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Analysis: Does Arrest Of Former Minister Signal A Major Political Campaign?

Prague, 12 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) on 26 April arrested Mikhail Marynich, a former cabinet member and diplomat, who switched to the opposition before the 2001 presidential election. The KGB informed the media the following day that it has instituted criminal proceedings against Marynich, accusing him of illegal possession of classified government documents and two unregistered foreign-made pistols. The KGB also claimed to have seized more than $90,000 in cash from Marynich.

Some further details of Marynich's arrest were provided by media in the following days. Marynich, while driving a car, was reportedly stopped on 24 April by traffic police, who requested that he show them the contents of his suitcase. Marynich refused but a KGB officer, who immediately appeared on the scene, ordered him to open the suitcase and reportedly found cash in it. Marynich was told to report to the KGB -- he went there on 26 April and did not return home.

Last week Belarusian Television reported that Marynich confessed that the seized money -- part of which is allegedly counterfeit -- came from Russia and was to have been spent on financing "selected candidates" in this year's legislative election. However, the KGB has apparently found nothing criminal in the possession of such a sum by Marynich, since on 6 May he was formally charged only with "illegal actions regarding firearms, ammunitions, and explosives" -- an offense that may entail up to six years in prison. There also have been no new reports on the allegedly classified documents that were reportedly found at Marynich's dacha.

There are also voices in Belarus asserting that the government's intimidation machine is blind to its victims' political affiliation.
"Mikhail Afanasevich [Marynich] calls all this a politically motivated case," Marynich's lawyer, Vera Stramkouskaya, told the Minsk-based "Narodnaya volya" newspaper on 10 May. "He knows that an order was given in late 2003 to make a criminal out of him.... He considers his arrest to be a tool of pressure on him as a political activist who has planned to take part in parliamentary and presidential elections."

Marynich belongs to the so-called "old nomenklatura" in Belarus -- a group of public figures that started to make their political careers in the era before Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, during the rule of Premier Vyacheslau Kebich. Under Lukashenka, Marynich was minister of external economic relations (1994-98) and afterwards became Belarusian ambassador to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In mid-2001, Marynich resigned his ambassadorial post to challenge Lukashenka in that fall's presidential election. Lukashenka publicly reacted furiously to Marynich's defection. Marynich did not manage to get on the ballot after the Central Election Commission ruled that he failed to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary for registration. Following the 2001 election, Marynich set up the Business Initiative Association, an organization that promotes market-oriented reform. He has never taken up with the "nationalist" anti-Lukashenka opposition (for example, with the Belarusian Popular Front), preferring rather to associate with his sort of "old-nomenklatura" figures who have fallen out of the regime's favor. In particular, he cooperated with For a New Belarus -- an organization established by former Agriculture Minister Vasil Lyavonau, who was also persecuted by the Lukashenka regime and spent almost three years in prison.

There are several versions -- some of them complementary and some at variance with each other -- being mulled by the independent Belarusian media with regard to the true reasons behind Marynich's arrest. According to the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party-National Assembly (BSDP-NH), the authorities removed Marynich from public life, fearing that he could play an important role both as a candidate and campaigner in this fall's legislative election. "It is becoming evident that on the eve of a large-scale political campaign a merciless clearing of the country's political arena is implemented to get rid of significant personalities that could offer an adequate alternative to the current leader," the BSDP-NH said in a statement.

Some supplement the BSDP-NH version with the suggestion that Marynich has obtained "Moscow's backing" as a challenger to Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election, in which Lukashenka will purportedly run for the third consecutive time following a referendum to lift the constitutional two-term restriction on the presidency in Belarus.

The private weekly "Nasha Niva" on 6 May essentially supported the aforementioned BSDP-NH version, drawing a comparison between the current situation and the 2001 presidential-election campaign. "Nasha Niva" recalled that the 2001 presidential election was actually preceded by a campaign of terror and intimidation unleashed by the authorities in 1999. In early 1999, the authorities arrested former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, who left the government in 1996. Later the same year, a reputedly government-sponsored death squad kidnapped and supposedly killed opposition politicians Yury Zakharanka and Viktar Hanchar, former associates of Lukashenka.

"Chyhir's fate has been repeated by Mikhail Marynich," "Nasha Niva" wrote. "Chyhir left Lukashenka in 1996 and found himself behind bars in 1999. Marynich's way to prison also took three years for him, following his presidential bid in 2001. Everything repeats itself accurate to one month's time. What next? New political assassinations?"

True, there are also voices in Belarus asserting that the government's intimidation machine is blind to its victims' political affiliation and deals its blows equally between supporters of Lukashenka (including government officials), opposition activists, and those who try to remain "neutral." According to such commentators, it is simply the nature of Lukashenka's state apparatus to exercise terror as an efficient tool of political control over the country.

Meanwhile, political analyst Alyaksandr Fyaduta, former chief of Lukashenka's press service and propaganda section, suggested that Marynich's arrest is not linked to the upcoming political campaigns. According to Fyaduta, Marynich's incarceration is intended to send a signal to the "old nomenklatura" corps that they will not take part in the large-scale privatization that Lukashenka is allegedly planning to launch at the end of his presidential rule.

The view of the author of the "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report" on the possible motive behind Marynich's arrest is complementary rather than contradictory with regard to those already presented. In March, Lukashenka sarcastically chided the KGB for its inability to discover the channels through which the Belarusian opposition is purportedly financed by foreign sponsors. Last month, Lukashenka sacked two senior KGB officials, reportedly for their professional incompetence. Therefore, it stands to reason that in order to counterbalance such blows the KGB needed some spectacular "repair" actions to lift up its reputation. One such action could be the arrest at the Polish Embassy in Minsk on 27 April of a diplomat who was reportedly caught in the act of receiving documents with classified military information (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 4 May 2004). It is noteworthy that the KGB resorted to a routine trick for spy-catching, allegedly using an undercover agent who played the role of a traitor. Marynich's detention also fits well into this supposed "uplifting" of the KGB's operational image. Marynich was practically presented to the public as a spy (the KGB advertised that it found classified documents and weapons with him) and a sinister oppositionist who is scheming to undermine the government for foreign money. What else is needed to prove the usefulness and vigilance of true Chekists?

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