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As if none of it ever happened The story of Alexander Vasilevich, a Belarusian businessman and gallery owner who became an enemy of the state before Lukashenko visited him in a KGB jail

Source: Meduza

It’s been four months since mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) started in Belarus. Police have arrested thousands and judges have convicted hundreds. People across different professions, including journalists and entrepreneurs, now have personal experience with political repression. Alexander Vasilevich (Aliaksandr Vasilevich), a gallerist, co-owner of an advertising agency, and co-founder of the digital newspaper “The Village Belarus,” is one of the businessmen targeted by the authorities. In a special report for Meduza, journalist Alexey Shumkin tells Vasilevich’s story.

On October 10, Alexander Lukashenko visited a KGB pre-trial detention center in Minsk, where he met with a dozen of his biggest political opponents (most of whom are now recognized internationally as political prisoners), including Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babarika) and Sergey Tikhanovsky (Siarhei Tsikhanousky), who had hoped to run against him in this year’s Belarusian presidential election. Additionally, Lukashenko spoke to Opposition Coordinating Council members Liliya Vlasova and Maxim Znak.

At the unusual meeting, the president discussed potential constitutional reforms in Belarus. Since the beginning of the protests, he’s regularly mentioned these hypothetical reforms, promising that he will no longer be the head of Belarus under the new Constitution. “I’m not making any laws for myself. I won’t be your president under the new Constitution. So, calm down and take it easy,” he reasoned. Lukashenko promised that amendments to the current Constitution would be prepared within two years and adopted through a referendum.

After the four-and-a-half-hour conversation, the jailed oppositionists were permitted to use a sauna, and Tikhanovsky was allowed to telephone his wife, the opposition’s leader whose supporters say won this summer’s election before she was forced to flee the country.

Lukashenko’s representatives argued that the meeting was necessary in order to “hear everyone’s voices,” but many political observers viewed it as evidence of the government’s weak position in the face of the protests. The very next day, the skeptics’ opinion was reinforced with the release of two prisoners invited to the gathering: director of the IT-company “PandaDoc” Dmitry Rabtsevich and businessman Yury Voskresensky (who belonged to Viktor Babariko’s initiative group).

According to Voskresensky, none of the detainees knew that Lukashenko was visiting the jail. “They come to your cell and say, ‘Voskresensky, investigative questioning.’ And you go… [We] were standing and looking at each other, wondering why they gathered us together, maybe for some kind of collective interview. And then the president walks in,” he recounts.

Voskresensky notes that all participants in the conversation expressed their proposals for a new Constitution, but many political prisoners were “speaking emotionally” and kept getting into altercations with Lukashenko.

Alexander Vasilevich, a well-known media manager and gallery owner, was among the arrested opposition activists present at the meeting. In footage from the event, he’s the one wearing a red sweater. He is still behind bars today.

Eliminating the Disloyal

The meeting at Minsk’s KGB jail failed to reach a breakthrough. The very next day, on October 11, security forces used stun grenades and water cannons against demonstrators during another Sunday march through the capital.

The situation did not improve over the next two months, either. The Belarusian economy continues to struggle, as well, thanks in part to efforts by protesters like boycotts on state-manufactured goods. The nation’s GDP has dropped by 1.3 percent compared to 2019, and external debt rose by $1 billion since the beginning of the year to a total of $18.1 billion. 

“The Belarusian economy is in stagnation. The sources of growth on which Belarus used to rely have run out. The country needs economic reforms today,” argues economist Sergey Guriev.

Instead of pursuing reforms, the state has decided to pressure “disloyal” businesses. In early August, Mikita Mikado, the founder and director of the IT-company PandaDoc, offered financial assistance to those security officers who were willing to side with the protesters. On September 2, police raided the company’s office and arrested four employees, including the company’s manager, Viktor Kuvshinov, who remains in custody on fraud charges.

“They arrested Viktor to punish me for helping security officers who lost their jobs after refusing to carry out criminal orders. When they started beating and killing people in my home country of Belarus, I decided to offer an alternative. Viktor had nothing to do with my initiative. Yet, the repressive machine decided that he was guilty simply because he worked for my company,” explains Mikado, who lives in the United States.

