Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Investigation

'Lukashenko put cucumbers in my trunk'

One of three statesmen whose signature dissolved the Soviet Union, the former head of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich still views ridding the country of its nuclear arsenal as his greatest achievement.

Shushkevich led Belarus from 1991 until Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in as President in July 1994.

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  • Shushkevich was stopped at the border on 19 March (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

His attempts to single-handedly liberalise a Soviet-era economy and to introduce democratic reforms met with reprimand from the more conservative apparatchiks in government

His rivals called him an idealist and ousted him from power in a parliamentary vote which brought in a pro-Russian cadre in his place. The same parliament in 1996 tried to impeach Lukashenko for violating the constitution, but failed.

"We could have prevented this dictatorship, but Lukashenko was supported by high-ranking Russian officials. The Russian speaker of the high chamber of parliament, the speaker of the lower chamber of the Duma and the prime minister handed victory over to Lukashenko. This is how Lukashenko became a dictator," Shushkevich recalled.

In his small apartment in north Minsk which he shares with his wife, Shushkevich spends his days writing and advising Belarus' fragmented opposition on how to unite against the autocrat.

The former head of state gets a measly pension of 3,200 rubles a month (about €0.40). He also gets a food allowance of about €50 a year, enough - authorities say - not to die from hunger.

He described Lukashenko as an "arse-kisser" who liked to please superiors. In the early 1990s, Lukashenko was an MP who attracted Shushkevich's pity.

"I remember one day I badly parked my car and Lukashenko approached me and said he could park it for me much better. So I gave him the keys. When I later returned to the car, I found my trunk full of cucumbers," Shushkevich told EUobserver.

He was not sure if the cucumbers were a joke or a gift. But they were not in season at the time, so he invited Lukashenko to his home for tea out of politeness. Lukashenko brought along Viktor Gunchar, a prominent politician and future deputy prime minister, who went on to oppose the dictator before disappearing in suspicious circumstances.

"Lukashenko was not very bright ... but the cucumbers were delicious," Shushkevich said of the tea party.

When he was not in Belarus, the historic statesman used to lecture at universities around the world.

But the lecture tours are now a thing of the past: his name is one of 148 on a KGB list of people who can no longer leave the country. It was drawn up in revenge against EU sanctions.

"I plan on travelling to Vilnius on 19 March to visit the Belarus center of culture. We'll see what happens," he told EUobserver earlier this month. On 19 March he was stopped at the border and sent home.

Henchmen and killers

Shushkevich can list off the top of his head all the cogs - big and small - that keep the Lukashenko machine running.

Aside from oligarchs such as Vladmir Peftiev and Yuri Chizh, there are other, more dangerous, creatures which shelter near the dictator. One of them is Viktor Sheiman.

"He is different from Peftiev and Chizh because he started in the state [security] service," Shushkevich said. Sheiman was a low-ranking major in the military. But his subservience and hunger for power caught the attention of superiors.

Shushkevich says Sheiman used murder and kidnappings as vehicles for his promotion. He received the rank of colonel general, a senior military status also used in North Korea and Russia.

During the 1990s, he organized fake assassination attempts on Lukashenko to falsely incriminate political rivals. As head of the council of security of the state prosecutor, Sheiman is personally linked to the murder and disappearance of journalists, businessmen and others who represented a threat to the regime - including Lukashenko's former friend and tea-party-guest, Gunchar.

Lukashenko has awarded Sheiman no fewer than 86 medals. He is now the face of Belarusian business in Latin America and deals in crude oil and petroleum with Venezuela.

'Economic sanctions can hurt him'

In Lukashenko's world, the value of loyalty is only as great as the money that greases the wheels of the regime and business connections with EU states are vital to his grip on power.

"Only economic sanctions will hurt Lukashenko. It would force him to release political prisoners," Shushkevich said.

Shushkevich went to Berlin three weeks after the 19 December crackdown to plead the case for economic sanctions. At the time everyone spoke to him of profit losses for German companies, of "not hurting ordinary Belarusians" and of not pushing Belarus deeper into Russia's sphere of influence.

For Shushkevich, the Russia argument was always bogus.

"You cannot integrate Belarus even more into the Russian sphere of influence," he said, noting that the two share a 959-km-long open border and that their military forces are joined at the hip. In February, Lukashenko even asked Russia to pay the salaries of his military officers. Many of the key positions in the Belarus government are staffed by Russian citizens and the Russian language dominates in the country.

The EU on 23 March blacklisted 29 Belarus companies and two oligarchs. But three key firms got off in order not to hurt business interests in Latvia and Slovenia.

Shushkevich believes the next step should be a special EU fund to compensate EU firms for lost income so that economic sanctions are no longer held hostage by the likes of Riga and Ljubljana.

"If you want to help Belarus then the EU needs a budget dedicated to Belarus and not just rhetoric and symbolic embargoes," he said.

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