The Ex-Cops Trying To Take Down Europe's Last Dictator

A secretive group of cops turned activists is taking on a regime's brutal security forces. And they believe they can win.
March 19, 2021, 3:18pm
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Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Image

The idea was as shocking as it was specific: Herd protesters into an internment camp cordoned off by barbed wire and divided into two separate areas, one of which would be dedicated to labour. “We need to keep them there until it all calms down,” insists the voice in the grainy audio recording.

The voice in the recording is said to belong to the second highest-ranking police official in Belarus, Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Karpenkov, then the head of a specialised crime-fighting unit, and it was leaked earlier this year by a group of exiled ex-cops who call themselves BYPOL. It’s unclear whether any plans were in place, but the mere suggestion was disturbing enough.

This is the reality of the situation in the crisis-ridden former Soviet republic, where pro-democracy demonstrators are seen as “terrorists” to be neutralised. After all, as Karpenkov allegedly says in the clip, “these are unnecessary people in our country.”

After widespread protests spoiled what was meant to be a routine reelection last August, President Alexander Lukashenko, widely known as the last dictator in Europe, unleashed a wave of repression that, to date, has ensnared tens of thousands of people. The capacity and dedication of his security forces have almost single-handedly kept the mustachioed strongman in power, tamping down the explosion of mass rallies in central Minsk into sporadic localised demonstrations.

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But now opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is calling from exile for new protests starting next week, and many fear another bloody showdown between protesters and police is looming.

Tikhanovskaya may have a secret weapon in BYPOL. By collecting and occasionally publishing intelligence from former colleagues on the inside, such as the alleged recording of Karpenkov, the remotely-based group is hoping to both outwit the regime and build an international case against it. It’s an integral part of the opposition’s strategy to pressure Lukashenko from abroad by coordinating with compatriots back home.

That, BYPOL members hope, will help sustain a movement that’s threatening to peter out. “If we stay quiet, we’ll all be sent to those camps and no one one will help us,” Vladimir Zhyhar, a BYPOL member and former police operative from southern Belarus, tells VICE World News.

Formed after last year’s protests as a support network to help cops defect, as well as a hive mind for police reforms, BYPOL has increasingly focused on collecting incriminating or otherwise valuable information on their former bosses and colleagues. The Karpenkov leak – which VICE World News could not independently verify, but was confirmed as authentic by local media – is only one example of its work. 

It’s also gathering evidence of police abuse in a universal register, hoping it’ll eventually be used to prosecute those responsible for ordering and carrying out state-sponsored violence. Among the most high-profile instances was the November beating death of 31-year-old artist Roman Bondarenko by plainclothes officers; BYPOL claims to have identified multiple people complicit in his death.

Just this month, the group published the personal information of every member of the Interior Ministry’s elite organised crime unit, which has played a leading role in hunting down and persecuting the politically active. In a note to its more than 35,000 subscribers on Telegram, BYPOL urged Belarusians to reach out to those officials and mark their homes and cars with identifying signs.

The group is tight-lipped about its size, and only five members are public-facing. But Zhyhar – who resigned from his police operative role just before last year’s election after facing pressure for his political activism – says law enforcement personnel write to them every day through secure channels of communication, such as Telegram and ProtonMail. “There’s probably not a single police department in Belarus that doesn’t have at least someone who’s reached out to us,” he says. The group claims to have penetrated many branches of Lukashenko’s sprawling security apparatus, including the feared KGB.

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A woman lays flowers at the feet of a police officer in Belarus last August. Photo: SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

A key part of its effort is to seed doubt among officials about the legitimacy of their purpose, with the ultimate goal of sparking defections. Besides enjoying a stable paycheck – and often being on the hook for the education they’re provided in exchange for their service – Belarusian police undergo Soviet-style ideological training. The notoriously brutal OMON riot police, which spearheaded last summer’s crackdown, are fanatically devoted to crushing the regime’s perceived enemies.

But some experts say bringing police and other security officials onside might not be as difficult as it might seem.

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According to Vlad Kobets, executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS), members of the same new generation of Belarusians that’s driven the protests – drawn to the internet over propaganda-heavy state TV – occupy official posts, too. That suggests momentum could build from the inside. “It has totally changed the usual socio-political landscape,” he said in written comments. 

Kobets’ organization, a pro-democracy think tank focusing on Eastern Europe, has used BYPOL’s intelligence to conduct several analyses, including a recent report detailing the mostly Russian-supplied, military-grade arsenal police used during their dispersal of protests.

