Andrey Astapovich was a police investigator in Belarus when he publicly announced his defection from the service in August and exhorted his countrymen to “expel the dictator.”
Now, as he awaits the results of an asylum request from the Polish government, the 27-year-old is heading up a group of defectors from Belarusian law enforcement who are working to hold their former colleagues accountable for their actions in a continuing crackdown on protests over a disputed presidential election.
“We will collect evidence and document all the crimes of this regime, from the rigging of elections to police violence and extrajudicial murders,” Astapovich told RFE/RL by telephone from Warsaw on November 30.
Authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in the August 9 vote, while opponents cried foul and accused him of falsifying the result. As large protests persist nearly four months later, the opposition continues to amass hours of video implicating law enforcement in brutal tactics against the demonstrators.
Much of the establishment has remained outwardly loyal to Lukashenka, who critics and Western governments say has remained in office since 1994 by crushing dissent and fixing elections. But the new group co-founded by Astapovich, which calls itself By_Pol (short for Belarus Police), is working from exile to coax them into dissent.
The idea of bringing together defectors from law enforcement came about in October, during a meeting in Poland between former state investigators, police officers, and prosecutors and exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who supporters contend would have won the presidential election if the votes had been counted honestly.
Astapovich, who was a participant in that meeting, said that the ranks of Belarus’s law enforcement are split into two groups: those who chase protesters, wielding batons and firearms, and those he calls the “intellectuals” — senior-ranked civil servants with university degrees and an increasing sense of disillusionment with Lukashenka’s regime.
It’s the former whose actions receive media attention, Astapovich said, because they are on the streets trying to crush the protests.
“They give the impression of unity,” he said. “But those who actually make decisions are increasingly siding with the people. The system is collapsing.”
It is difficult to verify Astapovich’s claims, or the scale of disillusionment within the ranks of Lukashenka’s government. In written comments to RFE/RL, Tsikhanouskaya confirmed the October meeting with former officials in Warsaw and said the opposition needs their expertise to understand how to get more officials on its side and gain a deeper understanding of how Lukashenka’s regime works.
But while she stated that she sees “no obvious tendency” of desertion from Lukashenka’s security apparatus, she said many of its employees are simply afraid.
“We receive hundreds of messages from people in power who want to defect,” she said. “But the system is built in such a way that the authorities take revenge on everyone who quits. Therefore, many hold on to their places, and remain silent.”
One indication of By_Pol’s inside connections is the content on the group’s YouTube channel — more specifically, two leaked videos from cameras strapped to the chests of riot police officers as they worked on two recent Sundays to stamp out protests, which have gathered tens of thousands of views since their publication last week.
The clips provide perhaps the most candid glimpses yet of how riot police on the streets of Minsk operate. One features video from inside a riot van packed with arrested activists who sit cowering on the ground as they’re driven to a detention center. The other shows a group of armed riot police officers traveling in an unmarked minivan to a street protest. They slide open the door and issue shots from a firearm. “Prepare the grenades!” one shouts.
The second clip is dated October 25, the day riot police violently dispersed protesters gathered near the local headquarters of the Interior Ministry, and appears to have been filmed by someone taking part in the dispersal, Current Time reported on November 28. Current Time is a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Astapovich would not identify the source of the videos, but he said hundreds of law enforcement officers are feeding material to his group.
“They’re starting an insurrection from within the system,” he said. “We’ve launched this movement and with their help we’ll now fight the regime on our own terms.”
With reporting by Iryna Romaliyskaya of Current Time
Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. Before joining RFE/RL in 2018, he reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University’s Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.