In late August, the Belarusian authorities brought a new criminal case against Mikhail Marynich, an opposition leader who has been held in a KGB detention center since April 26.
Marynich had been Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, but he was removed from his position, ostensibly for his independent thinking, on December 8, 1998. Subsequently he took up the post of Ambassador of Belarus in Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. On July 25, 2001, he resigned that position, commenting that he could no longer tolerate a government that had become a dictatorship, carried out abductions of politicians, violated human rights, and presided over the economic degradation of the country (Charter 97, July 25, 2001).
After July 2001, Marynich became an important figure in the opposition leadership. Founder of the organization Business Initiative, he became the leader of a faction called European Choice, which favors Belarusian membership in the EU. At that time, Marynich announced his intention of running for the presidency in the election of September 9, 2001. Allegedly falling just short of the required 100,000 signatures for his candidacy (Marynich claimed that he had more than enough signatures to run), he threw his support behind the united opposition candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk.
Three years after his arrest, on July 12, 2004, the Minsk Central District Court declined to release him, and he remains under arrest on charges of illegal possession of weapons and reportedly destroying government documents during his period of office (Interfax, July 12).
The newly added charges appear far-fetched. Marynich is accused of stealing computers from Business Initiative, although it is well known that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk donated the machines in question. On August 27, opposition demonstrators held an illegal rally to protest his continued detention (Interfax West, August 30).
The Marynich case reflects the harsh attitude of the Lukashenka regime to public figures that formerly were part of the government structure. Though widely condemned for its abuses of human rights, the Belarusian government, in practice, is highly selective about its targets.
Notably, for example, opposition leaders outside the government structure are subjected to regular harassment rather than outright persecution. Only the founder of the Belarusian Popular Front and current leader of the Conservative Christian Party of the BPF, Zyanon Paznyak and the former chairman of the parliament of the Supreme Soviet (13th session), Syamon Sharetsky, chose to flee the country and operate abroad.
Former close associates of the president, like Marynich, however, are persecuted ruthlessly and vindictively. On July 21, Lukashenka declared that allies in Russia were funding opposition groups in Belarus and that they had brought $180,000 from Moscow, “half for Marynich and half for Frolov” [the leader of the Respublika group] (Russian Journal, July 21). The president fears above all the possibility of a takeover of the leadership from within.
Such fears have been manifested in Belarus for the past five years. They began with the January 1997 arrest of the former chairperson of the Bank of Belarus, Tamara Vinnikava, who later escaped and resurfaced in the UK. Her case — some analysts suspect she was allowed to leave the country — is unique. In all other instances, the “troublemakers” have been removed without trace or else — as in the case of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir — been subjected to lengthy and unwarranted prison sentences.
On May 7, 1999, former Minister of the Interior Yuri Zakharenka vanished while walking home in Minsk. On September 16, 1999, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Viktar Hanchar and his associate Yuri Krasovsky were abducted while walking home from the local banya. Although the Prosecutors’ office began to investigate their disappearance, one KGB investigator died suddenly, and two others from that office fled to the United States. They maintain that a “death squad,” set up by the Office of the President, executed the three missing figures, as well as Dmitry Zavadsky, a Belarusian cameraman for the Russian television station ORT, who “disappeared” at the Minsk international airport on July 7, 2000.
The other case that has attracted some public concern is that of Henadz Karpenka, a popular Vice-Chairman of the parliament of the 13th session and the former leader of the United Civic Party. In February 1998, Karpenka took a prominent role as the leader of the National Executive committee established by the opposition. Most opposition leaders maintain that his sudden death on April 6, 1999, did not occur from natural causes. Both Karpenka and Chyhir, like Marynich, were potential candidates for president.
By using such tactics, Lukashenka has effectively consolidated his power and intimidated potential opponents. At the same time, these cases demonstrate both his fear of rivals and his failure to command loyalty among subordinates. Simply put, these high-level associates find it impossible to carry out their duties because of the demands and intrusions from the Office of the President. As the more independent and capable public figures leave office, the president is increasingly isolated and surrounded only by those prepared to accept his demands without question.