Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 134

Four days after the disappearance of ORT cameraman Dzmitri Zavadski in Minsk, concerns are mounting there, in Moscow and internationally that Zavadski may have gone the way of Belarusan opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenka and Viktar Hanchar, who “disappeared” in May 1999 and September 1999, respectively. Foul play by the authorities is suspected in those cases and is now beginning to be suspected in the Zavadski case as well. Increasingly, analogies with the Andrei Babitsky affair are also being suggested. Zavadski, who is no political figure, became a cause celebre along with ORT reporter Pavel Sheremet when they were jailed in 1997 on orders from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. After some months of unlawful detention, which provoked widespread international intercession, outraged the 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 move to Moscow as head of special projects for ORT.

On July 7, Sheremet arrived in Minsk to discuss with Zavadski an ORT special project on the war in Chechnya. The project, “Chechen Diary,” is expected to reflect ORT financial sponsor Boris Berezovsky’s critical attitude toward that war and other aspects of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies. Zavadski, who was to have met Sheremet at Minsk airport, was last seen driving to the airport that day. His car was found near the airport, with no trace of the journalist. Sheremet publicly accused the Belarusan security services and Lukashenka personally of involvement in Zavadski’s disappearance. From that perspective, the Zavadski case is being dubbed “Babitsky-2.” Belarusan opposition groups are focusing on the possibility that the authorities staged the incident in order to intimidate opposition leaders in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections which Lukashenka wants to hold this autumn.

In Moscow, ORT General Director Konstantin Ernst attributed Zavadski’s disappearance to the Belarusan authorities’ pre-electoral strategy of intimidating Russian media correspondents. Ernst expressed indignation at Belarusan presidential administration First Deputy Head Uladzimir Zamyatalin’s claim that Sheremet and Zavadski had staged the latter’s disappearance in order to embarrass the authorities and/or as a 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 others who disappeared earlier. The authorities have in any case launched an elaborate search operation, as they had after Zakharenka’s and Hanchar’s disappearance.

Zavadski and Sheremet are Belarusan natives holding Russian citizenship and 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 Lukashenka’s face. Putin’s Kremlin seems, thus far, guided only by the goal of catering to the Belarusan president (ORT, NTV, Ekho Moskvy, Belapan, July 8-10).