Marynich belongs to the "old nomenklatura" in Belarus -- a group of public figures that started their political careers in the era before Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, during the rule of Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich. Under Lukashenka, Marynich was minister of foreign economic relations (1994-98) and afterward 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. In his resignation letter to then Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou, Marynich reportedly said that he planned to work against dictatorship and toward democratic changes.
Lukashenka reacted furiously to Marynich's defection. "Don't you remember [when] you sang me songs and swore allegiance and loyalty?" Lukashenka said in reference to Marynich in the 2001 election campaign. 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. Marynich insisted that he had gathered the necessary signatures and accused the Lukashenka government of forcing him out of the presidential race.
Eventually, the court held up only one charge against Marynich -- namely, that he stole office equipment from the organization he chaired -- and sentenced him to five years in prison plus the confiscation of his property, including the formerly seized $90,000. Marynich told the court that the trial was a brazen mockery of justice and argued that he had no intention of stealing the office equipment in question, which was temporarily stored in a garage of his son only because the Business Initiative association had been deprived of its office in Minsk.
It is noteworthy that the court ignored repeated statements from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, which was the legal owner of the equipment allegedly stolen by Marynich, that it had no claims whatsoever against Marynich. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 30 December condemned the conviction of Marynich on what he called "a spurious charge," linking the sentence handed down to the opposition politician to the Belarusian government's campaign to crack down on its opponents. "The United States condemns this abuse and earlier abuses of the judicial system by the Lukashenka regime to persecute Belarusian citizens for their political beliefs," Boucher added.
Many Belarusian independent observers and opposition politicians have also condemned the sentence on Marynich as the harsh and cruel retribution of the ruling regime against a politician who once dared to challenge it politically. "This is nothing new in our state," said former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, who himself spent five months in prison under Lukashenka in 1999 and subsequently received a three-year suspended prison term on charges widely believed to have been politically motivated. "Unfortunately, I think Marynich's appeals will have little effect with the higher courts," Chyhir added.
"The regime is afraid of politicians who could present a personal alternative to Lukashenka," Youth Front leader Pavel Sevyarynets commented. "The regime wants to intimidate [such politicians] with the Marynich case. Five years of prison for Marynich is like another five years of Lukashenka's presidency after he is reelected in 2005 or 2006. It is a signal for the entire society."