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Belarus: International Concern Mounts Over Disappearances

The international community is becoming more vocal in expressing concern over the disappearances of well-known opposition figures in Belarus. Recently, the OSCE called Belarusian authorities to permit an independent inquiry into the case of Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Zavadski, who went missing two years ago. Last week, several factions of the Russian State Duma urged President Vladimir Putin to press Belarus to investigate all its disappearance cases.

Prague, 9 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A number of Belarusian opposition figures have mysteriously disappeared in recent years. They include former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, opposition leader Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and Dzmitry Zavadski, a cameraman with Russia's ORT television station, who was last seen alive in July 2000.

Members of the Belarusian opposition say all those to have gone missing were critics of the country's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. They hold the government responsible for the disappearances, a claim Lukashenka denies.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in recent days has called on Belarus to address the mounting concern over the country's missing persons. Freimut Duve, the OSCE representative on media freedom asked Belarusian authorities on 7 July to permit an independent inquiry into the case of Zavadski. Duve said he sympathizes with the cameraman's friends and family, who have gone two years with no explanation of his disappearance.

Jeans Eschenbachar is the spokesman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). He said the OSCE has expressed repeated concern about the fate of the missing people, but that the Belarusian government has been unresponsive. "Basically, what we [have] stated repeatedly is that we are very concerned about the disappearances in Belarus. We have repeatedly asked the Belarus authorities to provide us with information about the circumstances of the disappearances, but [have gotten] no reaction. And we have also called for an independent investigation of all unsolved cases," Eschenbachar said.

Political forces in Russia have also become more vocal in calling for a thorough investigation into missing people in Belarus. Last week, a group of factions in the Russian State Duma (lower house), including Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, Unity, Regions of Russia, and Fatherland-All Russia, urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to press Belarus to investigate the disappearances and to order Russian secret services to aid in the probe.

Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov said Putin is concerned about the number of people who have gone missing in Belarus. "Putin said that it is a very serious problem and that he is sure to speak about it with Lukashenka," Nemtsov said.

Nemtsov said Putin has a very clear stance toward Belarus and that Lukashenka will face serious problems if he continues to refuse to cooperate on the issue of the disappearances. "I think he will have problems if he continues to be silent about the disappearances of politicians, journalists, and businessmen. [Russia] will put pressure on Lukashenka. Russia wants democracy in Belarus more than any other country. We want a united state with them, other countries do not," Nemtsov said.

Nemtsov said if plans do progress on a stalled Russia-Belarus union, there will be no place for Lukashenka.

Pavel Sheremet is a director of special projects with Russian ORT television. In 1997, he and Zavadski were both arrested by Belarusian authorities while working on a documentary about Belarusian border issues. The incident put a strain on Russian-Belarusian relations, and after several months, both journalists were released from jail. Sheremet said Lukashenka should look at the appeal by the Russian Duma factions, including the powerful pro-Kremlin Unity faction, as a serious wake-up call. "The fact that this appeal to Putin was signed by the leaders of the biggest factions, and that Putin openly met with them and openly discussed the problem, means that it is a menacing reminder for Lukashenka," Sheremet said.

Kirill Koktysh of the Moscow Institute of International Relations is less optimistic than Sheremet. He said that Belarus is a closed society with a single center of power, the president. He said the OSCE and international community have little practical influence over Belarusian affairs, and that Russia, while better-positioned to persuade, has done little to effect change in Belarus. "Theoretically, Russia can do a lot. But when we look at the Belarusian-Russian union state, it is clear that Russia has never truly realized its position as a big brother. At least, until now, [Russia] has had no real influence on the [Belarusian] president and on events taking place there. Maybe Russia wants to have some influence, but until now it hasn't managed to," Koktysh said.

Sheremet said Putin, should he decide to, could up the pressure even further. He said Russian intelligence services have collected substantial information about the role of top Belarusian officials in disappearances of people like Zavadski. "Moscow can do a lot in disclosing the truth about those crimes. But the problem is whether it will decide to act. I am afraid the Kremlin still finds no alternative to Lukashenka. They hope to bring him to order and to keep him as the head of the Belarusian state and they want this man to be under [their] control," Sheremet said.

But Sheremet said that ultimately, Russian politicians are not interested in Belarusian issues. He said the Duma factions issued their appeal to Putin only at the urging of the Belarusian opposition.

(Yury Drakahrust from RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)