who railed against corruption and provided years of stability. “During 35 years of work, I had practically no complaints at all, only awards.”

Maksim Stashulionak , 29

When firefighter Maksim Stashulionak warned his neighbors that the government was planning to remove the protest flags from their apartments, the authorities retaliated by firing him from his post and giving him three days to vacate the rent-free government apartment he shares with his pregnant wife and child.

The red-and-white banners that have become a symbol of protest were used as the national flag before Belarus was absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Mr. Stashulionak said he sympathizes with the demonstrators and had grown disillusioned with the government.

“I don’t think I’m guilty. I don’t think I broke the law,” he said.

He said his superiors accused him of having disclosed national-security information on an online chat. The Ministry of Emergency Situations, which oversees the fire department, didn’t respond to a request for comment and his dismissal order, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, says he was terminated for committing an unspecified offense that violated his service contract.

Mr. Stashulionak has hired a lawyer to contest his eviction and remains in the apartment pending the outcome of his case. He has held off joining protests in the hope he might get his job back.

Updated: 11-13-2020

Belarus’ Largest Bank Reportedly Launches Crypto Exchange Service

Another bank is reportedly moving into crypto amid a major bull run in crypto markets.

Belarusbank, the largest financial institution in Belarus, is reportedly launching a cryptocurrency exchange service.

According to a Nov. 12 report by local news agency Prime Press, Belarusbank is rolling out a service allowing users to exchange cryptocurrency using a Visa payment card. As reported, the new service enables trading crypto against fiat currencies like the Belarusian ruble as well as the United States dollar and the euro.

Belarusbank executives reportedly said that the launch of the new crypto service comes in line with the company’s digital transformation program that was announced a few years ago.

The new service is reportedly available to citizens of Belarus and Russia. The bank is also planning to extend the list of countries supporting the service as well as the list of supported cryptocurrencies in the near future, the report notes.

According to the report, the new feature is a result of Belarusbank’s partnership with local crypto payment operator Whitebird. Prior to introducing the new service, the two companies reportedly partnered to jointly explore the crypto industry in 2018.

Belarusbank is apparently one of the first banks in Belarus pushing its own crypto service. The bank initially announced its plans to set up a crypto exchange in early 2019.

The development of crypto business in Belarus has been encouraged by local crypto-friendly regulation. As previously reported, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko signed a draft decree legalizing the use of digital currencies in late 2017.

Updated: 11-19-2020

Belarus KGB Puts Social-Media Channel Creators On Terrorist List

The Belarusian security service put the founder of the country’s most popular Telegram channel and its former chief editor on a terrorist watch list as President Alexander Lukashenko tries to stamp out continuing protests against claimed landslide re-election three months ago.

Nexta-Live founder Stsiapan Putsila, 22, and Raman Pratasevich, 25, are the only two Belarusian citizens on the list of more than 700 “individuals involved in terrorist activities” drawn up by the State Security Committee, still known as the KGB. Pratasevich left the channel in September.

Nexta-Live, with more than 1.8 million subscribers, was instrumental in covering the police brutality against protesters nationwide in August and demonstrations that regularly gathered more than 100,000 people in the capital alone.

The channel was designated as “extremist” in October, according to the state news agency Belta, making it illegal to distribute its content or display its logo in Belarus. The authorities are seeking to extradite Putsila and Pratasevich from Poland, Belta reported this week.

Almost 1,300 people were arrested on Sunday at the weekly rally in the capital, Minsk, according to human-rights center Viasna, which isn’t officially registered in the country. For the first time since the disputed Aug. 9 election, the opposition hasn’t called for a single major rally in Minsk on Sunday via popular telegram channels. Instead, people were urged to organize smaller local rallies.

Lukashenko has rejected criticism of the crackdown and on Thursday promoted a senior police official who had played an active role in dispersing and arresting protesters.

Updated: 2-26-2021

Belarusian Government Explores Potential Move Into Crypto Mining

The Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Belarus has launched an investigation into the potential pros and cons of crypto mining.

The Belarus state is studying the cryptocurrency industry for a potential move into mining digital coins like Bitcoin (BTC).

The Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Belarus officially announced Friday that it is actively exploring the pros and cons of cryptocurrency mining. Minister Viktor Karankevich said that the crypto mining industry is rapidly growing all over the world in countries like China, the United States, Canada and Russia.

The minister went on to say that the government is considering tapping into the mining industry following an investigation of the potential risks and other factors:

“This is a new direction for us now. It is interesting but in order to get started with it, we have to conduct a detailed study of this issue, including an assessment of possible risks associated with this kind of activity. We’re on this.”

The Belarusian government has been exploring the question of crypto mining for a while. In April 2019, President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly proposed to deploy excess energy from the country’s first nuclear power plant to mine cryptocurrencies and sell them.

