While Belarusians go to the polling stations on Sunday 29 October, the independent media will mark 100 days since the disappearance of cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky of Russia's main TV channel, Public Russian TV (ORT), in Minsk. The cameraman vanished in early July, just days before his documentary on Chechnya was due to be broadcast, but it is still unclear whether the disappearance has anything to do with his Chechen assignment.
Shortly before his disappearance, Mr Zavadsky drove his car to the airport to pick up his colleague, ORT reporter Pavel Sheremet. The two men became famous across the globe three years ago after they were arrested by Belarus' still-existing KGB and charged with the illegal crossing of the Belarus-Lithuania border. Their case, involving then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, resulted in suspended prison terms. Earlier this year, Sheremet and Zavadsky filmed a documentary in Chechnya that was broadcast by ORT.
Upon his arrival from Moscow, Mr Sheremet found the car empty with no trace of the cameraman. Belarus police checked the nearby forests with dogs but found nothing. The ORT reporter links the Belarusian security services and President Alexander Lukashenko to Mr Zavadsky's disappearance. Nonetheless, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladimir Zametalin, told reporters that the incident was created by Mr Sheremet himself: "I will not be surprised if he (Sheremet) uses this scandal to get a seat in the new Belarusian Parliament," Mr Zametalin said. Yet, the journalist, who is based in Moscow, has made no attempts take part in the election.
Lukashenko's top aide has also hinted that all famous persons who have previously disappeared from Belarus are, in fact, safe and alive. Indeed, the former head of the Belarus central bank, Ms Tamara Vinnikova, the first well-known politician who was reported missing, and possibly dead, in 1999, is now a political refugee in London. Ms Vinnikova, who is charged with embezzlement in Belarus, was told last week that her Minsk flat, furniture and library had been confiscated even before her case has ever gone to court. While a presidential decree allows such confiscation, Vinnikova says that Lukashenko's actions reveal his disregard for the law, just days before the general election.
After Ms Vinnikova, three more famous Belarusians have disappeared in Minsk. In May 1999, ex-Minister of the Interior General Yuri Zakharenko vanished somewhere between parking his car and his near-by home. Last September, another prominent opposition member, Viktor Gonchar, the former deputy prime minister and ex-chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, disappeared from a public bath, together with his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.
Unlike Ms Vinnikova, who escaped arrest, Gonchar and Zakharenko were active figures among the Belarusian opposition. Their friends say the two politicians could have been imprisoned or murdered by the Belarus secret services. However, judging by her own experiences, Ms Vinnikova, however, has written in a number of articles, published in Minsk, reporting that she is convinced both men are still alive.
Zavadsky's disappearance occurred on the eve of the sixth anniversary of Mr Lukashenko's landslide victory. In the presidential election run-off on 10 July 1994, he received roughly 80 per cent of the vote (57 per cent of all Belarus voters cast their ballots in favour of him). In November 1996, the West declined to recognise a controversial referendum recommending a five-year term in office for the President. They urged the authorities of Belarus to make every effort to find Zakharenko, Gonchar and Krasovsky, in order to ensure an appropriate political climate for the forthcoming general election.
Election observers negative
At a conference on Belarus held in Vienna this August, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE) ruled that Minsk had failed to organize free and fair elections. Consequently, international observers would not be sent to monitor the campaign. But, on Thursday 12 October, the "European Troika" deployed in Minsk such observers as OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chairman Mr Adrian Severin and CoE rapporteur on Belarus Mr Wolfgang Behrendt. According to Mr Behrendt, the 16-strong group is not in Belarus in an official capacity but will observe the election process while they are there.
United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has urged Belarus' closest ally, Russia, not to send any observers to the election. Moscow reacted angrily, and the Russian Parliament's lower house, the Duma, will adopt a supportive resolution on Belarus on the eve of Troika's Minsk visit (11 October).
Also, US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has said, "The United States will not recognise the outcome of elections in Belarus which are not democratic." According to Mr Talbott, the US opposes sending observers to monitor the 29 October elections, believing it "would lend legitimacy to a fundamentally flawed election process." The Deputy Secretary also underlined that the technical assessment by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights should not be construed as election observation.
President Lukashenko's response was remarkable. Addressing residents of a small provincial town in southern Belarus, he argued: "How can one make statements about the non-recognition of elections that have not yet been held?" He commented that Belarus did not like everything about America, "but we do not intervene in their affairs."
The opposition movement in Belarus has made calls to boycott the elections and concentrate on the presidential election due to be held next year. Opposition leaders have launched a new slogan, "Milošević yesterday, Lukashenko tomorrow." They have promised to find a single candidate in 2001, the Belarusian Koštunica.
Yet, there are families in Minsk for whom 29 October will be another day of horror and tears. Yuri and Svetlana Zavadskys will remember their father and husband, who would have been devoting his time to covering the Sunday elections on ORT. The Gonchars and Krasovskys will also think about their own losses. And the Zakharenkos will observe Belarus' elections from Germany, where the family is seeking asylum.
Yuri Svirko, 30 October 2000
Yuri Svirko is a stringer for Radio Liberty and an ex-BBC Minsk Correspondent
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