With the resignation of his chief of staff, Ural Latypau (Latypov), and his subsequent appointment of Viktar Sheiman, President Alexander Lukashenka brought back to high office a trusted lieutenant who is also thoroughly discredited outside the country. The motives behind the new appointment have been the subject of intense speculation over the past week. While some analysts maintain that Sheiman may be helping the president prepare for a new presidential election, possibly as early as next year, others see the move as one to distance Belarus from the Kremlin or to ensure that the country boosts its security during a period of upheaval in neighboring Ukraine.
Latypau, a Russian native born in the Bashkir region in 1951, is a law graduate from Kazan State University who had a lengthy service in the KGB (and then FSB) until 1994. He was appointed Foreign Minister of Belarus in 1998-2000, and two years later he advanced to the position of State Secretary of the Security Council and security aide to the President of Belarus. In September 2001, the run- up to Lukashenka’s re-election for a second term, Latypau was appointed the president’s chief of staff (Interfax, November 29). There have been rumors in Minsk that Latypau intends to take up a position with the Belarusian branch of Lukoil, though in interviews with the media, Latypau himself has maintained that he is uncertain about his next career step (Narodnaya Volya, December 1).
Latypau remains on good terms with the Lukashenka regime. The president declared that Latypau had been a faithful servant and decorated him with the Order of International Friendship, an award for meritorious service and improving relations with foreign states (Interfax, December 1). Latypau’s original appointment occurred at a time when the president promoted several Russian citizens to the highest posts in Belarus.
Viktar Sheiman is a Belarusian native who was born in Soltanishki village in the Hrodna (Grodno) region in 1958 and trained at a military college. Initially he worked in Russia as a security and defense specialist. He also served in the Afghan War for the Soviet Army. In 1990 he was elected a deputy to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, where he headed a commission on questions of state security, defense, and the “struggle against crime.” He entered the current administration in 1994, when Lukashenka was first voted president, and served as the State Secretary of the Security Council and an aide to the president for national security, with a stint as Minister of Internal Affairs (www.president.gov.by/rus/president/news/archive/november 2004/22-26).
Lukashenka sacked Sheiman in 1999 following internal and international concern over the regime’s failure to investigate the disappearance of several prominent figures and Sheiman’s possible involvement in their removal. He became the country’s Prosecutor-General the following year. In the summer of 2001, two Belarusian prosecutors, Dzmitry Petrushkevich and Aleh Sluchak, who had fled the country, sent an e-mail to various independent press outlets alleging that, on Sheiman’s orders, a death squad had been established using 5-10 members of an anti-terrorist unit. Allegedly these squads had executed the four prominent members of the opposition that have disappeared since 1999: Dmitry Zavadsky of Russian ORT; former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka; the former Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Viktar Hanchar; and businessman Anatol Krasousky (gazeta.ru, June 15, 2001). Despite public protests and international inquiries, the Belarusian government has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for the missing people. Their families have assumed that all four are dead.
In September 2004, the EU banned entry to Sheiman, along with Minister of Internal Affairs Uladzimir Navumau, Minister of Sport Yuri Sivakou (who was also prevented from leading the Belarusian Olympic team to Athens last summer by the Greek government), and special forces officer Dzmitry Paulichenka. The United States has also enforced a similar ban against these four officials (charter97.org, November 29).
That Lukashenka has once again promoted Sheiman to high office, despite the accusations against him, may signify the regime’s desire for a firm response to the troubles in Ukraine and the need to ensure that nothing similar should occur in Belarus. Sheiman himself confirmed such reasoning by commenting that his goal was to consolidate the power systems, unify the command structure, and avoid situations such as those that had occurred south of the border. In his words, the government system needed to be “flexible, mobile, and adaptable to modern conditions” (Interfax, December 1).
Though the Belarusian opposition took to the streets after the October 17 referendum produced results widely at odds with exit polls (a difference of more than 30% in the president’s favor), police and militia quickly suppressed these protests. Opposition leaders, such as Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party, suffered severe beatings and required hospital treatment.
Given Russia’s apparent failure to affect the situation in Ukraine in favor of the government side, and the Belarusian opposition’s overt support for Viktor Yushchenko, Lukashenka appears to have recognized that Belarus must rely on its own security forces to ensure that nothing similar happens in his domain. The appointment of Sheiman to head his administration is an ominous first step.