The Byabenin affair in Belarus

David Marples

The latest political murder in Belarus is a continuation of a sad pattern that has seen the disappearance of several leading opponents of longtime president, Aleksandr Lukashenka. However, the alleged suicide of Charter-97 founder Aleh Byabenin is unusual and puzzling on a number of counts.

First of all, there have not been any real follow-ups to the kidnappings, disappearances, and unexplained deaths that took place in Belarus in 1999-2000 and included former deputy chairman of the parliament Viktar Hanchar and then leader of the United Civic Party Henadz Karpenka, among others. Though operating a grim and authoritarian regime, Lukashenka's tactics have been more restrained over the past decade. Activists are threatened, sometimes abducted temporarily, their laptops purloined, and apartments monitored and sometimes broken into. But to my knowledge, no one has died in captivity or under interrogation.

Second, Byabenin was a minor public figure operating a website that supports Andrei Sannikov as candidate for president in elections that must be held early next year. But Sannikau himself, aside from a recent delay at the border, has not been targeted specifically and has made a number of well-publicized visits to neighboring countries.

There are forces at play over which Aleksandr Lukashenka may have little control, both internally and externally

Third, and most important, the death comes at a time of frenetic tension between Belarus and Russia. With the advent of the (from the Russian perspective) more benign Yanukovych presidency in Ukraine, Belarus has become-alongside Georgia-the new target of intense Russian propaganda, not only at the level of government, but also in the Russian mass media. How is this to be explained?

The Russian government, and Vladimir Putin in particular, have become incensed by the contradictory and quarrelsome attitude of Lukashenka, a man they have supported through three controversial election campaigns with contrived results. A conflict that began over energy issues-Belarus acquiring cheap gas from Russia and reselling it to make expansive profits-intensified as Russia raised gas prices and gained 50 percent ownership of the main transit company, Beltransgaz.

Lukashenka railed at the Russians for the new prices. Moreover, he has dragged his feet on every other major concern of Moscow. Belarus has not recognized the breakaway Georgian republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, despite intense pressure to do so. It refused initially to take up its rotating chair at the Collective Security Treaty Organization meeting in Moscow last year. It joined the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan only after a long delay and then Lukashenka pointedly did not bother to show up at its most recent summit.

Even more infuriating to the Russians has been Lukashenka's harboring of the deposed Kyrgyzstan president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom he has encouraged to return and take back his office during the next election. After Bakiyev fled to Belarus last April, Lukashenka appeared with him in public, clearly snubbing the Russians who had helped to engineer his downfall.

Earlier this year, Russia's NTV network, which is tied closely to the government, began to run a documentary called Godbat'ka (The Godfather), which focused on the crimes of Lukashenka, including the kidnappings and deaths. It was promptly banned on the Belarus NTV network, but circulated on the Internet, including on the Charter-97 network, where one can still find the first two episodes.

The program was effectively a clarion call to remove "Europe's last dictator." Anti-Lukashenka comments have subsequently appeared on other Russian networks, including the Russia Today TV station.

Lukashenka responded initially by holding talks with a former nemesis, Mikael Saakashvili of Georgia, perhaps the chief enemy of the Kremlin today. He has appealed to Russian regions to denounce the anti-Belarusian tactics of Putin, though he has been more moderate toward Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev.

As the next Belarusian election approaches, various opposition leaders have been invited to Russia. Several, including Sannikov, have advocated better relations with Russia as fundamental tenets of their election platform, though Moscow has not given support to any single candidate to date.

Lukashenka is suddenly under intense pressure and the official announcement of the date of the election has been postponed. It was in these circumstances, of intrigue and innuendo around the Belarusian leader that Byabenin's body was discovered at his dacha on Sept. 3.

By all accounts he was not about to commit suicide. He had planned to meet friends at the October Theater in central Minsk at 8 p.m. that day. A friend had asked him for a loan of $400, to be transferred outside that locale, which was found on his person. He was a contented family man with two small children, and had just returned from a holiday in Greece. He had been chatting regularly with friends on Skype up to the time of his disappearance on Sept. 2.

The list goes on. Investigators found two empty Balsam bottles by Byabenin's body, but evidently, as a devotee of Scotch, he did not drink Balsam. The time of death as noted officially was 14 hours earlier, yet the body was still warm according to accounts. Sannikau immediately declared that he did not believe Byabenin committed suicide.

But why would the Belarusian authorities have killed him? Various theories abound, perhaps the most logical of which is that a branch of the KGB may have acted independently. At present it is impossible to determine the validity of any of these theories, but one thing can be stated unequivocally.

It is by no means clear that the president of Belarus ordered the death of Byabenin. He had nothing to gain by it and much to lose, not least his hard-won membership of the Eastern Partnership project. The Belarusian authorities have agreed that a team of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's doctors should investigate Byabenin's death, which is an unusual move if the government is directly implicated.

Moreover, the demise of the journalist underscores Moscow's current anti-Lukashenka campaign and the carefully constructed image of Lukashenka as a criminal, a 'blot on the European landscape'. Byabenin's tragic death was surely a political murder, but it is presumptuous to lay the blame directly on Lukashenka.

That comment is not intended in any way to belittle the actions and misdeeds of the Belarusian president over the past 16 years, but rather that there are forces at play over which he may have little control, both internally and externally. The consequence is the death of a talented young journalist.

David Marples is distinguished university professor at the University of Alberta and president of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies.


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