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Andrei Zakharov (file photo)

An investigative reporter for the BBC's Russian-language service in Moscow says he has left Russia for London after noticing that he had been placed under "rather unprecedented surveillance" by the authorities.

Andrei Zakharov made the announcement in a video released on December 27.

Zakharov had been designated a "foreign agent" by Russian authorities in October, a decision the BBC at the time strongly rejected and said it would take measures to overturn.

"It is not yet clear what the surveillance was connected with: my being designated as a 'foreign agent' or maybe my reporting on hackers from the Evil Corp group, which I did together with my British colleagues," Zakharov said.

In December 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 17 individuals and seven legal entities associated with Evil Corp, which it described as "a Russia-based cybercriminal organization" that it said worked for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and conducted cybercrime "on an almost unimaginable scale."

Russia's "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been repeatedly criticized within Russia and abroad as being an unjustified assault on independent media and civil society.

It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and are deemed by the government to engage in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

At the end of last year, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to place on its “foreign agents” media list and impose restrictions on them. The legislation provides for those put on the list e registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

A number of journalists, including several RFE/RL reporters, have since been added to the list.

In August, another BBC journalist, Sarah Rainsford, left Russia after Moscow refused to extend her permission to work.

Zakharov has investigated topics ranging from President Vladimir Putin's personal history to Russian disinformation factories.

With reporting by Reuters
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has published draft constitutional amendments that would allow him to further strengthen his authoritarian rule and remain in office until 2035.

Lukashenka, 67, has said the changes, outlined by the state-run BelTA news agency and published on the presidential website on December 27, will be put to a referendum sometime in February 2022.

Lukashenka proposed amending the constitution following a domestic and international backlash over the violent crackdown following the disputed August 2020 presidential election that he claims gave him a sixth consecutive term, but which the opposition and the West say was rigged.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

The proposed changes would give Lukashenka immunity from prosecution and put in place a limit of two terms in office, each for five years. However, the restrictions would only apply going forward, meaning Lukashenka could rule until he is 81 years old.

The amendments would also weaken the current rubber-stamp parliament and strengthen the role of the All-Belarus People's Assembly, a periodic gathering of loyalists that currently has no governing status under the laws.

The assembly would act as a parallel structure next to parliament, holding wide-ranging powers to approve foreign, security, and economic policy. It would also be able to propose changes to the constitution, draft laws, and select members of the country's Central Election Commission and judges of the top courts.

According to the proposed amendments, a sitting president automatically becomes a delegate of the 1,200-seat assembly and may chair it, if elected by other delegates.

Tadeusz Giczan, a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Lukashenka would "most likely" become chairman of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly at some point.

For Lukashenka, the amendments present "a hybrid -- both the opportunity to get reelected as president until 2035, and the opportunity to remain in power as a possible leader of the All-Belarus Assembly," Belarusian political analyst Valer Karbalevich told the Associated Press.

The amendments would also prohibit anyone who temporarily left the country in the last 20 years from becoming president, a change that appears to be aimed directly at opposition members, many of whom were forced into exile to avoid political persecution.

Lukashenka's opponents have called the attempt to rewrite the constitution a sham exercise to help him cling to power amid Western sanctions and international isolation for Minsk's crackdown on dissent following last year's presidential election.

"The regime's draft constitution doesn't give Belarusians a real choice. It will let the dictator secure power, control the situation through the artificial All-Belarusian People's Assembly, and avoid prosecution. A new presidential election is the only solution to the crisis," opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has said she is the rightful winner of last year's election, said on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department called on Lukashenka to hold a "national dialogue" with the opposition and civil society to reach a political solution, call new elections, and arrange the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Nearly Three-Decade Rule

Lukashenka, a former state farm director, has run Belarus with an iron hand since winning independent Belarus's first presidential election in 1994, three years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The country has never held free and fair elections under his rule, according to international observers.

Who Is Syarhey Tsikhanouski And Why Is Belarus Jailing Him For 18 Years?
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Belarusians have grown frustrated with Lukashenka's rule over the decades. The economy remains largely unreformed and heavily dependent on cheap energy from Russia, while salaries and living conditions remain low compared with countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets for months following the 2020 presidential election to peacefully protest Lukashenka's claim of victory. They were the largest anti-government demonstrations in Belarus since the early 1990s.

The authoritarian ruler responded with a brutal suppression of his own people as police used force to detain thousands. There also have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces and several people have died during the crackdown.

There are more than 900 political prisoners in the country, according to the Vyasna human rights group.

The European Union, the United States, and several countries have since refused to recognize Lukashenka as the country's legitimate leader and imposed several rounds of sanctions on the country in response to the violent crackdown.

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About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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