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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
The disappeared of Belarus
By Tim Whewell
The last time Zinaida Gonchar saw her husband Viktor was on Thursday, September 16th, 1999. She got a message to say he was going to the steam baths with a friend, and would be back before midnight.
In every country, people vanish without trace. But what makes Viktor Gonchar's case unusual is that he was one of Belarus' best known politicians - and the second rival of President Alexander Lukashenko to disappear in the space of a few months.
He was a punctilious, reliable man who was in the middle of preparing his strategy for a crucial upcoming session of parliament.
Moreover, according to his wife, his every movement was being shadowed by agents of the very security forces who claim to have no idea what happened to him.
"More than a year and a half has gone by and I've had absolutely no news about what happened," says Zinaida, a striking, elegantly-dressed blonde woman who describes her nightmare with remarkable composure.
"I have no new information about how the investigation's going. All I know is that my husband was abducted. And I don't doubt that it was an abduction organised by the secret police."
In Belarus - unlike Russia -- the secret police is still officially called the KGB. And that's only one of the ways in which this new nation of ten million people, squeezed between Poland and Russia, has clung tenaciously to its Soviet heritage.
Most of the country's economy remains state controlled - and private enterprises which sprang up in the early 1990s have in many cases been forced to close in the face of bureaucratic hostility.
But it's in its political system that Belarus harks back most obviously to the final phase of Soviet communism, before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika.
The country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, is not a dictator in the classic sense of the term. A former collective farm chairman, he was elected by a large majority in 1994 and may well win again in elections due to be held this autumn.
But since he first came to power, he's strengthened his position by means which the country's small opposition - and most Western leaders - regard as unacceptable.
In 1995 he pressurised the country's parliament into dissolving itself. Deputies who refused to give up their seats were dragged kicking and shouting from the chamber.
Later, Lukashenko won a referendum - regarded by independent observers as at least partly rigged -- to approve a new constitution. It extended his term of office and created a new parliament with much reduced powers.
Last month he was sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment for organising an unsanctioned street demonstration.
Other opposition leaders are now in exile in the neighbouring countries of Poland and Lithuania, or further afield. Some say they were warned that if they didn't leave they could face lengthy spells in jail - or worse.
Ural Latipov, secretary of the state security council which oversees the work of the secret service and the police, denies western allegations about human rights abuses in the country. The elections planned for the autumn will be free and fair, he says.
But despite his powerful position he has been unable to gain any information on the whereabouts of Viktor Gonchar, he says, or of three other men whose disappearances may have a political motive - the businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, who vanished with Gonchar, the former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko, and the TV cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky.
Remarkably, though, Viktor's wife Zinaida refuses to consider the possibility that her husband may be dead. And she's convinced that President Lukashenko will eventually have to account for an abduction that she believes is at least ultimately his responsibility.
"That's why I think Viktor must be alive," she says, "because I can't imagine that the President never thinks about the future, that he doesn't realise that however long he's president, there will still be the day after. And on that day, he'll have to answer those questions that I and the other families of the abducted are putting to him."
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