ORT cameraman and Minsk resident Dzmitri Zavadski disappeared without a trace in the Belarusan capital on July 7, and is still unaccounted for as of this writing. Analogies with the Andrei Babitsky affair are widely cited. Zavadski, who is no political figure, became a cause celebre along with ORT reporter Pavel Sheremet in 1997 when the two were jailed on orders from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. After some months of unlawful detention–which provoked widespread international intercession, outraged Russian media and embarrassed the Kremlin–the Belarusan authorities gave the two journalists suspended prison sentences on poorly substantiated charges of illegally crossing the border. Sheremet was then allowed to leave Belarus and to move to Moscow as head of special projects for ORT. Meanwhile in Minsk, opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski “disappeared” one after the other last year. Foul play by the authorities is widely suspected in those cases and, now, in the Zavadski case as well. He was to have cooperated with ORT and Sheremet on a project, “Chechen Diary,” dealing with the war in the North Caucasus.
Sheremet has publicly accused the Belarusan security services and Lukashenka personally of involvement in Zavadski’s disappearance. Belarusan opposition groups, for their part, focus on the possibility that the authorities staged the incident in order to intimidate the opposition ahead of the parliamentary elections, which Lukashenka wants to stage this autumn. ORT management suggests that Zavadski’s “disappearance” forms part of the Belarusan authorities’ pre-electoral tactic of intimidating Russian media correspondents. ORT General Director Konstantin Ernst expressed indignation at the Belarusan presidential administration’s claim that Sheremet and Zavadski were engaged in a deliberate publicity stunt. With that kind of attitude, Ernst remarked, the Belarusan authorities are hardly likely to undertake a good-faith effort to find Zavadski and the opposition leaders who disappeared earlier. The authorities are going through the motions of a search operation–as they had after Zakharenka’s, Hanchar’s and Krasouski’s disappearances.
Zavadski and Sheremet are Belarusan natives who hold Russian citizenship and are consequently entitled to Russian protection. In 1997-98 during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, some Kremlin officials interceded–quietly and after some hesitation–to secure the two journalists’ release while saving face for Lukashenka. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin seems, thus far, guided only by the goal of catering to the Belarusan ruler.