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'Quickly Covered Up': Suspicious Suicides Focus Spotlight On Hazing In Belarusian Army

After complaining about hazing in the Belarusian Army, 21-year-old Alyaksandr Korzhych was found hanged, the second such suspicious case in recent months.
After complaining about hazing in the Belarusian Army, 21-year-old Alyaksandr Korzhych was found hanged, the second such suspicious case in recent months.

Alyaksandr Korzhych was sent to the Pechy military training base northeast of Minsk just months after the 21-year-old was conscripted into the Belarusian armed forces.

Over his four-plus months there this year, he complained of being the target of hazing by senior officers. In particular, he told family and friends, he was being shaken down for money by his superiors.

On October 3, Korzhych was found hanging in the basement of the medical unit at the Pechy base. His feet were bound with a shoestring and a T-shirt cloaked his head.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee quickly ruled out criminal intent, judging instead that Korzhych had hanged himself in what it categorized as a suicide.

It was the second time in less than six months that a recruit had been found hanged at an army base in Belarus, sparking a debate about "dedovshchina," the particularly brutal form of hazing inherited from the days of the Soviet Union, and even calls for the resignation of the country's defense minister.

Like the earlier case, family and friends of Korzhych are convinced that foul play was involved.

"The probe's version that it was suicide is simply idiotic. A person isn't going to take his life in that way -- tying up his own legs and putting a T-shirt over his head," says Syarhey, a friend of Korzhych.

Convinced the military was simply going to sweep the case under the carpet, Svyatlana Korzhych, Alyaksandr's mother, took action, calling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's spokeswoman.

"She told me that the investigation was ongoing and that all necessary measures were being taken. What kind of measures? They should remove the commander of the unit," Korzhych says. "Why are they allowing such killers into the army? What do they need them for?"

The grave of Alyaksandr Korzhych
The grave of Alyaksandr Korzhych

Coupled with the public outcry, Lukashenka, who has managed to keep a lid on any form of public protest during his two-plus decades of authoritarian rule, was moved to act.

His spokeswoman said the Belarusian strongman was personally overseeing the probe into Korzhych's death.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee announced on October 17 that eight soldiers were being investigated in connection with the death, with two detained. They face up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.

One of those being held is Artur Virbal, a lower-ranking officer who was found in possession of a bank debit card belonging to Korzhych.

The Pechy military training base northeast of Minsk
The Pechy military training base northeast of Minsk

His wife is convinced he is innocent, arguing those being targeted by the investigation were being made scapegoats to protect higher-ups.

"You understand perfectly well that they're not going to put away some colonel. [Senior officers] will come out of this clean," Anastasia Virbal says. "I know my husband. He also said his soldiers were his children. He was always proud of them, defending them all the time."

It's not the first suspicious death in the Belarusian Army in recent months.

Less than six months ago, on March 31, conscript Artem Bastyuk was found hanging dead. His family said he had suffered verbal abuse and even named some of those allegedly involved in the abuse.

Bastyuk's family, frustrated that nothing was being done, traveled two months later to Minsk to the Defense Ministry, where officials promised to "take care of the situation." Despite such assurances, the case was closed, with no action taken.

Alyaksandr's mother, Svyatlana Korzhych: "Why are they allowing such killers into the army? What do they need them for?"
Alyaksandr's mother, Svyatlana Korzhych: "Why are they allowing such killers into the army? What do they need them for?"

It was only reopened after Korzhych's death, which whipped up a storm of protest rarely seen in Belarus.

More than 10,000 people have signed online petitions calling for the resignation of Defense Minister Andrey Ravkov.

Recruits who had suffered from hazing in the Belarusian Army have begun to speak out about their own experiences.

Military hazing is not an uncommon phenomenon, but "dedovshchina" ("rule of grandfathers" in Russian) -- the brand the Belarusian armed forces inherited from the Soviet Union -- is particularly cruel, driving some into such despair that suicide may appear the only way out.

In Belarus, 37 suicides were registered in the armed forces between 2008 and 2017, according to statistics from the Defense Ministry. In 2017 alone there were four suicides in the Belarusian armed forces, according to media reports.

Analysts and former soldiers who served there say the base at Pechy offers the perfect conditions for hazing to flourish.

Some 4,500 personnel are employed at the base, according to the Belarusian Military Magazine, the official publication of the Defense Ministry. About 10 percent of Belarus's 48,900 military personnel are located there. Most recruits come for three or four months before moving on to a regular military unit, civilian life, or elsewhere.

"There are a lot of people there over a huge area; the people come in and out all the time. There's less control and discipline there," a recruit named Andrey told RFE/RL on condition that his full name not be used, out of fear of retribution.

Thirty-year-old Ihor, who served at the Pechy base in 2006 and also requested that only his first name be used, said that in his unit there was little hazing, but cautioned it "depended on the commander of each company."

Ihor said that while his unit was normal, a nearby one was much "tougher." In that unit, according to Ihor, a sergeant poured boiling water on the face of a young recruit. In this case, Ihor recounts, no one was held accountable.

"All of it is quickly covered up," Ihor claimed. "They've got their mafia."

Parents visiting their sons at the Pechy base are not eager to speak to the press about hazing or Korzhych's death.

"The soldiers didn't know the soldier who died, and there's no talk about 'dedovshchina,'" said one parent in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

"No, nothing about 'dedovshchina.' No one talks about that," said another.

"You see, they're just afraid to say anything," said another woman whose son is serving at the base, before requesting that she not be shown on camera.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Current Time TV

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