Man's Disappearance Spurs Wife's Activism

When Irina Krasovskaya dropped by her husband's office one September day three years ago to bring him a change of clothes before he went to a sauna with a friend, she had no reason to suspect it would be the last time she would ever see him.

But her husband, a businessman named Anatoly Krasovskiy, apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she said.

The friend with whom her husband went to the sauna happened to be a prominent leader in the opposition to Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and that night in 1999 happened to be the night that the secret police chose to silence him, she said.

Her husband's presence in the car with Viktor Gonchar, the former deputy chairman of the Belarussian legislature who was dismissed by Lukashenko, only strengthened the message the government wanted to send, Krasovskaya said.

"He was the friend of a very prominent politician — Gonchar was a real threat to the president," Krasovskaya told "That night I think it was the purpose of the authorities to show, to make people fear being friends with political leaders or to support them."

Krasovskiy and Gonchar are among the dozens of people — politicians, journalists and human rights activists — who have disappeared, died under mysterious circumstances or been imprisoned indefinitely on questionable charges under Lukashenko, according to human rights groups.

The U.S. State Department, in its most recent Belarus Human Rights Country Report, criticized the Lukashenko regime for using security forces and the Presidential Guard as instruments of repression.

A spokesman at the Belarussian Embassy in Washington denied any government involvement in the disappearances and pointed out that four men have been tried and convicted of kidnapping the journalist Dmitry Zavadavsky, who has never been found.

"The government of Belarus has been making a lot of efforts on the disappeared people and we are interested in finding out the truth about them," the spokesman said. "The Belarussian government has been doing a lot on this. Unfortunately there are not many results, but that does not mean nothing is being done."

At a recent debate with Russian Energy Minister Anatoly Chubais that was broadcast in Russia, Lukashenko defended his policies and said his government was closer to European values than the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reporters at the debate, however, got a rare chance to challenge him directly when he said that he supported a free press and was creating better conditions for everyone in the country.

"This is a lie, Aleksandr Grigoryevich [Lukashenko]. And I have the feeling it's not the Russians who are living in virtual reality, but you," said Marina Kalinkina of the Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarussian Business Gazette). "You present fairy tales about how the country is flourishing, about privatization, about how everything is wonderful here. You don't have any oligarchs. You imprison the directors of the poorest collective farms. You have no one left to imprison, no one left to take money from."

Neither the bodies of Krasovskiy and Gonchar nor the jeep they were driving in that night have ever been found, but Krasovskaya said she was told by a former Belarussian prison guard who was responsible for the pistol used in executions that the night of her husband's disappearance that he issued the weapon to secret police officers, who used it on Krasovskiy and Gonchar.

The disappearance of her husband turned Krasovskaya from a self-described "ordinary woman" into a political activist. She recently met with members of Congress and State Department officials, urging the United States to take an active role in promoting democracy in her country.

"I had an ordinary family with my children and my husband and that was all I wanted," she said. "I only got involved in politics because they took away my husband."

A bill has been under discussion in the Senate, the Defense of Democracy in Belarus Act, which would call for more sanctions on Belarus if the government does not change its policies.

The Belarussian Embassy spokesman said the measure would be counterproductive.

"We do not believe it is a constructive way to solve the differences in relations between the two countries," he said. "It is not going to help."

The human rights group Amnesty International said in a recent report that the Belarussian government has begun closing human rights groups and independent media organizations as the country prepares for a referendum next year on whether the constitution should be amended to allow Lukashenko to remain in office.

The State Department, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has criticized Belarus in the past for the way elections have been run, alleging that independent media has been repressed and opposition candidates have been arrested on trumped-up charges to prevent them from being elected.

Despite the alleged campaign of repression, there are many opposition groups in Belarus.

Five political parties — the Belarussian People's Front, the Party of Communists of Belarus, the Belarussian Labour Party and the Belarussian Social Democratic Hramada — announced earlier this month that they had formed a coalition for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The youth group Zubr (Bison) stages frequent demonstrations and its protest graffiti can be seen all across the country.

But Krasovskaya says there is another, even more widespread opposition.

"This is the opposition of the whole population in their kitchens," she said. "This is because everyone knows it is very dangerous to say anything about Lukashenko except in the kitchen."