Putin Kicks Lukashenka's Achilles' Heel

by Alyaksandr Yanusik

A Russian TV crew's visit to Minsk might be the Kremlin's first move in a bid to undermine an uppity underling.

MINSK | When they got the assignment to interview relatives of missing opposition figures in Minsk, journalists at the Russian TV channel NTV must have known it wouldn't be easy; it touched on a subject particularly sensitive for the country's authoritarian leader. Even so, they didn't take enough precautions and were expelled from the country on 14 August.

But their visit sent a signal to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that the Kremlin may back one of his rivals in the next presidential race, and it may be using the media to do it.

It was a working day as usual. On arrival in Minsk, correspondent Aleksei Malkov and cameraman Yury Babenko filmed a couple of interviews for a film about the 1999 and 2000 disappearances of two politicians, a businessman, and a journalist in Belarus, and returned to their hotel. The next morning they noticed that they were being followed.

Later the same day, in a scene chillingly reminiscent of the abductions that were the subject of their investigation, they say they were surrounded by police and plainclothes officers, forced into a minivan and taken to a wooded location for an interrogation. Afterward, they were taken to Orsha at the Belarusian-Russian border and put on a train bound for Moscow. Officers seized the videotapes they had filmed in Minsk and their cell phone SIM cards, they say.

The journalists were charged with working in Belarus without accreditation from the Foreign Ministry.

Belarus' security services denied the fact of deportation, while the NTV office in Moscow would not officially comment.

The apparent expulsion sparked a controversy, with some observers speculating that the crew came on a reconnaissance mission ordered by the Kremlin, which plans a large-scale effort to replace disobedient Lukashenka with a more loyal politician.

Lukashenka fell out with the Russian leadership in 2007 over Moscow's demand that Belarus pay market prices for energy. Tensions escalated this year after Belarus joined the EU's Eastern Partnership program. Earlier this year, Russia imposed a ban on dairy imports from Belarus, prompting Lukashenka to boycott a security summit of ex-Soviet nations in protest.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, says the Kremlin has been irked by the fact that its closest ally takes an independent position on most issues and often sides with Russia's opponents in the post-Soviet space and in the West. The incident involving the NTV journalists could be evidence that the Kremlin plans a massive campaign to unseat the Belarusian ruler.

Interestingly, earlier the same month a journalist with Russia's state-controlled Golos Rossii radio station invited Belarusian opposition politician Anatol Lyabedzka to appear on a talk show on the issue of disappearances.

Theoretically, the Kremlin can use NTV as its propaganda tool during the next presidential election, coming up in Belarus in late 2010 or early 2011. Like Russia's ORT and Rossiya TV channels, NTV is received by aerial across much of Belarus.

NTV had a reputation as Russia's most independent and free TV broadcaster before it was taken over by state-dominated Gazprom Media in 2003. Some of its journalists resigned in protest, while many others were fired by the newly installed management. Now the channel is widely regarded as the Kremlin's mouthpiece.

NTV correspondent Malkov is known for his documentaries defending the Kremlin's attacks on Yukos and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as for smearing Kremlin foes like Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov. In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Malkov the Order of Service to the Fatherland.


The issue of high-profile disappearances is Lukashenka's most vulnerable spot. Voters are quick to forget about their leader's policy mistakes, but they take unaccounted-for abductions and murders of opponents seriously.

Former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktar Hanchar, his friend, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski vanished in 1999 and 2000.

Investigations appeared to make some progress at the start but later were put on hold after Lukashenka sacked Prosecutor General Aleh Bazhelka and KGB Chief Uladzimir Matskevich in late November 2000.

In 2002, a panel of judges sentenced ex-members of Belarus' elite Almaz police unit to life in prison for unrelated murders and the abduction of Zavadski, who had been Lukashenka's personal cameraman before he joined Russia's ORT television network in 1996. However, the trial failed to establish what happened to the journalist after his abduction, and his body has not been found. Human rights defenders say the convicted men are simply scapegoats.

Lukashenka told The Financial Times last year that the disappearance of Zavadski was the worst wound for him as president.

"He is an honest and decent person who had no relation to politics whatsoever," the newspaper quoted the Belarusian leader as saying. "The court passed its verdict in this criminal case and the person is serving a life sentence [for kidnapping]. But for me the most important matter is to find [Zavadski], or if he died, to find his body. If it turns out that our court was wrong and misjudged the [convicted] person, then I'll be on my knees begging forgiveness of relatives, friends, and Dzmitry Zavadski himself if he turns out to be alive."

In 2004, Cypriot MP Christos Pourgourides, who visited Belarus on a fact-finding mission for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, charged that officials at the highest level of the Lukashenka government were involved and obstructed attempts to investigate the disappearances.

"As a criminal lawyer, I have no doubt in my mind that these disappearances were ordered at the highest possible level in the establishment of Belarus," Pourgourides told reporters in Strasbourg in 2004. "I cannot be certain that the order was given by the president himself, but I'm absolutely certain that the order for their abductions was given by people very, very close to the president."

In an interview published by the Russian newspaper Zavtra in June, the Belarusian leader denied any involvement in the disappearances of Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasouski in 1999, linking what he called their killings to "conflicts of a commercial nature."

"Three people were killed and the media are still focused on [my possible involvement]," the Belarusian leader said. The murderers' trail has recently been found in Germany, he claimed, without explanation.

No matter who ordered the NTV investigation, the disappearances will be in the spotlight of media and human rights groups as long as no credible effort is made to solve them. That's a small comfort to those who still wait for justice, and, it turns out, a handy weapon for the Kremlin.

So bring on the film crews.

Alyaksandr Yanusik is a journalist with the BelaPAN news agency in Minsk.



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