The Russians and Belarus.
The Russians had a huge presence in Belarus, and most Belarusians had a good opinion of their gigantic neighbor, speaking Russian in preference to their own native language. Before reading up on Belarus, I had assumed that, in zero sum fashion, if Belarusian relations were getting worse with the United States, they must be getting better with Russia. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
While on the surface, all was sweetness and light between Minsk and Moscow, and it was clear that many in the Russian government, particularly those in the Security Services, viewed Lukashenko as their man, the overall political relationship was in deep trouble. Moscow was not particularly concerned about Minsk’s deteriorating human rights performance, as the U.S. was, but it was offended by Lukashenko’s increasingly desperate attempts to pull Belarus away from Russia’s smothering embrace. As usual, Russians were able to perceive neighbors on the borderlands of their empire only as vassals or enemies, and Lukashenko wanted neither status.
At one time in the late 1990’s, Lukashenko had toyed with the idea of completing the Union between Russia and Belarus, an idea that had initially been approved in 1996. Faced with a weak and erratic Russian leader in Boris Yeltsin, Lukashenko had even allowed himself to think that he might one day wind up as the leader of a unified state. The advent of Vladimir Putin had scotched these ambitions, however, and Lukashenko quickly realized that in Putin’s Russia, Belarus would have the place of a mere province of empire, if that, and his own political future and that of his clique would not be assured. Lukashenko’s attempts to fend off Russia’s embrace while continuing to reap the benefits of Russian economic subsidies resulted over time in his increasing estrangement from Moscow, and economic stagnation for Belarus. This process was only just beginning when I was working in Minsk in 2000, but it was nonetheless comforting to note that we in the United States were not the only ones to have troubled relations with “Europe’s Last Dictatorship.”
The Russian Embassy in Minsk was located in a similar building right next to the American Embassy on Starovilenskaya Street, so we saw quite a bit of them, just coming and going. I established a fairly good relationship with Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Dolgov, and was able to use his good offices to facilitate a meeting with then-Duma Deputy Yevgeniy Primakov when the latter stopped in Minsk on his way back from talks in Moldova. As was often the case, my relations with the Russians were better than with officials of the host country.
Being in the Presidential doghouse, American Embassy personnel had only the most fleeting contacts with high-ranking members of the Lukashenko regime, and of course, none at all with Lukashenko himself. During our month together in Minsk, Dan and I only met once with high-ranking officials, and only because a crisis situation demanded it: the Baturin affair.
After Dan Speckhard left and I was temporarily in charge, I attempted to establish more normal relations. To some extent I was successful, although it was clear that “normal” contacts would never be possible in an atmosphere of increasing repression, and resulting U.S. and EU sanctions. I did meet more frequently with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov, who, as a former Belarusian Ambassador to the United States, was naturally inclined to look for opportunities to improve relations on the margins. In my conversations with him, my central point was that the Baturin affair proved that we could not simply sit with our arms folded and hurl insults at each other. Some form of dialogue was necessary if we were ever to address the fundamental problems in the relationship. Martynov agreed, although I suspect it was more to probe for weaknesses in the U.S. position than for any other reason. My own philosophy was that it was better to talk than not to talk, and so we did. Eventually, I also was able to meet with Foreign Minister Ural Latypov on a couple of occasions, and with Presidential Advisor Mikhail Khvostov, who, as a former Ambassador to Canada, shared Martynov’s desire to tamp down on the rhetoric and try to establish some form of dialogue. Of course, every move I made was carefully cleared with the Department, and under no circumstances was I ever to meet with anyone who might have been linked directly to the repressions of the Lukashenko regime, such as Presidential Adviser Viktor Sheiman, former Interior Minister Yuriy Sivakov, or, of course, Lukashenko himself.
Four days after I arrived in Minsk, Russian ORT TV cameraman Dmitriy Zavadskiy disappeared without a trace. Zavadskiy was part of a reporting group, which included Pavel Sheremet, the head of special investigative reporting projects at ORT. Over the previous few months, Zavadskiy had participated in a number of reporting activities that President Lukashenko found deeply offensive, including a piece on lax border controls and an exposé on the war in Chechnya. Lukashenko had been even more offended by the fact that Zavadskiy had jumped from a spot on Belarus State Television as a Presidential cameraman to ORT in order to do investigative reporting. Zavadskiy did not have deep connections with opposition groups in Belarus, but Sheremet told newsmen that he nevertheless suspected that Zavadskiy had been kidnapped by Belarusian security forces under orders from Lukashenko. Ekho Moskvy’s investigation of the disappearance led to the same conclusion. Zavadskiy remains missing to this day.
