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23rd May 2022

Interview

Belarus exiles in EU fear regime-linked murderers

  • Pavel Latushka (r) speaking at an Estonian foreign-ministry event in January (Photo: vm.ee)
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Belarus is working with a notorious organised-crime boss to terrorise its opponents in EU states, a former regime insider has alleged in an interview with EUobserver.

"These criminals are on Polish and EU territory and are preparing acts of terrorism against me and my team under the direction of the Belarusian interior ministry," Pavel Latushka, a Belarusian opposition leader living in Warsaw, said.

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  • Latushka with then Austrian foreign minister (now chancellor) Alexander Schallenberg in Vienna last year (Photo: bmeia.gv.at)

The operation was being led by Vladimir Tikhinya, the former deputy-chief of 'GUBOPiK', the Belarusian interior ministry's anti-organised crime unit, and by Alyaksandr Kushnerov, a Belarusian crime boss, Latushka said.

It included surveillance on Latushka and his Warsaw-based opposition group, National Anti-Crisis Management (NAM).

But Tikhinya was also "given a free hand to organise operations of criminal structures to take care of liquidation of Belarusian opposition activists abroad", Latushka told EUobserver, citing his informants in Belarus' intelligence services.

"Based on the information I have and the facts I know, Kushnerov is a criminal authority who, I presume, is the first point of contact, the coordinator," Latushka said.

"Kushnerov was once a vor-v-zakone. He was said to be in Poland a few months ago to organise this whole operation," Latushka added.

"Vor-v-zakone" is Russian for "thief-in-law" - a title used by members of a criminal caste from the former Soviet region, known, among other things, for cryptic tattoos.

Kushnerov, a 55-year old from Gomel in southeastern Belarus, who is also known as 'Sasha Kushner', is a minor celebrity in Russian media.

He was deprived of his vor-v-zakone status in January in an underworld power struggle, according to Russian news-website Lenta.

It was against the thieves' code to cooperate with state authorities, according to one self-confessed professional thief, a 38-year old from the Serebryanka district in Minsk, which is known for its criminal community.

But for all that Kushnerov was still feared as a "murderer" in the Belarusian crime-world, the thief, who spoke to EUobserver via an intermediary, said.

And the Kushnerov group has already used violence against Latushka's organisation in Poland.

Warsaw beating

Eight men forced their way into the apartment of a NAM activist in Warsaw on 27 September and beat his flatmate with telescopic batons because the flatmate had refused to spy on Latushka, according to a formal NAM complaint lodged with Warsaw police on 3 October.

The assailants invoked Kushnerov's name several times during the attack, Tomasz Wiliński, a Polish human-rights lawyer helping Latushka, told EUobserver.

And the punishment-beating was not the only danger sign in recent times.

"We were walking from the Palace of Culture to the Belarusian embassy when a young man came up to me, in a [coronavirus] mask, of course, saying I should be scared to take part in such protests [against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko] because I'd get a knife in the back," Latushka said, recalling an incident in Warsaw city-centre on 8 August.

"I asked him: 'So are you planning to do it now?'," Latushka said, "and, walking away, he said: 'No, I'm not going to do it, but there are people who will'."

Latushka is Belarus' former culture minister and ambassador to France and Poland, who is hated by Lukashenko.

"Lukashenko personally told me he'd strangle me with his own hands if I betrayed him ... I know this man. I met him many times, sometimes alone, eye-to-eye", Latushka said.

He was accused, in April, of plotting "terrorist" attacks in Belarus - a crime which carries the death penalty.

Official media have said he should be kidnapped and brought to Minsk.

And Latushka's associates recently discovered details of a financial bounty offered for his murder on the internet.

He has Polish police protection, but said he did not feel safe in Poland, or in Germany and Lithuania, which he often visits for his work.

And he spoke to EUobserver in the hope extra publicity would help protect him and other diaspora activists from harm.

Borderless crime

Thousands of Belarusians have fled to EU states since Lukashenko unleashed a crackdown against a pro-democracy uprising last year.

But the borders of EU or Nato territory have little meaning for transnational crime-groups.

Kushnerov, for instance, was seen in Austria and Turkey as well as Belarus and Poland in recent times, according to Russian media.

Europol, the EU's joint police agency in The Hague, also painted a picture of borderless criminal networks.

"Russian-speaking organised crime is active in the EU, however it does not necessarily mean that these individuals carry a Russian nationality," it told EUobserver.

"More than 50 percent of all reported suspected organised criminals active in the EU are non-EU nationals. Half of these ... originate from countries in the EU's neighbourhood, such as the Western Balkan region, eastern European countries, and North Africa," it added.

Criminals like Kushnerov were "not ordinary thugs ... they can move all around inside Europe", a European security source said.

There were 21 cases with "an international dimension" involving "Russian and/or Eurasian" organised-crime groups in Germany in 2019, German police told EUobserver.

"These groups are dominated by individuals born in post-Soviet states, who were socialised in a criminal context with the cultural and social ideals of strength, single-mindedness, and resistance to infiltration," a police spokesman said.

Meanwhile, use of ex-officials like Tikhinya and mobsters like Kushnerov to do his dirty work in Europe made it easier for Lukashenko to wash his hands of responsibility, Latushka noted.

"They [Belarusian criminals who harmed expats] would be extradited from the EU to Belarus, serve a little time in prison, then be released and maybe have financial rewards," Latushka said.

"Speaking for myself, it doesn't demotivate me," the 48-year old said from Warsaw.

"As a politician, I am aware of the risks," he said.

Embassy gun

And Lukashenko's criminality did not surprise him either.

Back in his time as Belarus' ambassador to Warsaw some 15 years ago, Latushka was shown that the regime had abused diplomatic privileges by smuggling in a potential murder weapon.

"As ambassador, I was once shown that there was an unregistered, off-the-books firearm on the territory of the embassy, a pistol, which had been illegally brought to Poland and in answer to my question to the security officer why was this pistol in the embassy illegally, he said it was there: 'Just in case it was needed one day'," he told EUobserver.

Asked if there were unregistered weapons in Belarus' embassies in other EU capitals, such as Brussels, Latushka said: "I cannot claim this ... but in Poland, I saw it with my own eyes".

The Belarusian foreign ministry did not reply to questions.

Kushnerov could not be reached.

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