Sheiman: The Last Soldier of President Lukashenka
Last month Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka appointed Viktar Sheiman as head of the President's Property Administration, the biggest state-owned business empire and the financial backbone of Lukashenka's regime. Barely any other officials of the Belarusian regime are demonised by its opponents as much as General Viktar Sheiman.
Most media and oppositional politicians ascribe his involvement in every alleged nasty doing of the ruling clique and call him the grey eminence of the regime. But some opposition activists remember him from early 1990s and cannot grasp that this can be the same person they knew back then.
Like most of Lukashenka's men, he had no hopes of making it very high up in the Soviet system as he was quite ordinary until he joined forces with Lukashenka. And still it has been this very man: a paratrooper from a provincial garrison who together with the Belarusian ruler has created today's Belarus.
Viktar Sheiman (54) was born in a village in a remote rural district on the border with Lithuania, the only one in Belarus dominated by an ethnic minority – the Voranava. With such a humble background he managed to enter only a military school in the deeply provincial Soviet Far East called Blagoveshchensk Tank Command High School. He graduated in 1979 as Soviet troops began campaign in Afghanistan. Sheiman went to that war as an officer of Soviet Airborne Troops, the most intensively deployed group of Soviet forces during the conflict.
By 1990, he became a major and luckily got an assignment to a garrison in his native Belarus. Perestroika was already succeeding and Sheiman joined the political struggle. He got elected to the then vibrant parliament of Soviet Belarus and took part in establishing a nationalistic Belarusian Alliance of Soldiers (BZV).
Former colleagues which remain in the opposition remember him as a sincere patriot, openly supportive of the Belarusian language and national symbols abolished later by Lukashenka.
Siarhei Navumchyk of the Christian Conservative Party of Belarusian People's Front recalls Sheiman in positive terms as an open minded and pleasant man. Have the games of power with Lukashenka destroyed him, wondered recently Navumchyk speaking on the Radio of Liberty?
Throwing in his Lot with Lukashenka
In post-Soviet Belarus, however, the military was clearly a bad place to make a career. For a while, Sheiman worked in parliament where he befriended many current opponents of Lukashenka and was elected as the secretary of the parliamentary Commission on National Security, Defence and Crime Control. In addition to this he studied law. His time came in 1994. That year he joined the ambitious team of the future Belarusian president.
A young decorated veteran with political experience was a valuable asset to Lukashenka who built his election campaign by fiercely attacking ruling Soviet nomenclatura elites. A director of a collective farm, Lukashenka was despised by most professionals, and as a result, he initially had few qualified people in his team. In August 1994, as soon as Lukashenka won the presidential election, he appointed Sheiman to a top position: State Secretary of the newly formed Security Council of Belarus.
Many members of Lukashenka's team very soon fell out with him. But not Sheiman. He firmly stood behind the boss. In December 1995, as Lukashenka embarked on his struggle to weaken and dissolve the parliament and ultimately establish an authoritarian regime, he appointed Sheiman to lead the key Ministry of the Interior.
They won the fight together by crushing street protests, organising a constitutional coup d'etat and destroying any meaningful opposition in the late 1990s. The stern-looking former paratrooper Sheiman, who never gave interviews, did his best to create the sterile political landscape of today's Belarus.
On the other hand, Lukashenka's men in these years successfully struggled not only with political opponents but also with criminality. Contrary to Russia with her terrible criminal chaos of 1990s, in Belarus criminal activity was reined in very quickly.
Working under the unscrupulous president, Sheiman helped to revive again all security agencies – police, special services and the military – severely battered and effectively paralysed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In November 2000, Lukashenka moved him to the office of Prosecutor General where Sheiman worked for the next four years. Those were the fat years of the regime which already had given up the plans of conquering Kremlin but still had generous Russian subsidies. In 2004-2006, Sheiman held another key office – Head of the Administration of the President – probably the most important power centre of the Belarusian regime.
He then apparently left the political frontline and is said to have switched to conducting murky deals. In 2006, he was again appointed the secretary of the Security Council only to be sacked after being accused of negligence after the July 2008 bombings in Minsk.
Yet Sheiman was too useful to be forgotten and in January 2009 he was appointed assistant to the President for Special Tasks. That was a very uncertain job – but it was not just honorary retirement, it was apparently an office to carry out tasks too sensitive to sort out through normal government channels. The general's comeback as a head of the President's Property Administration confirms his unfading relevance.
Sheiman has sacrificed for Lukashenka much more than most of other in president's retinue. It is Sheiman who was accused of involvement in the disappearance of three political opponents in 1999-2000. Since 2004, he has been banned from travelling to the US and EU – one of the first Belarusian officials to land on the list. He was one of the very few who were not even temporarily removed from it at the time of the warming up in relations between Belarus and the EU.