Zavadskiy was the fourth high-profile person to disappear without a trace in the space of a single year. The others were all prominent Lukashenko opponents: former Interior Minister Yuriy Zakharenko, opposition politician Viktor Gonchar, and Gonchar supporter Anatoliy Krasovskiy. No one knew for sure what had happened to any of them, but even in mid-2000, the likely suspects behind the abductions and probable killings were Lukashenko lieutenants Yuriy Sivakov and Viktor Sheiman, and Lukashenko himself.
There was little we in the diplomatic community could do about the disappearances, except to report faithfully any information that came our way, and to do what we could to express solidarity with the families of the disappeared. Our Ambassador to OSCE in Vienna, David T. Johnson, took point on raising the issue in public, since for American diplomats to do so in Minsk itself would probably lead to expulsion, and might even be physically dangerous.
I met with most of the families of the disappeared at one time or another during my three months in Minsk. Ambassador Wieck, who headed the OSCE AMG, made sure that spouses, including Zinaida Gonchara, Iryna Krasovskaya and Svetlana Zavadskaya were invited to OSCE functions, and I was able to talk with them there in a low profile manner. I also met personally with Mrs. Gonchar in the Embassy on September 16, 2000, the first anniversary of the disappearance of her husband. She was a pitiable figure. There was little we could do for her except to express sympathy and resolve to get to the bottom of the disappearance. She accepted our assurances with grace, knowing full well that in Lukashenko’s Belarus, justice would be very hard to come by.
Shortly after I left Minsk that October, key pieces of evidence began to fall into place that clearly implicated the Lukashenko regime in the disappearances. On November 22, 2000 Dmitriy Pavluchenko, head of the Belarusian Special Rapid Reaction Unit (SOBR), was arrested on the orders of BKGB Chief Vladimir Matskevich, who in turn was acting on a complaint from Police General Nikolay Lapatik, the Chief of the Belarus Criminal Police. Lapatik accused Pavluchenko of executing Yuriy Zakharenko on orders of then-Interior Minister Yuriy Sivakov. Lapatik also suspected that SOBR was involved in other disappearances. Unfortunately for the cause of justice, Pavluchenko was almost immediately released on the personal orders of President Lukashenko, and, just a few days later on November 27, 2000, Matskevich was replaced as BKGB head by Leonid Yerin. Lapatik was also dismissed around the same time.
At about the same time, evidence was uncovered that Zavadskiy, and perhaps other disappeared persons, were buried in Minsk’s Northern Cemetery. Prosecutor General Oleg Bozhelko, who originally broached the issue, was fired. He was replaced by Lukashenko lieutenant Viktor Sheiman. Later defections by police officials uncovered the fact that Pavluchenko’s SOBR unit, also known as “Almaz,” had been formed in 1996 by Sheiman himself, and that Almaz had been implicated in some 30 murders. So in other words, one of the chief suspects in the disappearances, Viktor Sheiman, was now in charge of the investigation! In March of 2002, two lower-ranking trigger men in Almaz, Valeriy Ignatovich and Maksim Malik, were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Zavadskiy and others. They insisted on their innocence, but the official Belarusian investigation of Zavadskiy’s death ended with their trial. Sheiman, Sivakov and Lukashenko, the probable contractors for Pavluchenko’s Almaz death squad, had walled themselves off from potential prosecution by sacrificing a few underlings.
One of my primary functions while in Minsk was to keep track of Belarus’ dwindling democratic opposition. I did this by meeting periodically with its more active members, such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, Social Democratic Party Leader Nikolay Statkevich, Civil Democratic Party leader Anatoliy Lebedko, and many others.
All of them were in varying degrees of trouble with the Lukashenko regime. Just before I arrived, Statkevich and his colleague, former Supreme Soviet Deputy Vasiliy Shchukin had been found guilty of organizing the October 17, 1999 Freedom March in Minsk and sentenced to terms in jail (Statkevich’s sentence was suspended). Chigir was being prosecuted under a variety of pretexts in order to prevent him from running against Lukashenko in the 2001 Presidential election, and had recently served eight months in jail for alleged embezzlement during his term of office as Prime Minister. When I arrived, he was facing yet another trial for tax evasion, in which he was being defended by his wife, Julia Chigir, a respected lawyer in Minsk. Julia Chigir herself was on trial for an altercation with a policeman outside the Minsk Court, for which she later received a three-year suspended sentence. Anatoliy Lebedko, who was the acknowledged leader of the democratic opposition at the time, had been arrested on numerous occasions and fined, but had, unlike most of his colleagues, somehow evaded serious jail time.