Belarus has been trying to position itself as a cryptocurrency-friendly country in recent years. In 2017, Lukashenko signed a decree on the development of the digital economy, legalizing major crypto-related activities like mining, buying and selling, and trading crypto. In 2019, Belarusbank — the largest bank in Belarus — claimed that it was considering setting up a crypto exchange.

Updated: 5-24-2021

Why Turmoil In Belarus Is Spilling Over Its Borders

For 27 years, President Alexander Lukashenko has held onto power in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, using increasingly repressive methods. His critics and opponents have gotten louder, and more prominent, since Lukashenko claimed a sixth term following a disputed election in August 2020. Mass arrests, the forced grounding of a European Union flight and an Olympic sprinter fleeing the team to seek asylum in Poland have all focused international attention on the simmering crisis on the EU’s border.

1. Why Is Opposition To Lukashenko So Strong?

Discontent with Lukashenko, in office since Belarus’s first presidential election as an independent republic in 1994, has simmered for years as the state-dominated economy stagnated. Called “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has received financial and political support from Russia and repeatedly repressed political dissent.

Unrest in the East European country of 9.3 million people, sandwiched between Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states and Russia, intensified with the coronavirus outbreak, after the president rejected lockdown measures to slow the epidemic and dismissed health fears.

2. What Happened In The 2020 Election?

Lukashenko, who’s accustomed to landslide victories, appeared to be playing it safe by having key challengers detained or kept off the ballot. But Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and wife of a jailed opposition blogger, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was allowed to register. She drew huge crowds at rallies nationwide.

So when officials declared Lukashenko had won 80.2% of the vote with just 9.9% in her favor, public anger boiled over at suspected ballot fraud. Thousands took to the streets nightly in more than 30 towns and cities, defying riot police and calling for nationwide strikes.
More than 6,000 people were detained in the first three nights alone, sparking international condemnation, and Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania.

3. What’s Happened Since Then?

Belarusian authorities opened at least 4,600 criminal cases against opponents of Lukashenko. In July, Belarus’s Supreme Court sentenced the former head of a Kremlin-controlled bank who sought to challenge Lukashenko in the 2020 election to 14 years in jail.

Other activists, including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband and Maria Kalesnikava, who was prominent in the opposition’s campaign, have also gone on trial while many more are being kept under investigation in overcrowded remand prisons. In August 2021, police in Ukraine opened a murder probe after finding Belarusian opposition activist Vitaliy Shishov hanged in a Kyiv park, saying they were investigating whether his death was staged to look like a suicide.

4. Why Has The World Taken Notice?

A Belarusian sprinter, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, said she was pressured to leave the Olympic Games in Tokyo early for criticizing sporting officials from her country. Tsimanouskaya, who was taken to the airport against her will, was afraid to return home, where Lukashenko’s son Viktor runs the Olympic committee, and refused to board her flight. She sought protection and wound up receiving a visa to go to Poland.

In May, a Ryanair Holdings Plc plane flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk, where authorities arrested a passenger, journalist Raman Pratasevich, who rose to prominence covering the 2020 protests. He was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. Lithuania, which has offered shelter to many opposition figures from Belarus, accuses Lukashenko of channeling thousands of migrants, mainly from Iraq, across their border and is now planning to build a 508-kilometer (316-mile) fence to stop the flow.

5. What’s Been The Response?

The U.S., EU and U.K. all imposed sanctions on Belarus following the Ryanair incident and other developments. The EU measures hit petroleum products and potash fertilizers, the country’s two main sources of foreign-currency revenue, while the U.S. also targeted a Belarusian state-owned potash producer, the country’s Olympic committee, and business leaders and companies with ties to Lukashenko. The U.K. has barred Belarusian airlines from overflying or landing in the U.K. and prohibited purchases of transferable securities and money-market instruments issued by the Belarusian state.

6. Who Sides With Lukashenko?

Facing further sanctions and economic strain, Lukashenko has turned to his closest ally, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president offered him loans, energy supplies and, if needed, police support. Yet Putin has also shown a dislike for Lukashenko, whom Russia tried to undermine in elections in 2010, according to Kataryna Wolczuk, a Russia specialist at Chatham House, a London think tank.

Putin’s personal preference became irrelevant once street protests began, something he was not going to allow to succeed so close to home as Belarus. Russia views Belarus as perhaps its closest ally, a critical buffer against encroachment by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and EU toward its borders. Belarus was preparing for large-scale war games with Russia on its territory amid the mounting tensions with Lithuania.

Updated: 6-23-2021

U.S. Sanctions Senior Belarus Officials Allegedly Tied to Political Crackdown

U.S. and allies cite activities including flight diversion and arrest of dissident journalist.

The U.S. and its trans-Atlantic allies on Monday imposed financial sanctions against senior Belarus officials and police units the Biden administration said are responsible for escalating political repression, including the forced diversion of a commercial airline carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his subsequent arrest in May.

The sanctions mark a significant expansion of pressure by the Biden administration as it coordinates joint action with the European Union and other Western governments against the political crackdown by the former Soviet state’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

“We are united in our deep concern regarding the Lukashenko regime’s continuing attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms, and international law,” the U.S., the EU, the U.K. and Canada said in a joint statement accompanying the sanctions.

