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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missing Belarussian Banker Surfaces




In the haunted world of Belarussian politics, Tamara Vinnikova has practically risen from the dead.


Vinnikova, the former head of the country's National Bank, mysteriously vanished while under de facto house arrest on April 7. Eight months later, she has reappeared under equally cloudy circumstances.


The independent Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta on Monday printed a statement that the newspaper said Vinnikova f or a woman who sounded like her f dictated to them over the telephone. Later that day, many Belarussians heard Vinnikova's thin, childlike voice when she gave a live interview to the BBC's Russian service.


"I want to tell the regime and the people who carry out the orders of the regime that I am not with some wild tribe. I'm not on an uninhabited island f I am in a European country," she said in the radio interview.


BBC correspondent Andrei Ostalsky, who conducted the interview from Moscow, said BBC employees met with the woman claiming to be Vinnikova and compared her to a photograph of the ex-banker to make sure it was really her. Ostalsky said he could not reveal her precise location.


"I heard the interview, and I can say it's really her voice, her manner, her guttural 'r,'" her lawyer, Garri Pogonyailo, said by telephone from Minsk on Wednesday.


Since Vinnikova fell off the public radar screen, opposition members Yury Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar have also gone missing, along with Gonchar's friend Anatoly Krasovsky. Human rights organizations believe their disappearances were related to their political activities.


Vinnikova, who joined Lukashenko's team as central banker at the end of 1995, was arrested on charges of abusing her office in January 1997. Held in a KGB detention center for 10 months, she was finally released due to ill health. Although there is no such thing as house arrest under Belarussian law, there were guards in and around her apartment at all times, and she was not allowed to leave.


Belarussian authorities have said that Vinnikova somehow managed to elude her guards.


"Well, you understand, it's impossible to run away from people like that," she said on the BBC.


So how did she manage to reach "relative safety," as she put it?


"They were just transferring me from a group of guards to a group that, let's say, physically eliminates people. And it was here that there was a little glitch f which I can't talk about," she said, lowering her voice.


Vinnikova, who even after her arrest was not part of the opposition, denounced Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in harsh terms in her interviews. She said her arrest was brought about by her unwillingness to go along with some shady deals that she claims cost the country $300 million.


But Pavlyuk Bykovsky, senior political reporter at the Minsk weekly Belorussky Rynok, said Vinnikova's arrest was more likely the result of power struggles within the government. And her interviews did not present anything dangerous for Lukashenko, he said.


"She said enough to get political asylum, but nothing new for Belarus," Bykovsky said.


Vinnikova's lawyer conceded that Vinnikova may have reached an agreement with the authorities by which they allowed her to escape.


"You can make a deal with this regime. With a law-based state you cannot," Pogonyailo said. "Although I never thought of Tamara Dmitriyevna as a criminal."


Bykovsky suggested that Vinnikova's reappearance at this time could be useful to the government.


Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, who was recently released from jail after spending eight months there during the investigation of a case against him, is due to stand trial on corruption charges Dec. 27. Bykovsky quoted Chigir's wife and attorney, Yulia Chigir, as saying this week that Vinnikova's appearance diverts the public's attention away from her husband's case.


Whatever the story behind Vinnikova's escape, her arrest, as she narrated it to the BBC, sounds eerily similar to accounts of Stalin's purges.


On Jan. 13, 1997, the day before her arrest, Lukashenko held a banquet in honor of the Old New Year. Vinnikova recalled saying goodbye to the president after the party.


"He wished me success, paid me many compliments," she said.


The next morning, Vinnikova got a call from the chairman of the Committee of State Control, who said the president had requested her attendance at a meeting that day. When she arrived at the meeting, the other officials were already there.


"Unfortunately, the chair they gave me was wobbly. I sat down and said, 'My chair is wobbly,'" she recalled. In Russian, to say a person's chair is wobbly mean's he's about to get the ax.


"The chairman of the Committee of State Control went white because, of course, he knew what would happen next," Vinnikova said.


According to her account, the chairman was handed a note during the meeting that said Vinnikova was wanted on the telephone in another room. When she went to the next room, she was arrested.


Vinnikova said that in the KGB jail she was routinely humiliated by the male guards who gave her no privacy and accompanied her to the bathroom, where she was allowed to go only three times a day.


"My cell had the form of a coffin. This is done psychologically: When you go to sleep or when they let you lie down for a while ? , you're in this position where you feel like your lying in a coffin," she said. "The building itself was built in 1926. All the torture of 1937 was absorbed by these cells."


Lukashenko has repeatedly said that he has information that Vinnikova is hiding in some other country. But he has made similar statements about Zakharenko and Gonchar, scenarios observers say are less likely. Now he can point to Vinnikova and say the same will prove true for the others.


"They can use this to say the same thing happened with Gonchar, Krasovsky and Zakharenko f and all the others who will disappear in the future," Pogonyailo said. "In short, this gives them carte blanche."