Despite the constant drumbeat of harassment directed against the democratic opposition, the current crop of democratic activists was actually being treated very “leniently” by the Lukashenko regime. The regime was mindful that the international community was watching, and wanted to spruce up its image before the October 2000 National Assembly and the 2001 Presidential elections, in a vain attempt to have results of those elections recognized by the West. In previous years, when there were no external opinions to take into consideration, other members of the opposition had not fared so well. Several were still in jail, including former Supreme Soviet Deputies Andrey Klimov and Vasiliy Kudinov, as well as former Agriculture Minister Vasiliy Leonov. And of course, other Lukashenko opponents had simply disappeared and were presumed murdered. Among his own kind, Lukashenko mocked the members of the democratic opposition as the “dermokratiya” (a combination of the Belarusian words for excrement and democracy), and we had little doubt that he intended to destroy all of them eventually.
There was little that Western diplomats could do openly to support the democratic opposition, but we nonetheless did what we could below the radar. The U.S. Embassy had a few hundred thousand dollars in assistance money that could be used for Democracy programs, and we employed a small local staff over at the USIS building to provide grants to various political organizations, enabling them to run small offices, and to organize seminars, meetings and other activities. The Lukashenko regime, of course, viewed our support of these groups as interference in Belarus’ internal affairs, but refrained from banning our activities as long as we went about our work quietly, no doubt judging that the uproar over a ban would not be worth the trouble.
We also met frequently with members of the opposition either at the Embassy, or, if that was politically inadvisable, at diplomatic receptions or even local restaurants. In this manner, Statkevich and Lebedko were frequent visitors to my office in the Embassy, while Mikhail and Julia Chigir were more often than not dinner guests.
We also attended trials. At any given moment, there were three or four major cases that were active, and the OSCE AMG and the U.S. Embassy tried to gin up the other Embassies to send representatives to some of the more high-profile hearings. I attended four court sessions during my three months in Minsk, and my Pol/Econ Officer, Chris Robinson, attended many more. By showing our interest in court proceedings, we made the Lukashenko regime aware that the West was watching, and I think it helped the opposition, at least in a small way. It certainly helps to explain why there were so many suspended sentences, as opposed to jail terms, in the run-up to the National Assembly elections. In later years, of course, after the Western community had passed judgment on the Lukashenko regime, the sentences became more severe, and Westerners were increasingly excluded from trials.
Belarusian courtroom procedures were nothing to brag about. I attended trials at the Frunzenskiy District Court of Minsk, which was trying Julia Chigir, and at the Minsk Central Court, which was trying her husband. The regional courtrooms, in particular were quite shabby, and standard Soviet-era procedures were still in effect. The accused would sit in a cage, giving the impression of guilt before the trial had even begun. A judge and two “ordinary citizens” would preside, and hear arguments by the prosecution (usually represented by a uniformed member of the General Procuracy) and the defense. Needless to say, judicial rulings during court sessions heavily favored the prosecution, and it might be noted that the conviction rate was close to a hundred percent. There were no jury trials, so after hearing testimony, the “judges” would retire to their chambers to deliberate. In most cases, they simply waited in their office for a phone call from the authorities, and then, thus fortified, would re-emerge to reveal their unbiased ruling to those in the courtroom. Needless to say, the “ordinary citizens” had no judicial training and were just window-dressing, and I suspect that the professional judge had very little training either. It was a sorry spectacle, but we did the best we could to apply our own pressure on the court to render a just verdict. I think we did help matters in some cases, but, unfortunately, it was not enough to prevent the inevitable repression in later years of those who dared to defy the Lukashenko regime.
The OSCE AMG.