Furthermore, Sheiman has worked for the Belarusian regime in developing countries since the mid-1990s, for example going to Sudan as early as 1996 or 1997. He has been a very important figure in Belarusian relations with Venezuela from the late 2000s.
Because of his frequent visits to the third world, Sheiman is regularly accused of involvement in arms deals. A real scandal broke out around him in 2008 when the Spanish newspaper El Pais accused him of complicity in Venezuelan attempts to help Colombian guerrillas. The documents published, however, were too ambiguous to corroborate the charges and did not name Sheiman directly.
The Belarusian leader appreciates the faithfulness of his soldier. Lukashenka gave the Soviet-era major the highest military rank existing in Belarus: colonel general. Sheiman seems to enjoy such distinctions.
Recently he appeared publicly with an immense number of medals. Having a couple of real ones which he received in the Afghanistan war and from known special occasions (e.g. from the Venezuelan government), the general could have resisted adding to them dozens and dozens of doubtful decorations – affordable for everyone with some money.
Is He Really So Powerful?
Sheiman's career shows the new social mobility Lukashenka created to bring to the top people like himself. They are shrewd and not without talents but quite unscrupulous and sometimes narrow-minded. The general epitomises this group and to a certain extent the regime itself, alongside such regime officials as foreign minister Makey or head of Presidential administration Kabiakou.
On the other hand, many other top bureaucrats only serve the regime yet, very likely, they do not consider it as their own. Prime Minister Myasnikovich seems to represent this group.
Lukashenka needs them all. He is as opportunist in domestic as he is in foreign policy. He has never stuck to any political line and has never given all the power to any single group, and Sheiman is an example of the uncertain fate of courtier-like Belarusian officials.
Presumably the powerful Sheiman had to accept a political setback and, of course, cannot be the grey eminence of the regime. Rather than being an independent politician, he is just one of the last soldiers remaining in Lukakshena's guard – a man to be deployed when and where necessary.
Radioactive Mushrooms, Civil Magistrate, Mova ci Kava – Digest of Belarusian Civil Society
Belarusian civil society organised a number of discussion events on topics ranging from cancer to media wars. Other initiatives included the promotion of the Belarusian language and examining radioactive mushrooms.
The Liberal Club attracted 100 practitioners to its event on information wars in the media, including representatives of state and independent media. NGO Assembly gave awards to Civil Society Champions, among them Andrzej Paczobut and Valer Bulhakau. Mahiliou activists formed a “civic magistrate” to help citizens deal with local issues.
Discussion on information wars in the media: On 7 February the Liberal Club organised a discussion on how to overcome the information war in Belarusian media? The event was held at the hotel Europe and attended by about a hundred people, including well-known representatives of state and independent media: blogger Victor Malishevski, a political columnist Pavlyuk Bykovsky, the Belarusian Thought chief editor Vadim Gigin, TUT.by founder Yuri Zisser and others.
Cancer topic in media: On 4 February the Belarusian Organization of Working Women together with a team from oncopatient.by website conducted a roundtable Cancer Topics in the Media, What Information Helps Belarusians to Beat Cancer? The discussion was timed to correspond with the International Day Against Cancer and was attended by experts from oncology centres, patients and journalists.
TUT.BY offers its versions of Minsk brand: After the sensational story with the official Minsk brand developed by the British company INSTID, an alternative Minsk team decided to offer other ideas for branding the city. Belarusian portal TUT.BY has also joined the initiative of designers and PR specialists and suggests own versions.
BAJ presents Anatomy of freelance: The book The Anatomy of Freelance sums up of the journalistic experience with and knowledge of freelancing, received over the first year of the thematic campaign implemented by the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The book is designed to help freelance journalists to overcome existing obstacles.
Social Campaigns and Initiatives
Radioactive mushrooms video: Gomel Democratic Forum with the support of the Green Alliance created a short film with a story about how radioactive mushrooms end up in Gomel residents' households and what tricks illegal collectors use to circumvent restrictive measures.
In defense of Belarusian Wetlands sums up their first results: On 1 February public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands held a press conference. The meeting summed up the interim results of the campaign, designed to attract the attention of people and CSOs to the destruction of eight Belarusian wetlands.
Kurapaty will be promoted: On 6 February the BPF office hosted a meeting of the members of the Kurapaty Rescue Initiative. An expert in the field of PR and advertising, Yulia Lyashkevich, presented a draft of Kurapaty promotion which aims to inform Belarusians what Kurapaty is by using the norms of advertising.
