In recent days, there has been a sharp escalation of conflict in our region, including the spillover of military actions into Russian territory.

We will refrain from reiterating the widely known facts regarding the “liberation” marsh by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group on Moscow. However, we aim to present our analysis of the situation, drawing from our expertise, and highlight the prevailing consequences that are currently unfolding for all of us.

It so happened that the human rights center Our House was one of only two organizations in Belarus that systematically addressed violations of (non-political) prisoners’ rights in Belarus and the only organization in Belarus that dedicated to advocating for the rights of incarcerated children.

Currently, Our House essentially remains the sole civil society expert on the criminal culture of our region, as the Belarusian regime managed to almost completely smash the second human rights organization engaged in protecting the rights of prisoners.

What is changing in our region now, after the laud and scandalous “relocation” of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group to Belarus?

In Russia:

  1. There is a growing romanticization of violence in our region. Previously, there was a romanticization of war and military culture, which is understandable, as it is difficult to recruit people for war without it. However, in these past few days, there has been an active romanticization of the criminal underworld culture, which opposes and challenges the culture of civilization and law. An important aspect to consider is that in the USSR, criminal culture stood in direct opposition to Soviet culture. This means that intergenerational memory and trigger points have already begun to influence the current situation, further complicating processes in the region A revival of the criminal culture, born out of the Gulag and permeating Soviet society throughout the 20th century, has begun, triggering a collective trauma that still echoes today. This psychological trauma was not “healed” after the collapse of the USSR and is once again making its presence felt. Non-political prisoners (“bratva”) become heroes in the public eye, fighters for truth and justice, challenging the entire system – rotten, stuck in corruption and civilisational depravity. They are sympathized with, greeted with flowers, and secretly loved.
  2. Due to their massiveness and shared cultural identity, Russian prisoners have become another revolutionary and rebellious group, dissatisfied with the lawlessness of the system, torture, and cruel treatment in prisons, yet willing and capable of resorting to violence. Prison “families” form a distinct “brotherhood,” and those who have experienced war and lost their “brothers” within these “brotherhoods” become even more tightly bonded.
  3. The process of transforming criminal brotherhood into a kind of “knightly order” with its own counterculture of “male honor” has intensified. As we can see, Yevgeny Prigozhin played on that in his appeals: “unlike the Russian authorities, WE do not kill women and children”, by “WE” referring to the criminals associated with Wagner. The popularity of this counterculture will rapidly grow in our region due to the social extremism of the Putin and Lukashenko dictatorships. The situation remotely resembles what happened during the Stalinist dictatorship, which gave rise to unprecedented mass and prolonged concentration of millions of people in prison camps (up to 16-18 million in the mid-1930s). Back then, unprecedented violence and cruelty, high concentration of prisoners, and the multi-decade (1930s-1980s) use of mass prisons, including collective barrack accommodation for hundreds of thousands and millions of people, contributed to the resilience and endurance of this group culture. Today, all these processes of genetic memory are activated, and their uncontrollable spread is underway.
  4. In the criminal hierarchy, all individuals are divided into distinct castes. The highest caste consists of “thieves-in-law”, who are the leaders, ideologists, and judges of the criminal world. They have undergone a special procedure known as “coronation”. Below them are the “respected individuals” or “goodfellas, who form the upper caste of the criminal world. These are men who have proven their masculinity, although there are also different castes and groups within this category. The lower caste consists of “people” – regular male inmates who live by their own principles but do not belong to the privileged castes of the criminal community. “Barigi” are entrepreneurs and those obsessed with money. They are despised, and it is considered acceptable to strip them of their wealth, take their money, rob them, and so on. The “non-people” caste, the lowest caste, includes women, LGBTQ individuals, “sherstiugans”(informers), “red” (former law enforcement officers), and others.
  5. The most significant difference between “thieves-in-law” leaders of the criminal world compared to political and military leaders in a normal society is that their position constantly depends on the success of fulfilling their main role – being the embodiment of “living by notions” and a role model for the entire vast criminal community. Hundreds of thousands of eyes of former and current prisoners are watching their every move, and even the slightest mistake can often lead to their “exposure” and subsequent murder. But in return for such delicate balancing, they gain authority that no leader or politician in civilized society can achieve. They are worshipped, and their words are obeyed unquestioningly, with people willing to die for them and actually dying. There are examples where, by the order of the “thieves-in-law”, prisoners would open their stomachs and cut their veins. “Thieves-in-law” are walking idols, semi-gods, and they must daily reaffirm their status as the most independent, “unbound” by all societal conventions, including property and family, the most resolute, ruthlessly cruel, and the most honest within the “brotherhood”.
  6. Over these few days, Evgeny Prigozhin has risen to the status of such a “semi-god” in the eyes of Russian society that people were willing to kill for him and die for him without hesitation or doubt. Could Prigozhin “take Moscow”? Yes, he could, and he would have. Simply put, there was no one fundamentally resisting him. The security forces, particularly the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), also operate according to criminal concepts. The army couldn’t defend Moscow because key elements of military units were engaged in the war in Ukraine; they were not present in Moscow, and they wouldn’t have been able to arrive in time. Additionally, prison riots had already started in Russia. Vladimir Putin lacked the authority to quell the uprising with his word alone. In the eyes of the criminal world, Putin is considered “trash” or a former KGB officer with whom you cannot negotiate according to thieves’ concepts.
  7. However, the seemingly all-powerful Prigozhin, in the evening of Sunday, June 24, just tens of kilometers away from Moscow, instantaneously lost his authority and reputation when he went for negotiations with Putin. There were several reasons for this:
    a. “Thieves-in-law” do not negotiate with law enforcement agencies and “trash” (former KGB agents). Criminal leaders who engage in such negotiations instantly lose their status and become subject to destruction.
    b. Yevgeny Prigozhin negotiated bonuses and immunity only for himself and his close associates. Harsh repressions begin against all his supporters in Russia, including the military units that sided with him. According to the concepts of the criminal world, it is expected that not only is a person ready to die for the “brotherhood”, but the “brotherhood” is also ready to die for that person, defending him. Therefore, in the eyes of the entire criminal world, Prigozhin transformed from a semi-god into a representative of the lowest caste, a “non-people”, in just one evening. The only punishment in the criminal world for such a cruel disappointment is death. Now, Prigozhin needs to fear revenge and assassination attempts from his former supporters. This is evidenced by the public appeals of former prisoners to Evgeny Prigozhin, without masks and with open faces, who publicly called him a “sherstuygan” and “woollen”. “Sherstuygans”/”wollen” are called prisoners who live in special prison cells (so called “press-houses”), those who have collaborated with law enforcement in their repressions against their prisoners, traitors, and unscrupulous prisoners who are used by the prison administration for its dirty needs and purposes. “Press-houses” are special cells in prisons where prisoners are thrown to break them. In “press-houses”, prisoners are beaten, sexually assaulted repeatedly, and subjected to abuse by other prisoners who constantly live there and do not leave. Those prisoners who rape and torture others in “press-houses” are called “sherstuygans” or “wollen” If a “sherstuygan” ends up in a regular cell, they will be immediately killed. To label a “respected person” as a “sherstuygan” is a deadly insult according to the concepts of the criminal world. A deadly insult in the criminal world is washed away with blood, meaning that Prigozhin must either kill those who insulted him and immediately make amends, or accept this title with the risk of being killed at any moment by anyone who shares the concepts of the criminal world.
  8. The question of responsibility for the 13 pilots killed by the Wagner group (for those killings Prigozhin received personal amnesty from Putin) remains open in society. Since prisoners are often men from marginalized and vulnerable layers of society, lacking access to social benefits, resources, and education, the unpunished killing of the 13 pilots by the Wagner group and subsequent Putin’s personal amnesty creates conditions for the strengthening of leftist ideas in society. As there is a clear example here: many members of society commit crimes, but only the poor or those without adequate protection from “high and mighty” are held criminally responsibility. It turns out that privileged white men with money and power easily escape responsibility, while only the poor and unprotected segments of the population bear it. This provides a basis for the emergence of a revolutionary situation and revolutionary sentiments in the already highly destabilized Russian society.
  9. In Russian society in recent days, there has been a demand for the emergence of a new type of leader – someone who lives by the principles of the criminal world, challenges civilized rules of communication, demonstrates extreme violence, and own understanding of justice. Time will show who will exploit this public demand in Russia.