Most of the diplomatic missions in Belarus were not very active, with two exceptions: the U.S. Embassy, and the OSCE. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) was headed by an old acquaintance of mine, Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck. I had met Ambassador Wieck previously during my first tour in Moscow, when he was the West German Ambassador. He had impressed me then as extremely intelligent and capable, an opinion echoed by Ambassador Toon. But Wieck was not just a diplomat. From 1985 until 1990, he had also headed the BND, the West German intelligence service, which must have provided the ever-suspicious Lukashenko regime its confirmation, if any were needed, that OSCE was operating for the Western “Special Services” in Belarus. Another blot on Wieck’s copybook, at least by Lukashenko’s lights, was that he also served for a time as an advisor to Georgian President Shevardnadze before coming to Minsk to head up the AMG in 1997. I, of course, found out about Wieck’s biography only later, his past associations having been entirely discounted by the State Department. Both in Washington and in Minsk, I was warned by my colleagues that Wieck had gone soft and needed a bit of spine-stiffening. He was not standing up to the Lukashenko regime the way he should, in the opinion of most American officials.
My own experience with Wieck was far different. Although the OSCE bureaucracy in Vienna was increasingly timid towards Belarus, Wieck himself was not. He was not bound by a specific written mandate, as later OSCE Missions were, and so he had great latitude of action. He was of course more cautious than the Americans would have liked, since the Lukashenko regime was on a hair trigger to discredit and hopefully get rid of him, but he pursued human rights issues with unusual vigor, particularly for a representative of OSCE. Wieck also maintained good contacts with all levels of Belarusian society, including not just government officials, but activists, dissidents, political opponents of the regime, and the families of the disappeared.
Wieck ran a large and active establishment in the so-called “IBB building,” a modern office complex on the outskirts of town. He had a very capable group of officers under him, including Andrew Carpenter, Meaghan Fitzgerald, Beata Rozumilowicz, Michel Rivollier and Moldovan administrative officer Alina Josan. I got to know all of them quite well, especially Alina, whom I dated a few times during my brief stay in Minsk. Wieck’s staff reported directly to Vienna on human rights and political matters, and, as a result, a lot of information got out that might not otherwise have been available. The U.S. Ambassador to OSCE, David T. Johnson, spoke quite frequently on Belarus human rights issues, drawing on these reports, and using the Permanent Council meetings in Vienna as his forum. In so doing, Ambassador Johnson enabled us to work quietly in Minsk, while he took all the flak for the increasingly strident American position on human rights in Belarus. So, in a sense, Wieck’s AMG and the American Embassy were working together, although not in the way the Belarusian authorities claimed. Wieck came under frequent attack for bankrolling dissidents and conducting espionage, much in the same way we at the U.S. Embassy did, but at least in our public statements, there was little the Belarusians could find as fodder for criticism.
As time went on, the AMG came under increasing pressure from the Lukashenko regime. After playing a key role in deterring the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) from sending observers to the October 2000 National Assembly Elections, and, even worse, steering the OSCE into a decision not to send observers either, the AMG was put on Lukashenko’s short list of organizations to get rid of as soon as possible. The last straw was OSCE’s verdict on Lukashenko’s reelection as President in September 2001, which the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) described as “flawed and undemocratic.” Wieck was able to serve out his tour, departing for home in December of 2001, but his successor, German Ambassador Eberhard Heyken, was denied accreditation by the Belarusian authorities. As the visas of other staffers came up for renewal, one by one they were forced to leave the country.
The last to go was Alina Josan, who was forced to depart Belarus when her visa ran out on October 29, 2002. I was in Vladivostok serving as Consul General at the time, but had kept in touch with Alina by e-mail, and so knew what was coming. Her departure was featured on the Russian national news programs, which, to my surprise, gave a straight report on the situation, and showed Alina getting a bouquet of flowers from her remaining staff. Alina eventually got another position in the OSCE Vienna Secretariat as a staffer in the Special Police Matters Unit (SPMU) and we renewed our friendship when I went out to Kyiv in 2005 as OSCE’s representative to Ukraine.
After Alina’s departure, the Belarusian authorities closed down the AMG. After fitful negotiations in which the Lukashenko regime bullied the OSCE into unwise concessions, Ambassador Heyken was allowed into Minsk in January 2003, but under a strict new written mandate. The new rules of the game effectively gutted the OSCE’s ability to do anything but support Belarusian government programs and to report on that process. OSCE’s foray into democracy-building in Belarus was over. Perhaps even worse, OSCE’s timidity in the face of Belarusian pressure encouraged other dictatorships with nominal membership in the organization to lobby for restrictions on the role of OSCE’s missions in their countries. It was the continuation of a long slide in OSCE’s power, influence and relevance, which had begun in 1999 with the hobbling by the Kuchma regime of OSCE’s activities in neighboring Ukraine, and the Russian closure of the OSCE Chechnya Mission on December 31, 2002.