It’s difficult to assess just how many defections have taken place, though Zhyhar says the number hovers between 600 and 700 (out of the tens of thousands of estimated law enforcement employees). Either way, there are signs that the authorities have been rattled by BYPOL’s work: Zhyhar claims the homes of both his and his wife’s parents were searched last month.

“They simply can’t ignore us anymore,” he says. 

Before last summer, only a small core of opposition-minded Belarusians would turn out at protests in the tightly-controlled republic. The story was always the same: Gather on a city square – usually to decry rigged elections strengthening Lukashenko’s rule – then get busted up by police. Political opposition had been thoroughly marginalised during Lukashenko’s two-and-a-half decades in power.

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But an economic downturn and Lukashenko’s failure to address the coronavirus pandemic began stirring serious discontent last spring. The arrest of popular anti-regime figures, such as video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, Tikhanovskaya’s husband, who was barred from running for president, drew further anger. Watching Lukashenko orchestrate an improbable 80 percent margin of victory in the August election seemed to be the breaking point for many Belarusians.

Yet as they spilled into the streets across Minsk and other cities over the following days, police responded with stunning force. Protesters were beaten by the hundreds and manhandled into paddy wagons by the thousands, while evidence of severe abuse against detainees trickled out, shocking the nation and drawing worldwide rebuke. Both Zhyhar and I were detained during this crackdown; we met while imprisoned outside Minsk.

Since then, the once-massive movement has turned into something of a cat-and-mouse game, with determined demonstrators staging spontaneous marches around their apartment blocks and planting red-and-white flags — used by the early 20th-century Belarusian People’s Republic — only for police to tear them down.

The regime’s judicial system has been busy, too: It has jailed nearly 300 people on political grounds, human rights activists say, including a pair of journalists who will spend two years behind bars for covering a rally. The punishment for protesting and displaying banned symbols has also been strengthened. 

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There is a feeling that Lukashenko has prevailed while the opposition leadership, scattered across foreign cities, is still scrambling for a strategy. “Back in August, most people thought it would be enough to gather big crowds, and that the regime would fall or that it would start negotiating with the opposition,” says Katia Glod, an expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Now, she adds, “people feel very powerless.”

The international community has stepped in, slapping several rounds of sanctions on Lukashenko and regime loyalists while welcoming Tikhanovskaya as she tours Western capitals, but such measures have proven insufficient.

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A woman stands by as riot police move past her against protesters following last year's disputed election. Photo: SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

With virtually no experience in ground-level organising or political campaigning, thanks to the stifling environment at home under Lukashenko, groups such as BYPOL – one of numerous grassroots organisations to have cropped up since last year – face a unique challenge. Still, Glod says the adverse circumstances could be a potentially useful trial by fire for an opposition movement that’s maturing as it goes.

What happens later this month – when demonstrators have been called to hit the streets to mark the 103rd anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic on the 25th of March – is anyone’s guess. 

After months of watching the Lukashenko regime crush virtually every form of dissent, the opposition faces a dilemma: To regain the momentum, it must ask Belarusians to potentially sacrifice their safety once more. Even then, it’s far from clear whether would-be protesters will heed Tikhanovskaya’s call after six months of violence and repression.

For its part, BYPOL is expanding its effort to provide actionable information, such as recommendations about how to deal with police during encounters and insights into how security forces are preparing for new protests. Last week, it leaked a purported Interior Ministry directive urging the military to boost its readiness – prompting scores of soldiers to turn to BYPOL, according to Zhyhar. The group is also teaming up with the popular opposition portal NEXTA, which recently published an explosive investigative film about Lukashenko’s alleged riches, to coordinate acts of resistance.

Still, it’s just one branch of a scattered opposition that’s facing the seemingly insurmountable task of toppling a deeply entrenched dictator. The main challenge for the movement, says Glod, the CEPA analyst, is to do the tedious work of political organising in a country where institutions have been mostly hollowed out. “If you want to come to power as a political force, you have to build networks of trust, you have to persuade people,” she says. 

Back in Belarus, the opposition’s fledgling Coordinating Committee is doing just that, having formed working groups to address everything from labour rights to the embattled Belarusian language. Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya this week unveiled a nationwide online vote to spur the international community into mediating talks between Lukashenko and the opposition. Only time will tell whether either of these efforts attract enough popular backing.

Despite the uphill battle, BYPOL members seem confident about their contribution to the movement. Describing their mood, Zhyhar invokes a phrase popularized during Poland’s pro-democracy labour movement of the 1980s: “Winter is yours, but the spring will be ours.”

“It’s exactly the same with us,” he says.