The leaked tapes from the former Belarus KGB chief Vadim Zaitsev's office suggest that the Lukashenko regime may have been involved in the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Ukraine.
Lukashenko has for 20 years already been accused of the alleged involvement in the killing of Sheremet's colleague Dmitriy Zavadsky (he had been abducted just before he was supposed to meet with Sheremet). Rumors about the so-called "death squads" in Belarus first span in the late 1990s, when Lukashenko's main opponents at the time – Zakharenko, Gonchar, and Krasovsky – went missing one after another. Under Lukashenko's rule, other politicians died as well, under strange circumstances. Among them was Gennady Karpenko (known, among other things, for the attempt to initiate Lukashenko's impeachment in Parliament).
It is only indirectly that the leaked records show the secret services of Belarus discussing the possibility of physical elimination of the acclaimed journalist
Some might ask why Ukrainian law enforcement didn't immediately follow the Belarus trace in the Sheremet case? But who says they didn't? Initially, this was one of the versions in the works. This could easily be verified in older news reports. The question is that the relations between Ukraine and Belarus at that time were much better than now, so perhaps leaders probably decided not to spoil them. That is, the investigation of this version could be politically slowed down. Moreover, Belarus is a country hosting the negotiations of the Trilateral Contact Group.
Some ask, whether the leaked tapes are direct evidence of Lukashenko or his death squads' involvement in the murder of Pavel Sheremet? No, they aren't – even without a logical doubt that's traditional in such cases: whether the records are authentic in the first place, or rather – whether it is possible to prove their authenticity in court. It is only indirectly that the leaked records show the secret services of Belarus discussing the possibility of physical elimination of the acclaimed journalist. Such discussions took place four years before his actual assassination. So for now, it's worth verifying authenticity of the tapes. And then – to revisit the investigation and search for other evidence of the "Belarusian trace."
The emergence of such records as such though may exacerbate the existing confrontation between the government and the patriotic opposition in Ukraine
Some ask, why the leak was published precisely now? After all, it will certainly not lead to the charges being dropped any time soon off main suspect Antonenko and others accused of organizing the car blast that killed Sheremet. First, there is a legal component that is still dubious. And, secondly, there is a political factor. That is, admitting a mistake. The police are unlikely to go for it too soon as it will certainly affect the image of state leaders who attended a high-profile conference where suspects were named. The emergence of such records as such though could exacerbate the existing confrontation between the government and the patriotic opposition in Ukraine.
But it is unlikely that the main purpose of the leak is only about affecting Ukrainian politics. It is possible that in this way international political actors are trying to play with opposition sentiments in Belarus. This includes stimulating new protest rallies after the New Year holidays. Given that the West has been too inert to respond to the Belarusian issue, the only player who might be interested in continuing the Belarusian protests is the Kremlin. After all, Moscow understands that Lukashenko will once again start shifting away from it and "forget" about his agreements with Russia once protests subside and die out. Besides, Moscow needs protracted, albeit unsuccessful, opposition rallies in Belarus to impose on the Russians a feeling of despair as regards any protest efforts.
Bohdan Petrenko is a Deputy Director at the Ukrainian Institute for Extremism Studies