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Belarus Blast Delivers Shock To The System

Attending to the injured after the July 4 blast in Minsk
Attending to the injured after the July 4 blast in Minsk
As a result of the blast in Minsk last week that injured about 50 people, some of them seriously, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka fired two top aides while the police and KGB conducted searches and made arrests among opposition activists.

An apparently homemade bomb, filled with nuts and bolts, went off shortly after midnight on July 4 at an outdoor concert celebrating Belarusian Independence Day. Lukashenka, who was at the concert, reached the scene of the explosion within a few minutes. The authorities did not halt the festivities as ambulances carried away the injured.

In his immediate reaction to the blast, Lukashenka said he did not regard it as an assassination attempt. But he must have reconsidered in the following days, because on July 7 he dismissed Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman and presidential-administration head Henadz Nyavyhlas.

The official justification for the dismissals was a standard "in connection with transfer to another job." However, Lukashenka had severely criticized both officials the previous day for what he called a failure to ensure proper security during the Independence Day festivities.

"I don't think, Viktar Uladzimiravich [Sheyman], that you should remain in your post after this incident. It is your fault first of all," Lukashenka excoriated. "You, under the instruction of the president, organized similar events not only this year but in the past 10 years. And you have done nothing! You and the head of the administration -- he is responsible for the political side and you for security -- you have not done a damn thing, pardon my speech."

Political Baggage

Lukashenka's anger is understandable, given that the blast occurred in his vicinity. But the sackings are fairly puzzling because neither man was directly responsible for security during such public functions in the capital.

Ensuring security at public city events is a routine police task, and many Belarusian commentators expected that if anyone important were to take the fall for the blast, it would be Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau.

That belief was reinforced by leaks from law enforcement sources to the independent press that, just two hours before the explosion, police had found another homemade bomb at the concert grounds. But despite the discovery of a nail bomb made to look like a fruit-juice package, no thorough search of the premises -- let alone any evacuation -- was ordered.

So Lukashenka's decision to dismiss his two top aides was rather unexpected and provoked much speculation as to his motives.

One possible explanation is that Lukashenka actually concluded that the blast was a terrorist act or an assassination attempt directed against him. If so, Sheyman's ouster appears understandable.

Another plausible explanation is that Lukashenka took advantage of the situation to rid himself of the last associate from his original presidential election team of 1994. Sheyman was believed to be the No. 2 man in Belarus, and Lukashenka may have decided finally to replace him with someone less influential and knowledgeable regarding the inner workings of the regime.

Links To 'Death Squad'?

A report published by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in December 2003 suggested that Sheyman was involved in the organization of a government-run "death squad" that killed three of Lukashenka's political opponents in 1999 -- Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, and Anatol Krasouski -- as well as television journalist Dzmitry Zavadski in 2000. In 2004, Sheyman was placed by the EU on a visa-ban list along with three other officials who were also suspected by PACE of running the "death squad."

Many Belarusian commentators believe that Lukashenka wants his elder son to replace Sheyman atop the Security Council. In January 2007, Lukashenka appointed his 31-year-old son, Viktar Lukashenka, to the Security Council, granting the politically inexperienced young man a status equal to that of the KGB chief or the interior minister.

Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the opposition United Civic Party, is convinced that Sheyman and his protege, Nyavyhlas, eventually fell victim to a growing rivalry. Lyabedzka suggested that "the confrontation between the young team grouped around Viktor Lukashenka and the old guard represented by Viktar Sheyman has been won by Viktar Lukashenka."

Lyabedzka also told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that by removing Sheyman from the political spotlight, Lukashenka may be sending a signal that he wants to adjust his personnel policy and get rid of people who are unpalatable to the West.

However, irrespective of Lukashenka's motive for dismissing Sheyman, the state machinery of repression is working in its customary way.

On July 5, "Belarus Segodnya," the regime's main mouthpiece, published an unsigned commentary titled "Who Wanted To Blow Up The Holiday?" The piece suggested unambiguously that the Belarusian opposition wants to destabilize the political situation ahead of parliamentary elections due on September 28.

Belarusian law enforcement officers appear to have shared the suspicions of "Belarus Segodnya." They have since made numerous searches of apartments of opposition activists in both the capital and the provinces, and they arrested four formerly active oppositionists, allegedly in connection with the Minsk blast.

More To Come

Valery Bulhakau, editor in chief of the independent monthly "Arche," told RFE/RL that he expects more sackings because of the blast.

"The authorities have been confronted with one of the strongest shocks in the political history of Lukashenka's regime," Bulhakau said. "They are dealing with an unprecedented act that, as we see, shook the foundations of the regime. Heads are rolling at the top and, possibly, this is only the beginning."

A similar blast of a homemade nail bomb occurred at a public event in Vitebsk in September 2005, when 40 people were injured.

The perpetrator of the Vitebsk blast has not been caught; but at one point investigators arrested Pavel Krasouski, a young opposition activist, and kept him incarcerated for several months in an effort to force a confession out of him. To increase pressure on Krasouski, they even accused him of a rape. Krasouski was eventually rescued by the independent press, which publicized his case along with the fact that he was abroad at the time of the Vitebsk blast and that his foreign trip was confirmed by stamps in his passport.

The current investigation into last week's Minsk blast appears to be following the same ominous pattern as that into the Vitebsk bombing.

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich said on July 10 that authorities "should look for those responsible for this attack among themselves." But will the authorities heed his advice?

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