Amid such pressure, Mikado announced that he would evacuate his office in Belarus and freeze all local recruitment: “We are still looking for extraordinary Belarusians, but now in Ukraine, Poland, and Portugal.”

Given the political instability, many companies have followed this example and moved their assets to neighboring countries. According to Sergey Povalishev, the head of the domain registration service “Hoster.by,” Belarus’ IT sector “is losing five years’ worth of progress.” Back in August, the average domain-registration rate fell by 3.5 times. “I don’t remember seeing such statistics in all the years I’ve worked in this field,” he says. 

Many software engineers, startup creators, and entrepreneurs left the country on their own accord. In late October, Alexey Begun, the head of Belarus’s Citizenship and Migration Department, said that roughly 10,000 Belarusians had left for Poland, nearly 3,000 had gone to Ukraine, and around 500 had moved to Lithuania and Latvia since the beginning of autumn. 

Government pressure was not limited to the IT sector alone, as it also targeted the restaurant business. When Belarusian opposition activists went on a nationwide strike on October 26, many restaurants chose to close their doors in solidarity with the protesters. Afterward, some were shut down by the Sanitary Service and the Ministry of Health. In early November, the famous Minsk bar “Hooligan” was forced to go out of business due to constant inspections and a fine equal to 155,000 Russian rubles (around $61,000); something similar happened to the cafe “Lokma” and the cyber-sports bar “BlackDoor.”

“These unreasonable inspections and equally absurd fines for minor infractions killed us. We don’t have the strength or the money to stand up to these ‘closure orders,’” explains Nellie Troinich, the director and co-founder of the Lokma Cafe.

“We stood up for the belief that a brighter future is possible”

Detainee Alexander Vasilevich is a well-known Belarusian businessman, co-owner of the advertising agency “Vondel/Hepta,” co-founder of the newspapers Kyky and The Village Belarus, and creator of the contemporary art gallery “Galereya Ў” and an attached wine bar. For a long time, this bar was one of the trendiest places in Minsk; it hosted modern art exhibitions, poetry evenings, and “creative gatherings.”

Vasilevich himself had no political ambitions, but he did communicate with Viktor and Eduard Babariko and was friends with Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak. He also volunteered at Babariko's election headquarters.

“He liked Babariko, we all liked him. Babariko wanted to be the new normal president with a democratic and humane vision of the state. We stood up for the truth and the belief that a brighter future is possible,” Kyky and The Village Belarus director Sasha Romanova told Meduza.

Police first arrested Alexander on July 28 in front of the KGB building where he had brought a petition to free Viktor Babariko from jail. Vasilevich came with Yevgenia Sugak, the editor-in-chief of The Village Belarus. Sugak says Vasilevich hoped that Babariko would be released under house arrest.

A man in civilian clothes met them inside the KGB building. He asked them to go to a room, where six men in balaclavas took Vasilevich and Sugak’s possessions, searched them, and then brought them to a police van waiting in the courtyard.

“No one would explain why we were being detained. Some 40 minutes later, we were taken to the police department. They took our fingerprints, photographed our tattoos, and questioned us on camera,” says Sugak.

In about three hours, Sugak was released, probably because of her official media editor-in-chief status, while Vasilevich remained at the police department. Later, he was charged under Article 23.34 of the Belarusian Administrative Code for violating the order of organization or conduct of mass events. The charges were based on the statement of a riot police officer who said that Vasilevich “participated in a rally in front of the KGB building” and shouted “Freedom to Babariko!” In her conversation with Meduza, Sugak stressed that this was false as there had been no rally at all. Still, Vasilevich was jailed for 14 days.

The businessman was released in mid-August before he was arrested again, days later. This time, the police raided his apartment and his companies’ offices. According to Sergey Vorozhun, a co-owner of Vondel/Hepta, officials also seized accounting records and interrogated staff at “Red Graphic,” which Vasilevich’s wife Nadzeya Zeliankova manages.

Alexander Vasilevich and his pregnant wife were brought in for questioning. Nadezhda was later released, but her husband remains in custody.  

Alexander Vasilevich and his wife Nadezhda Zelenkova
Daniil Parnyuk

Sergey Vorozhun told Meduza that an inspector called him shortly afterward, announcing that a criminal case had been opened against him and Vasilevich, focusing on their alleged “foreign payments.” Vorozhun then surrendered all his files to investigators, believing it would resolve the matter and get Vasilevich out of jail. “However, when we saw Sasha at a meeting in the KGB jail with Lukashenko, it became clear that he was being held there for political reasons,” says the businessman. Vasilevich’s partner remains free — he’s long resided in Tallinn, Estonia.