The problems associated with the AMG and its successor mission were indicative of a larger problem with international security organizations as a whole. In his memoirs, George Kennan summed up this dilemma eloquently when he expressed deep skepticism about the ultimate utility of the United Nations. Kennan observed gloomily that international security structures like the UN “have always served the purpose for which they are designed just so long as the interests of the great powers gave substance and relevance to their existence. The moment this situation changed, the moment it became in the interests of one or the other great powers to alter the status quo, none of these treaty structures ever stood in the way of such alteration.”
What was true for the UN was true for the OSCE in spades, as not just the U.S. and Russia had the power to alter the rules of the game, almost any member did, since the whole structure operated by consensus. Today, as an organization, OSCE faces constant conflicting pressures which threaten to destroy its effectiveness, particularly with regard to the activities of the Field Missions, like the AMG. With every member behaving as it were a great power, the OSCE has steadily become less effective on the international stage, and its prestige and legitimacy have suffered as a result.
National Assembly Elections.
A few months before my arrival in Minsk, the Belarusian authorities announced that Parliamentary elections would be held on October 15 and 22, and Lydia Yermoshina, the hard-bitten Chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Commission for Elections and National Referenda, was given the task of preparing for the elections, and, of course, ensuring the victory of the ruling party. After Dan’s departure in August, one of my principal tasks was to report on the election preparations, and to liaise closely with the OSCE and other organizations following the issue. The assumption at the time was that most international organizations would lobby hard to observe the elections, and that the Lukashenko regime would resist the efforts of more independent observers, like ODIHR, to do so.
This general assumption was very quickly put to the test during a visit to Minsk of a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The group was led by Terry Davis, the chairman of PACE’s Political Affairs Committee. Davis had been to Minsk before, and I got the general impression that he was both left-wing and not very sympathetic to the views of the United States. Nevertheless, I met with him, and with his colleagues, Wolfgang Behrendt and Cyril Svaboda, and passed on the general U.S. view that the fix was in and that the elections were going to be fraudulent from the get-go. To my surprise, Davis took in my views rather placidly, and noted that Ambassador Wieck had relayed pretty much the same message to him, though without some of the more colorful language. He also told me something that I did not know until then: that Belarus was still in the PACE doghouse, and that its suspension from full membership in the organization was not about to be lifted.
After meeting with a wide variety of contacts in Belarus, including political leaders, diplomats and opposition figures, Davis held a press conference on August 4 during which he announced that PACE would not send observers to the parliamentary elections, noting that the requisite conditions for free and fair elections had not been created. This left the Lukashenko regime gnashing its teeth, and those of us at the Embassy and the AMG left with the thought that maybe the OSCE shouldn’t observe the elections either.
In the succeeding days, Ambassador Wieck organized a “technical conference” of OSCE, embassies and government officials to determine what should be done. I was about the only diplomat to argue strongly in favor of no observers. In the end, Wieck decided to ask OSCE to send a Technical Assessment Mission to determine if conditions warranted OSCE sending out election observers. Elisabeth Rasmussen of ODIHR headed the mission, arriving in Minsk on September 14. Accompanying her were ODIHR Director Gerard Stoudmann (for the first day only) and a number of ODIHR elections experts.
Ambassador Wieck let me sit in on the initial briefings of the group, and to do some of the briefing myself. I got the impression that Elisabeth was at first inclined to recommend that OSCE send observers, but Wieck and I patiently established an excellent relationship with her and her colleagues, and gradually I could see that she was coming around to our way of thinking. What sealed it, I think, was the meeting with Yermoshina, which I also attended, in which it was obvious that the Election Commission was going all-out, in its own Stalinist way, to ensure the victory of Lukashenko’s candidates. In the end, Elisabeth and her group fell into line with PACE and recommended against sending observers, a significant victory for the AMG and the Americans, among others.
In Vienna, Ambassador Johnson and his deputy, Josiah Rosenblatt, trumpeted the OSCE decision as the correct one under the circumstances. In Minsk, Wieck and I toasted our success, but otherwise remained circumspect before the public.
I left Minsk for Washington on October 6, and so was not on hand to observe the actual course of the parliamentary elections. Unsurprisingly, the victory of Lukashenko’s forces was complete, with only a few opposition figures, such as Mikhail Chigir, making it as far as the second round. It was business as usual in Minsk.
End of Draft Chapter 12.2