Stsyapan Sukharenka assumed the post of KGB chief in December 2004, some two months after a rigged constitutional referendum that allowed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- the man who would eventually dismiss him -- to run for president for an unlimited number of terms.
At the time, it was rumored that Sukharenka's predecessor, Leanid Yeryn, lost his job as a result of a friendly conversation he had with a group of activists opposed to Lukashenka's apparent attempts to become president-for-life.
Sukharenka was generally seen as a man who would not permit himself such "liberal gestures" toward the opposition. And he lived up to his reputation in full during the presidential election campaign in 2006, when he publicly denounced Lukashenka opponents as terrorists.
The KGB chief also became notorious for his televised assertion that opposition activists were planning to use dead rats to contaminate Minsk water supplies during the presidential polls in March 2006. He never succeeded, however, in identifying the alleged saboteurs.
So why the sudden ouster? Activist Mikalay Statkevich, who spent nearly two years in prison for organizing anti-Lukashenka protests shortly after the 2004 constitutional referendum, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that it was Sukharenka's lack of professionalism and heavy-handedness in dealing with opponents of the regime that eventually led to his dismissal.
"Sukharenka didn't shine intellectually," Statkevich said. "In general, the Lukashenka era saw the intellectual and professional capabilities of the KGB deteriorate. I say this as a person whom they've worked against. At this point, [their methods] have become extremely coarse -- planting things like narcotics, provoking scuffles, jailing young people. That's the level they operate at."
Pavel Sevyarynets is the former leader of Youth Front, an unofficial opposition group. Like Statkevich, he spent two years in prison for protesting the constitutional referendum. He also said that Sukharenka, for all his efforts at muzzling the opposition, never managed to eradicate it -- a failing in the eyes of Lukashenka and others.
"Sukharenka failed to do away with the Youth Front," Sevyarynets said. "Sukharenka's main task, in terms of political repressions, was to tame the Belarusian youth, the Youth Front in particular. Sukharenka has failed to do that. According to our count, more than 30 criminal cases were opened against Youth Front members during his tenure, including four that are still active."
Dissention In The Ranks?
But Svyatlana Kalinkina, deputy editor in chief of the opposition-minded "Narodnaya volya" daily, said that Sukharenka's sacking may be a result of clan rivalry within Lukashenka's entourage.
"I think there were a number of reasons [for Sukharenka's dismissal]," Kalinkina said. "It occurred because there are plans to consolidate the KGB by subordinating a number of [security] structures from the border troops and the presidential protection service to it. It also may have occurred because of an ongoing clan war, which at any given time sees some people gaining victory over others."
One theory popular among Belarus's nonstate media is that the Interior Ministry is engaged in a permanent power struggle against the KGB. Proponents of this theory see Sukharenka and his first deputy, Vasil Dzemyantsey, who was also fired by Lukashenka on July 17, as the latest victims in this conflict.
In a terse article published in June on the Russian news site gazeta.ru, it was reported that the Belarusian Interior Ministry had arrested an unidentified group of KGB officers on corruption charges.
That report has not been officially confirmed. But following the dismissals of Sukharenka and Dzemyantsey, many commentators in Belarus quickly concluded that they had lost their jobs as a direct result of the Interior Ministry's corruption-related charges.
If that is the case, then last week's public disclosure that the KGB had uncovered a spy ring working for Poland could be seen as a move by Sukharenka to salvage his public image and show that his organization is capable of high-profile successes.
But Sukharenka's time in the limelight was short-lived. Russia's "Kommersant" daily reported on July 17 that it was Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) that had put Belarus's KGB on the trail of the spies.
According to "Kommersant," a Russian national who was part of the ring spying on a Russian-Belarusian joint air-defense system confessed to the FSB, which passed the information on to the KGB in Minsk.
Other observers have even more radical conclusions, saying it was Moscow that provoked this week's revelations about the spy case, which had remained undisclosed for many months. If that was the case, it might have been because Moscow hoped to prevent Belarus from mending its fences with Poland and embarking on a more independent foreign policy than Russia would like.
Kalinkina believes that is a credible theory.
"Many Russian and Belarusian publications confirmed that the [spy] scandal was provoked by Russia," Kalinkina said. "It was provoked at a time when it could coincide with all the events linked to the deployment of the [U.S.] antimissile defense system in Poland and Russia's withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty. The spies themselves were detained as early as this past winter. It's likely that in this case, the Belarusian KGB and Stsyapan Sukharenka were playing a Russian game. And it is likely that in Belarus these days, [such games] are not as welcome as they were before."
In Sukharenka's place, Lukashenka appointed Yury Zhadobin, a career military officer with no prior experience in the KGB. Zhadobin is seen as a transitional figure who will most likely be replaced in the fall, when Lukashenka is expected to decide on a new configuration for Belarus's security services.
That decision may bring an answer to the question of who won the war between the Interior Ministry and the KGB. But it may also clarify who will become the president's main adviser on security policy -- Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman, or the president's son, Viktar Lukashenka.
Sheyman is the last high-ranking government official remaining from Lukashenka's election team in 1994, at the start of his presidential career.
Viktar Lukashenka, who is just 31 years old, was appointed to the Security Council in January 2007, automatically gaining status equal to that of the KGB chief or interior minister. His father gave him the task of supervising Belarus's security and law-enforcement agencies.
To observers who enjoy connecting the dots, Sukharenka's dismissal is generally perceived as a gain for Viktar Lukashenka and a loss for Viktar Sheyman, who was seen as having close ties to the ousted KGB chief.