NGO Assembly named Civil Society Champions: The 4th annual award ceremony of The Assembly of NGOs of Belarus – Civil Society Champions 2012 – was held at the Minsk Lohvinau bookstore on 1 February. The Civil Leaders of the year were journalists Andrzej Paczobut and Valer Bulhakau; the award for the Years Most Creative was given to the Swedish airdrop of teddy bears; the Venue of the Year went to the Office of Human Rights Center Viasna; as the most important Regional Event of the year the establishment of independent union trade structures at the Hranit factory was honored, amongst others.
Mogilev activists form a “civic magistrate”: Activists from Mogilev city created a public discussion platform, which they call a “civic magistrate”, in order to help citizens deal with local issues. The magistrate is positioned as a non-political intermediary between residents, experts and local authorities and seeks to establish dialogue in the city around the most pressing issues. One of the recent successes of the initiative, reported on the magistrate’s website, was authorities’ decision not to shut down local markets.
Marketplace undertakes local trips: Capacity Building Marketplace continues a series of local trips throughout Belarus in order to inform Belarusian CSOs about the possibilities and the importance of capacity development. The meetings with CSOs and service providers were held on 31 January in Grodno; on 5 February in Mogilev; the next meeting is scheduled for 12 February in Gomel.
Antimak visited addicts: Activists of the public campaign Antimak continue to draw attention to the problem of drug abuse in Belarus. This time they together with Telegraph correspondents visited the apartments where addicts live and talked to their residents.
CSOs to establish organization in response to the disregard for the decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee. On 12 February Gomel gathered civil and political activists, the violation of whose rights by Belarusian authorities have been officially confirmed by decisions from the UN Human Rights Committee or whose complaints are pending at the Committee. The participants of the meeting decided to establish a national public organisation which would change the practise of neglecting to undertake actions under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by Belarus.
A special hot line – 10 years. A joint project of the Business Women Club and the International Organization for Migration celebrates the 10 years of the anti traffic hotline. For 10 years, the call-centre specialists have received more than 20 thousand calls; 110 people were able to return home.
Football clubs asked to more widely use the Belarusian language. On the eve of the beginning of the Belarusian football championship in the higher league, activists of the civil campaign Office Work in Belarusian! addressed twenty football clubs with a proposal to extensively use the Belarusian language during the organization, holding and elucidation of the matches.
Modern life of Muzhytskaya Prauda: Brest activists have resumed publication of the first revolutionary-democratic newspaper in Belarusian. In the period from 1862 to 1863 seven numbers were published. Newspaper #8 is coming in February 2013. This is the way of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Kalinouski Rebellion in the Brest region.
Workshops and Conferences
Master class from Talaka: On 9 February Gomel youth NGO Talaka and Vetka Museum invited for a master class in creating a marriage of guardian dolls. In ancient times, this amulet guarded the union of two people and was presented to bride and groom at the wedding day. The event was scheduled to correspond with Valentine's Day.
Mova ci Kava. On 18 February in Minsk educational free courses Language or Coffee (Mova ci Kava) will be launched. The courses are designed for people who want to improve their Belarusian language. The teachers are journalist Gleb Labadzenka and philologist Alesya Litvinovskaya who taught Stefan Eriksson to speak Belarusian. The courses will be held in a cafe once a week.
Round table on human capital. BISS launches a series of presentations on the results of the research project Human Capital as a Source of Competitiveness and Modernization. The first round table is to be held on 15 February at the Minsk hotel Victoria. The event presents two research papers: The Returns to Education and the Evaluation of Human Capital in Belarus and Belarusian Higher Education in Cross-country Perspective.
New award for researchers. The Organizing Committee of the International Congress of Belarusian Researchers announces the establishment of an annual award for the best publication in the field of social sciences and humanities during the year. The award is designed to celebrate the achievements in the social sciences and humanities during the year, as well as improve the quality of scientific work.
I Love Belarus award. On 16 February Young Front invites to the ceremony of its annual award I Love Belarus. The prize is awarded in six nominations – Belarusization, Pro-Belarus, Journalism, Culture, Politics, Civil activity, Fighter of the Year, and Sports.
Lyubow Kavalyowa voted Person of 2012 in Vitebsk. The mother of a man executed over the 2011 subway bombing in Minsk has been voted the Person of the Year 2012 in Vitebsk. A local news website's readers had been asked to choose the person who was of the greatest use to Vitebsk or who contributed to promoting the city in the world in 2012.
BEROC awarded: BEROC was awarded by Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus as an organization which actively formed the informational sphere in Belarus in 2012. Among other winners were the National Bank, Investigative Committee, Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of Statistics, etc.
Svetlana Naumova Award: Tell the Truth campaign has completed the nomination of candidates for the Svetlana Naumova Award. The award is given in three categories – political journalism, political analyst and best young politician of the year. Among others, the short list of 2013 includes journalist Andrei Poczobut, BISS academic director Alexei Pikulik, journalist Alexander Klaskovsky, etc. The award ceremony will take place on 1 March 2013.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.