Interpol Clashes with BBC over 2011 Minsk Metro Bombing
On 30 July, BBC showed a controversial documentary about the 2011 terrorist attack in Minsk where 15 people died and over 200 were injured. It questioned the guilt of the two men convicted and subsequently executed for it. The film provoked a strong reaction from the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol). Interpol labelled the BBC documentary as based on "biased speculation".
Back in 2011, Interpol publicly endorsed the preliminary results of the investigation which preceded the trial of two convicted young Belarusians. The international organisation was involved in the investigation and dispatched its experts to Minsk where it offered technical assistance. Now some in the Belarusian opposition criticise this international organisation for its failure to condemn the Belarusian regime. Interpol, however, insists that the official investigation was conducted professionally.
Emotions Against Evidence
The full BBC documentary is no longer available online – but a brief transcript gives a taste of it. The film blames the official investigation and relies primarily on anonymous sources. The author of the documentary John Sweeney describes how doubts about "the guilt of the two men convicted for the bomb have arisen. Now the Belarus KGB is being accused of planting the bomb, rigging a show trial and torturing confessions out of the two suspects".
However, the whole narrative of the BBC report appears to be built on one story told by the mother of one of the bombers. She gives her own, very humane but hardly impartial, version of what happened. According to the BBC journalist, the campaign to rehabilitate her son launched by Lyubov Kovalyova might even threaten the Secretary General of Interpol who is American.
In addition to Lyubov Kovalyova's story, the report contains a quote from Natalya Kolyada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre. "This was a KGB bomb. There are no facts whatsoever to prove something else." In its previous March report, the BBC covered the topic in the same way by quoting the mother and anonymous sources.
Interpol had to respond to the BBC report because the journalist essentially publicly reduced the organisation to an accomplice of a dictator. It insisted that, the “presumption of innocence of defendants … was not breached". The Interpol statement also noted:
It is regrettable that none of the information provided by INTERPOL about the nature and strength of evidence obtained during Belarus's criminal investigation into the Minsk terrorist metro bombing was included by the documentary maker, who preferred instead to rely solely on biased speculation.
Both Belarusian investigators and Interpol draw attention to the publicly available CCTV footage. Criticising the BBC, Interpol asks, “it is not clear whether the journalist making the documentary saw any of the CCTV footage himself, or is relying on second-, third- or possibly fourth-hand information". Interpol officials believe that the CCTV footage explicitly proves at least some episodes concerning the bombing on 11 April.
Moreover, Interpol points to other forensic evidence such as apartment rental records, phone records, clothes, bomb materials, and numerous interviews with eyewitnesses. In other words, they highlight that the defendants' confession (according to the BBC documentary obtained by torture) was by far not the only basis for conclusions reached by Belarusian investigators.
Some activists and media raised a number of legitimate questions concerning the trial, claiming in particular that the ICTV footage had been edited or that no traces of explosives had been found on the cloths of the bomber. A number of other procedural issues looked questionable. Yet the substantive doubts have not been conclusively confirmed by experts.
The BBC documentary also accuses the Belarusian regime not only of the disappearance of four political opponents in 1999-2000 – something which has been accepted by many as the regime's crime – but it also puts forward a completely new accusation, much to the surprise of those who follow the situation in Belarus: "More than 30 others, the BBC has been told, were also killed by the death squad".
The journalist implies that these 30 persons were also political opponents of the regime. Neither the source, nor additional details to explain this accusation were provided. Even the most radical opposition groups never accused Lukashenka of killing so many political opponents.
When Belarusian Courts Can Get It Right
The case shows how it is easy to manipulate facts when dealing with a complex investigation in a country with a deplorable record of human rights. The Belarusian government, as always, cared very little about transparency and publicity. The EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that both men had not been accorded due legal process. British Europe Minister David Lidington claimed that independent reports had "raised serious and credible concerns over the standard of evidence and fairness" of the process.
Of course, much of this criticism has been linked with the EU's concern about the death penalty in Belarus – the only European country which still uses it. Yet it is important to avoid explicitly denouncing this serious crime or even ridiculing the Belarusian tragedy. In May, the mother and sister of Uladzislau Kavalyou were invited to Poland where they met the wife of the Polish president and got extensive media coverage. This hardly helps with the goal of struggling with the dictatorship in Belarus or improve ties between two countries.
Some in Belarus and abroad tend to criticise the regime in Belarus without a bit of substantial evidence. This culminated in an action on 16 March when a number of internet activists urged people to bring flowers to the metro bombing place for the two convicted men and show solidarity with them. Several dozen people showed up. A similar action also took place in Moscow.
Dismissing the entire Belarusian state as a dictatorship is a mechanism that does not help to actually influence what is going on in the country. Such an attitude destroys the very foundations of the state, undermining the future of the Belarusian government after Lukashenka is gone. Some parts of the Belarusian state do function more or less as they should, and according to Interpol the investigation of the 2011 metro bombing proved it.