The statement cited the arrest last month of Mr. Protasevich and his companion after Mr. Lukashenko forced the Ryanair flight carrying them through Belarusian airspace to land in Minsk.

The Belarus Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Lukashenko and his officials have rejected Western government criticism and called their collective actions a campaign of hybrid warfare against his administration.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctions are against 16 individuals, including senior Lukashenko administration officials, the head of the country’s National Assembly and observers who certified presidential elections last year that most Western nations have deemed fraudulent. The move comes on top of State Department actions barring dozens of Belarusian officials from entering the U.S.

The U.S. sanctions bar U.S. businesses, banks and individuals from transacting with those individuals blacklisted and freeze any assets the individuals may have within U.S. jurisdiction.

The Treasury also sanctioned five government entities, including Ministry of Interior troops and other law-enforcement units the U.S. says are responsible for carrying out the repression. The State Department also added several dozen more Belarusian officials to its blacklist of individuals barred from entering the U.S.

The EU issued its fourth round of sanctions on Monday against the Belarusian government, putting the total number of individuals and entities sanctioned by the union at 181.

Updated: 8-9-2021

Biden Adds Belarus Sanctions On Election’s Anniversary

The Biden administration imposed new sanctions Monday targeting a Belarusian state-owned potash producer, the country’s Olympic committee, and business leaders and companies with ties to President Alexander Lukashenko.

The sanctions came on the one-year anniversary of the country’s presidential election, which has been widely condemned by the U.S. and European Union as fraudulent and prompted weekly protests in the Eastern European nation.

The U.S. penalties target Belaruskali OAO, one of Belarus’s largest state-owned enterprises, and fifteen companies with ties to Lukashenko. The penalties come in addition to sanctions imposed earlier this year against Belarus after the forced diversion of a Ryanair Holdings Plc flight so that police could arrest Raman Pratasevich, a journalist who covered protests over Lukashenko’s election.

“From detaining thousands of peaceful protesters, to imprisoning more than 500 activists, civil society leaders, and journalists as political prisoners, to forcing the diversion of an international flight in an affront to global norms, the actions of the Lukashenko regime are an illegitimate effort to hold on to power at any price,” President Joe Biden said Monday in a statement.

The movement by the U.S. matches similar penalties imposed earlier Monday by the U.K. That country’s sanctions prevent Belarusian air carriers from overflying or landing in the U.K. and impose a prohibition on purchases of transferable securities and money-market instruments issued by the Belarusian state. Lukashenko accused the British government of being lapdogs to the U.S. at a subsequent press conference where he dismissed the sanctions.

Potash is one of Belarus’s major exports and the country’s only abundant mineral resource. New sanctions could spur further gains in the price of the soil nutrient, said Elena Sakhnova, a VTB Capital analyst.

“Belaruskali sells only 10% of potash to the U.S., but the risk of the cross sanctions may prevent other clients from doing business with the company, as it was in the case with Russian aluminum producer Rusal several years back,” Sakhnova said.

Though this would be bad news for farmers, North American potash producers like Nutrien Ltd. and Russian producer Uralkali could benefit, Sakhnova said.

The sanctions “will firm further the potash floor in a market still clamoring for tons even as U.S. corn-belt potash prices are up 96% year to date,” Bloomberg Intelligence Analyst Alexis Maxwell said.

Updated: 9-1-2021

Belarus President Lukashenko Calls On State To Mine Cryptocurrency

Belarus has lots of abandoned industrial sites that could be used to generate revenue through cryptocurrency mining, the Belarusian president said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has called on the government to mine cryptocurrency use spare power infrastructure.

Lukashenko spoke at the opening of the Petrikovsky mining and processing plant on Aug. 27, urging workers to move into crypto mining in Belarus instead of pursuing low-paying farming positions abroad, Russian news agency RBC reported.

The president said that Belarus has enough electricity resources to power cryptocurrency mining, pointing to abandoned industrial sites that could be used to generate revenue. Lukashenko stated:

“We must understand, they are not waiting for us anywhere […] Build something based on electricity. After all, start mining cryptocurrencies or whatever it’s called. There is enough electricity in the country.”

The Petrikovsky plant is officially the largest investment project of state-owned Belaruskali, one of the world’s biggest producers of potash fertilizers, reportedly accounting for 20% of global supply as of 2019. The sole Belarusian potash exporter, Belaruskali was sanctioned by the United States government in mid-August, among other punitive measures against President Lukashenko.

Lukashenko’s latest call for crypto mining follows multiple efforts of the Belarusian government to move into the growing cryptocurrency mining industry. In February, the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Belarus said that it was investigating the risks and benefits of crypto mining for a potential move into the sector. In April 2019, Lukashenko proposed to deploy excess energy from the country’s first nuclear power plant to mine cryptocurrencies and sell them.

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