In Belarus:

  1. The Belarusian opposition had a unique window of opportunity throughout the day of the Prigozhin campaign, which no one took advantage of.
  2. This has been recognized by everyonel, and the Belarusian opposition is facing substantial reputational damage, particularly in light of recent prominent corruption scandals within the Tikhanovskaya team.
  3. During those twenty-four hours when the situation in Russia remained uncertain, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had a unique opportunity to propel her “Peramoga” plan into action. For the past three years, she had touted it as the only viable solution and urged Belarusians to join. However, the events of this weekend exposed it as a fabrication; the “Peramoga” plan simply does not exist. Nevertheless, it is crucial to highlight that there are currently several hundred individuals imprisoned in Belarus who genuinely believed in the plan and responded to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s calls, providing their contact details. Sadly, somehow their information ended up in the hands of the KGB. Surprisingly, no one from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s team has taken responsibility for the compromised data of the Belarusian protest activists, thus far.
  4. Alexander Lukashenko has strengthened his internal legitimacy and enhanced his political weight as a negotiator in resolving the most complex conflict of the Russian government. At this point, whether his role was technical or real is less important; what matters is his participation in the plan to settle the conflict, which could lead to unpredictable consequences in Russia. Belarus is being further drawn into Russia’s sphere of influence, but Lukashenko himself has strengthened his position in this situation, including among his security forces, who had also closely monitored the situation in Russia.
  5. Belarusian law enforcement officers, who perceive Russians as more aggressive and prone to violence, did not want to be part of the armed stage of this conflict. Lukashenko’s authority within the Belarusian security forces as someone capable of “solving everything” has strengthened and grown, further solidifying their personal loyalty to Lukashenko within Belarus.
  6. However, there is also some unfortunate news for the security forces: the popularity of criminal culture will also begin to rise in Belarus. At least partly because the Wagner group is the only group in Belarus that the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPik) will be afraid to touch. GUBOPik has gained a reputation for lawlessness, cruelty, and looting against the civilian population. Currently, two centers of power are being formed in Belarus, both relying on weapons and violence as a means to resolve any issues. Clashes between these two groups are inevitable over time, and with the growing animosity towards GUBOPik, the popularity of Wagner will only continue to increase in Belarus.