Despite Lukashenka’s Rhethoric Belarus Officials Worry about Economic Outlook
While Alexandr Lukashenka assures Belarusians of economic stability, other high-profile officials warn of foreseeable problems in the economy. The Government and National Bank sent a joint official letter to the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community where they painted quite a gloomy picture.
They say that the macroeconomic situation in the country can worsen as a result of a number of internal and external factors. In particular, they anticipate that the foreign exchange and gold reserves will shrink to a critical level.
In reality, the situation might be even worse. As Belarus is facing a growing debt burden and several other economic risks, serious problems can arise already in 2013.
Lukashenka Promises Stability
In an interview on 9 August Alexander Lukashenka tried to disprove any worries about Belarus' financial stability. He stated that the country has enough resources to repay all its debts and also continue to raise salaries.
In 2012-2013 the government will have to pay about $5 billion of its foreign liabilities. In Lukashenka's opinion, that's nothing. He underlined that the country's foreign exchange and gold reserves had been growing since the beginning of the year. Moreover, according to him, the authorities already have some additional money to make the upcoming credit payments. The sources of that money remained unclear.
At the same time Lukashenka made two interesting reservations. Firstly, he said that if any problems with the debt repayment still arise, salaries will automatically stop growing. Secondly, he reminded Belarusians that they can always count on help from Russia: "Even if we see that we don't manage to return a billion dollars to the Russians this year, I will somehow find an agreement with the Russian president to extend the repayment by one more year".
Belarusian analysts know that Lukashenka's rhetorical style suggests that such reservations are usually meaningful. Most likely they indicate that Lukashenka himself expects a tough situation to develop with the debt repayment over the next two years.
The Government and the National Bank Are Less Optimistic
The Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and the Head of the National Bank Nadzeya Yarmakova are even less optimistic about the near prospects of the country's economy. They co-authored a joint letter to the Anti-Crisis Fund of Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) where they provided some details about the financial situation in Belarus.
They draw particular attention to the fact that in the months to come Belarus would have to repay part of its internal and external foreign exchange liabilities. This will cause the state reserves to shrink from $8.23 billion (as of 1 August) to approximately $6.4 billion in October. Given that the monthly level of imports in Belarus is nearly $4 billion, in October the state reserves will be enough to cover only $1.6 months of import.
The authorities then plan to attract more money from privatisation and foreign direct investments (FDI) in order to raise the level of the reserves to two months' imports by 1 January 2013. But this will still be quite low. International financial institutions (including the Anti-Crisis Fund of EurAsEC) normally regard state reserves as safe when they equal three months of imports.
The joint letter also emphasises that the Belarusian economy faces a number of serious risks, both internal and external. Among such risks it mentions:
- a possible decline in demand for Belarusian goods on international markets
- worsening of foreign trade conditions
- lack of FDIs in the economy (as a result of poor privatisation gains)
- restricted access to credit resources on international financial markets
- poor structure of external liabilities: short-term credit and loans prevail over long-term.
The Government and the National Bank conclude their letter by saying that the existing risks and the precarious situation with the state reserves create "an objective need for the continuation of the EurAsEC Anti-Crisis Fund's credit program for Belarus."
The Real Situation Might Be Even Worse
Last week it became evident that the real situation in the Belarusian economy might be even more precarious than what the joint letter by the Government and the National Bank describes.
On 8 August Nadzeya Yarmakova stated that in 2013 the outflow of capital from Belarus would amount to at least $8 billion. Out of this sum $4 billion are the government's internal and external foreign exchange liabilities. And another $4 billion — the export fee on oil products that Belarus will have to be transferred to the Russian budget.
These numbers look quite alarming. Especially if the government fails to build up the state reserves and if the demand for Belarusian goods in international markets declines. It becomes even more worrisome when one looks at a couple of other factors.
For example, FDIs in the Belarusian economy. As was mentioned above, the officials hope that FDIs will help strengthen the state reserves despite the expected outflow of capital. But the level of foreign investments is still very low in Belarus. The official statistics says that in January-June the country got $605.7 million in FDIs. The number itself is not very high. But even more importantly, most of this sum came as reinvestment of income from previous investments. It means that new investors are not in a hurry to come to Belarus.
To make matters worse, more and more old investors leave the country and close their investment projects. The latest example is the State Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman. Back in 2010 it bought a sizeable plot of land in central Minsk where it wanted to build a multi-functional complex to include business centres, hotels and residential houses. The sum of investments equalled an estimated $150 million.
However, after the 2011 Belarusian financial crisis and the devaluation of the national currency, the investment project is no longer profitable for its investors. After a period of uncertainty they announced the termination of the project. And this is, unfortunately, a vivid example of the unattractiveness of present-day Belarus for investors even from countries that are friendly to Lukashenka's regime.
Thus, the Belarusian authorities can hardly rely on foreign investments. Nor can they count on income from privatisation as a source of hard currency. In January-June 2012 the state got only slightly more than $1 million from privatisation. And there is very little willingness to privatise more.
Therefore, the people of Belarus might feel the heavy burden of foreign debt already in 2013.
Yauheni is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk