Uncovering a cover-up in Minsk

  • 2001-07-19
  • Paul Goble
Some stories are complicated by their very nature. Others are complicated by those who don't want them to come out. Two former Belarusian investigators say the story of how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has organized a death squad is one of the latter (see TBT news briefs, page 3).

But the complexity of the story in no way lessens its significance. On the contrary, both the story itself and the myriad ways in which the entourage of the Belarusian leader have worked to try to prevent anyone from finding out what the government there is doing provide important insights into the means Lukashenka is using in its effort to build an authoritarian regime.

They also unintentionally reveal the inherent weakness of his regime.

Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek told an RFE/RL briefing in Washington at the beginning of July that they had been forced to flee Belarus and seek asylum in the United States, because while doing their jobs in Minsk they had uncovered what they said is convincing evidence that Lukashenka or at least people close to him have set up a death squad and used it against both private businessmen and political opponents.

They said that the death squad, set up in 1997, consists of as many as 10 people including past and present members of an elite anti-terrorist unit.

They added that the group, some of whose members have ties to the Belarusian section of the extremist Russian National Unity group, acts under direct orders from Viktor Sheiman, the former head of the Belarusian National Security Council and one of Lukashenka's closest associates.

According to Petrushkevich and Sluchek, the death squad has been responsible for more than 30 assassinations and disappearances, including those of Major General Yuri Zakharenko, the former interior minister who went over to the opposition, Viktor Gonchar, the deputy head of the last legitimate Parliament in Belarus, and Yuri Zavadskiy, a cameraman for the Russian public television station ORT.

Not surprisingly, the Belarusian authorities have never acknowledged the existence of this death squad. And its activities might never have come to light, the two former investigators said, had it not been for the involvement of several of its members in the apparently non-political murder of an ethnic Azerbaijani family in Minsk in March 2000.

Petrushkevich and Sluchek were among those assigned to investigate this "normal" murder, and their investigation led them to evidence of the existence of this group and its direct ties to Lukashenka's closest associates.

And in confirmation of their findings, those most directly involved first tried to cover their tracks, then threatened the investigators, and finally drove them to seek asylum abroad.

The complexities of the case that led the two former investigators to this conclusion calls attention to three important realities about Lukashenka's government.

First, Lukashenka's apparent use of the kind of extra-legal measures the two prosecutors describe gives him plausible deniability, and thus helps him to intimidate not only his domestic opponents but foreign critics as well.

Lukashenka has even called for conducting investigations that his subordinates have sought to prevent from taking place.

Second, the Belarusian government now confronts a problem common to authoritarian regimes: how can it control the members of those it may have used at one point in its rise to power.

No aspect of this story, Petrushkevich and Sluchek point out, would have come out had the members of this squad not gotten used to using murder as a solution.

And third - and this is the one hopeful part of this story - Petrushkevich and Sluchek emphasized that the number of people involved in running the unit and in trying to cover up the government's involvement in it was and apparently remains very small.

That may simply reflect a calculation by those in power in Minsk that this is the best way to handle something potentially explosive. But it also suggests that the Lukashenka regime is far from fully consolidated and therefore far weaker than some outside observers have suggested in the past.