Earlier this week, several Belarusian opposition figures were arrested in their home country and in neighboring Russia. The two nations made it clear that those arrested are all suspected of plotting an armed insurrection against President Alexander Lukashenko, whose long grip on power was challenged last year by mass protests. Members of the alleged conspiracy, who remain free, dismissed the accusations and said they were simply fantasizing about Lukashenko’s downfall.
The existence of an alleged plot to kill Lukashenko, other top Belarusian officials, and even their family members was revealed on Saturday. In Minsk, the national broadcaster ONT ran a story naming suspected conspirators and exposing their plans. The report offered as evidence several clips of what appears to be Zoom meetings between them.
In one, political scientist and commentator Aleksandr Feduta mentions the death of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as an event that led to a “successful rotation” of national leadership. Sadat was assassinated during a military parade in 1981 by Islamist members of Egyptian armed forces unhappy with his rapprochement with Israel.
In another discussion, lawyer Yury Zenkovich imagined telling somebody: “Let us now finish off Luka, and decide who will rule Belarus later” at the ballot box. In yet another segment, the pair discussed how to ensure the loyalty of officials after a coup by threatening dissenters with prosecution.
Both people were arrested in Moscow this week, the FSB, Russia’s security service, announced on Sunday. The agency said it was tipped off by their counterparts in the Belarussian KGB that Zenkovich and Feduta were going to Moscow to meet people they believed to be “Belarusian generals” ready to turn against Lukashenko.
The plan discussed at the meeting, as described by the FSB, involved killing “almost the entire leadership” of Belarus, a military coup, and a power blackout of the entire country. “It was suggested that the active phase would be launched by some armed groups (‘partisans’), who are currently stationed at ‘secret bases’,” the FSB reported. The action was reportedly scheduled for May 9, when Belarus holds a military parade dedicated to the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
Hidden camera footage of what appeared to be the meeting in Moscow was aired by the ONT in its expose. In it, Zenkovich and Feduta detailed their suggestions on how to conduct a successful armed coup. They said Lukashenko needs to be “disposed of” and at least 30 in Minsk – presumably top officials – need to be “interned literally within the first hour.”
Lukashenko himself spoke to the media to explain how his various opponents were plotting against him and his two sons. The group that includes Zenkovich and Feduta was “definitely the work of foreign intelligence,” he claimed, “most likely the CIA or the FBI.”
Lukashenko claimed that Zenkovich was an “American agent.” The lawyer has dual US-Belarusian citizenship and has been living in America for well over a decade. The president confirmed that the arrest earlier this week of Grigory Kortusyov, the leader of the opposition political Party BNF, was part of the move against the same alleged conspiracy. Zenkovich was a prominent member of the same party and held elected office on a local council before emigrating to the US.
Russian TV channel Rossiya 1 showed more of the hidden camera footage on Sunday. In it, Feduta suggested that a post-coup Belarus should be governed by a state council consisting of leaders of all registered political parties, while democracy was “grown up” from local self-governance.
He and Zenkovich suggested they should “curate” the likes of the press, the courts, the parliament, the justice and education ministries, the central election commission, and the development of a new constitution. Zenkovich implied a coup could be financially profitable for participants, saying Lukashenko must have a nest egg somewhere that “can be simply taken, quietly, if the occasion arises.”
The scale of the threat posed to the Belarusian government by the suspected plot is up for debate. The Zoom meetings shown in the ONT story included a total of seven people, including the three arrested individuals. One of the four others is Pavel Kulazhenko, who lives in New York. He said he and others were not part of a conspiracy but rather an online discussion club. They spoke about “the same things that are discussed every evening in every Belarusian family – how to speed up Lukashenko’s retirement,” he said.
Another individual, Seattle-based Aleksandr Perepichko, said a coup was “a prime way to get rid of a bloody dictatorship” and that “it would have been unprofessional not to discuss various scenarios for regime change in Belarus.” He denied Belarusian claims that the alleged plotters went further than venting their dislike of Lukashenko’s rule on Zoom. The ONT report claimed the ringleaders had received foreign money for their operation against the Belarusian president.
Last year, Lukashenko was re-elected as president of Belarus for a sixth consecutive term. Opposition forces claimed the vote was rigged and launched a months-long mass protest campaign, demanding that he step down. Lukashenko responded with a heavy-handed police crackdown and accusations against his detractors, who, he claimed, were trying to topple him with the backing of Western powers as had occurred in Ukraine.
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