In the region as a whole:

  1. There is expected to be a significant weakening of women, women’s initiatives, and a narrowing of space for female activity and leadership. The growing popularity of criminal culture leaves no room for female leadership and activism in general. Women in the criminal culture are considered “non-people” belonging to the lowest caste. They are not engaged in negotiations or discussions, but rather treated as objects devoid of rights, fit only for reproduction and sex. This is an extremely negative and active trend for our region, which needs to be vigorously addressed.
  2. The only window of opportunity for women’s initiatives is in the field of human rights. The criminal world makes an exception for women with recognized status as “mothers, i.e. active recognised human rights defenders. Criminal elements maintain some level of recognition and subjectivity towards them. This is the only category of women who may be listened to some extent and whose advice can be guided by.
  3. It will be a very difficult time for the LGBT community, as LGBT people are treated even worse than women in the criminal environment.
  4. The role model of the abuser will be further strengthened, and the concept of “male honor” or “a man’s word” will be formed in public opinion, where the punishment for its violation is death. It will be interesting to see how long Prigozhin can survive under protection and how many assassination attempts will be made on him in the near future. The “male honor” of the criminal world will be highly contrasted with democratic politicians who cannot or do not want to fulfill their promises. The popularity of criminal culture in the region will only continue to grow.
  5. In the region, Poland demonstrated the highest level of professionalism, including the high competence of its intelligence services. Polish President Duda ordered the army to be put on heightened combat readiness,presumably due to the movement of Wagner and Prigozhin into Belarus when negotiations between Prigozhin and Putin had just begun. Though such a course of action was likely not the most obvious solution at that time.
  6. Neighboring countries of Belarus should expect provocations from the Wagner group for several reasons:
    a. The nature of the men in the Wagner group is such that if they are not engaged in some activities, they will resort to drinking, causing trouble, and becoming uncontrollable. It is quite challenging to control unruly armed men. Prigozhin and Lukashenko will have to come up with ways to keep them occupied. The easiest option in this situation is to scheme against neighboring countries. This assumes that Prigozhin brings a certain number of Wagner fighters with him.
    b. The Wagner fighters have become disappointed and frustrated with the “deals” of Prigozhin, which have undermined his leadership authority. Now, their obedience is based solely on money, which poses a deadly danger to Prigozhin personally. In criminal terms, money is not the main concern; “manly honor” is. If Prigozhin doesn’t immediately come up with a new external enemy, his life is at risk as his own mercenaries may kill him for violating the principles of the criminal world. Therefore, Prigozhin urgently needs an external enemy onto whom he can divert the collective frustration of the Wagner group.

What should we do:

  1. We need to actively create counterbalances to the culture of violence, and it should be done promptly. The fact that the culture of violence is being divided into subcultures – military and criminal – indicates the growth and popularization of the culture of violence. In this situation, the division into subcultures is a natural process. Currently, no alternative to the culture of violence is being created. On the contrary, the culture of non-violence, peace, and pacifism is being ostracized and subjected to hatred from all sides, including the Belarusian opposition movement, where the dominant narrative is about the violent overthrow of the Belarusian regime. The fact that different subcultures of violence are fighting among themselves for living space indicates that there will be less and less space left for us.
  2. We should refrain from half-hearted strategies. One of the crucial things is to avoid such approaches. Selecting a half-hearted strategy would only reinforce narratives of militarism and violence culture, inadvertently attracting new followers to the culture of violence from those who mistakenly believe they are supporting a culture of peace.
  3. Actively promote the humanization of society and a culture of peace. It is essential to humanize our region’s society and spread the peace culture in its widest sense, including active work with victims of torture and ex-prisoners/ex-military personnel, protecting human rights as a universal standard for all without exception. Now is the time for the non-violent movement to intensify its presence in the region, especially in areas that are currently overlooked, such as the protection of women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights, environmental issues, and climate change. This serves as a counterbalance to the patriarchal culture of violence.

Today, we are at risk of losing all the achievements of our civilization in the region and experiencing a significant regression in understanding human rights and conceptualizing human rights principles.

We kindly invite everyone to engage in a discussion regarding the Our House’s strategy for promoting peace and security in the region. We sincerely welcome collaborative efforts across all areas and look forward to fruitful cooperation.