At 12:30 A.M. on July 4, when thousands of Minsk residents were attending a concert to commemorate the official Independence Day (July 3) near the monument to the “Hero City,” a bomb exploded injuring 54 people. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who designated July 3 as the official annual holiday celebrating the day in 1944 when Minsk was freed from German occupation by the Red Army, was present at the ceremonies and concert, although he was not close to the explosion area (Belorusy i Rynok, July 7-14).
A second, larger bomb had been found earlier at the site and there are unconfirmed reports that a third was discovered afterward. Astonishingly, the concert continued until 2:00 A.M., despite the casualties and evident danger. On July 4 the Belarusian TV program “Panarama” devoted only three minutes to the event, and not until two days later did it become the main news item in Belarus (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, July 9-16), although it had captured major headlines worldwide.
Initially, the authorities reacted cautiously. The incident was investigated as an act of “hooliganism” (Article 330 of the Criminal Code), and the president declared that there would be no crackdown on the opposition as a result. Several days later, however, he dismissed two leading officials, charging them with failure to prevent the attack: Viktar Sheiman, state secretary of the Security Council and a former head of the presidential administration, and Sheiman’s successor in the latter post, Henadz Nyavyhlas (www.naviny.by, July 8). Sheiman is widely believed to have been responsible for the disappearances of several prominent statesmen and activists in 1999 and 2000, including Viktar Hanchar, Yuri Zakharanka, Anatol Krasouski, and Dzmitry Zavadski.
The dismissals indicate that the event has been upgraded from an act of “hooliganism” to one of terrorism. Lukashenka has been at odds with Sheiman for some time and promoted his own son Viktar to a more prominent role as presidential aide on national security (EDM, December 6, 2004). In other words, the explosion may have provided a pretext for a long-anticipated change. Nevertheless, the focus on Nyavyhlas as well reflects the more serious attitude adopted belatedly by the Belarusian leadership.
Despite Lukashenka’s initial statement about a moderate official response, numerous opposition activists were arrested and detained for periods of up to 10 days; all but one had been released by July 20 (Interfax, July 20). The apartment of the head of Batskaushchyna (Fatherland), Nina Shydlouskaya, was searched; and the head of the United Civic Party, Anatol Lyabedzka, reported that several opposition figures had been summoned to militia headquarters for questioning (www.charter97.org, July 8). Such maneuvers have developed into a familiar ritual in Belarus, but they explain little.
Two key questions remain unanswered: who planted the bombs and why?
Analyst Valery Karbalevich cited and rejected a statement by leader of the unofficial Communist Party Syarhey Kalyakin that the Belarusian authorities could have been behind the explosion. He noted that the opposition was not currently a serious threat to the government and therefore such a provocation as an excuse for a crackdown would be unlikely. The tragedy undermines Lukashenka’s constant assertions about building a peaceful society in Belarus free of civil strife, and it raises serious questions about the country’s stability (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, July 9-16).
As for the opposition, various analysts point out that it is incapable either to create such explosive devices or to plant them amid lines of militia and security forces assembled for the July 3 events. Nor would assembling such a device in any way aid the opposition, which supports democratic practices and would not want to alienate its supporters in the West through terrorist tactics.
Karbalevich also discussed and dismissed a second theory that the incident reflected an internal power struggle (Svobodnyne Novosti Plus, July, 9-16). Other analysts also speculate on a rift between a pro-European faction within the government and an opposing group that would prefer the president to reject the initiatives coming from Brussels in particular (ODB, Belarus Headlines, June 22-July 9). Possibly, the July 4 incident was perpetrated by a group rather than an individual, as the bombs were planted in different locations. There is, however, little hard evidence to support this line of thought.
By July 9 four people had been detained: Syarhey Chyslau, Ihar Korsak, Viktar Lyashchinski, and Miraslau Lazouski (AFP, July 9). All are members of a nationalist group known as the White Legion, part of the youth wing of an organization banned in 1999 called the Belarusian Union of Military Personnel (BUMP). Chyslau, the group’s leader, lives in Moscow and has reportedly spoken of his preference for violent methods to attain authentic independence for Belarus. The Russian FSB is assisting in the investigation. However, the head of the “For Freedom” movement, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, maintains that the focus of the White Legion’s activities is sports and the study of history and language, not terrorism (Kommersant, July 11). All four BUMP members were released by July 18 (www.naviny.by, July 18).
Terrorist incidents have occurred before in Belarus. In September 2005 there were two explosions less than nine days apart at different locations in Vitsebsk, when home-made devices injured more than 50 people. A so-called “Belarusian Liberation Army” claimed responsibility, but no court case ever materialized (Belorusy i Rynok, July 7-14).
The most recent bomb, made out of nuts and bolts, appears to have been intended to injure rather than kill people. From the authorities’ perspective, however, the worrying factor is that an organization or group penetrated the security cordons of an official celebration with impunity; and the implication is that if the goal had been to assassinate or severely injure the president, then such an outcome could have been achieved.