According to Vorozhun, Vasilevich now faces charges of tax evasion and up to seven years in prison. On September 8, Belarusian human rights activists from the center “Viasna” declared Vasilevich a political prisoner.

In September, Alexander’s wife (now seven months pregnant) became a suspect in the same criminal case. It’s still unknown what charges (if any) she might face.

The investigation is ongoing: Alexander Vasilevich is being held in the Minsk pre-trial detention center No. 1 on Volodarskogo Street. His wife says the businessman is kept in a 12-person cell, letters arrive with long delays or sometimes not at all, and he’s not permitted to receive any books. It’s always cold inside the cell and the inmates have to sleep fully dressed.

“Years of work and investments — lost”

About a month ago, Alexander Vasilevich and Nadezhda Zelenkova officially withdrew from the founders’ group but retained the rights to the “Galereya Ў” and “Ў bar” trademarks. Sasha Romanova says the project is closed “until better days.” A new venue called “Vershy” — a project handled by Valentin Losev, Vasilevich’s former partner — will replace the gallery.

“Such projects need constant support and nourishment. Neither I nor Sasha can provide it now. Years of work and investments that were put into the gallery are just lost. It’s as if none of it ever happened. Of course, this hurts, but it is what it is. I’ve lived through it and I cried it out,” says Nadezhda Zelenkova.

Without any explanation, government censors started blocking The Village Belarus, co-founded by Vasilevich, on August 12. “All our requests to the official agencies have gone unanswered. Despite this, we have not cut the volume of articles, although traffic has been significantly reduced, due to the restrictions. In Belarus, you can only access our website via VPN. Before we had about 1.5 million unique users, now we have 800,000,” editor-in-chief Yevgenia Sugak told Meduza.

Sasha Romanova, the director of Kyky and The Village Belarus, told Meduza that the company decided to move its key employees abroad. However, some personnel are still in Minsk. On September 1, the Belarusian authorities also blocked the bank accounts of “Mint Media,” which publishes Kyky and The Village Belarus. The company can now only receive funds through special requests to the authorities. As Romanova notes, however, these amounts are insignificant. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s advertising revenue has plummeted almost 10-fold since the election.

The company is now registering an office in the European Union and hopes to have it ready by 2021. “All these difficulties are temporary, and I am sure that we will be able to endure and keep the outlet, at least until our teams are safe,” Romanova emphasized.

Belarusian officials also seized Vondel/Hepta accounts on the grounds that Vasilevich is one of the ad agency’s co-owners. Some of its funds remain inaccessible to this day.

“In the advertising business, people are the most important resource, and the head of an advertising agency is both an advertising guru and a rock star. Our work depends heavily on Sasha’s authority and charisma. After he was arrested, I was worried that our clients might be wary of the situation, but we actually received tremendous moral support from everyone: our clients, our colleagues in the industry, and of course our employees who selflessly continued to work with no salary guarantees,” Sergey Vorozhun told Meduza.  

On November 25, the court extended Alexander Vasilevich's arrest for another month, without any official comment on his case from the authorities.

Nadezhda Zelenkova told Meduza that the businessman’s lawyers are trying to challenge his arrest, and Vasilevich’s colleagues are attempting to explain to the prosecution how his business operated, providing additional documents to rule out any suspicion of tax evasion.

“It’s rhetorical to ask why someone charged with an economic crime ought to be jailed for four months. I think no one knows how to deal with politically driven (allegedly economic) criminal cases while the country’s legal system is failing completely. Quite simply: Sasha is being held hostage,” says the businessman’s wife.

On December 2, Nadezhda gave birth to a baby girl named Urszula. That same day, Viktor Babarika’s headquarters launched a new initiative called “Politzekme,” created to raise awareness about political prisoners in Belarus. The website allows visitors to “become friends” with one of the country’s 147 political prisoners, for example, by writing letters to them in jail. Alexander Vasilevich is one of these 147 people. 

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Story by Alexey Shumkin

Translation by Karina Mamadzhanyan

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