Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994 (Photo: kremlin.ru)
Vadim Zaitsev was KGB chairman from 2008 to 2012 (Photo: MsOnlysee)
The KGB building on Independence Avenue in Minsk (Photo: Bestalex)
Igor Makar, from the Belarusian People's Tribunal: 'I'm ready to risk my life' (Photo: Igor Makar)
Berlin: Hundreds of Belarusians have sought asylum in the EU (Photo: Amire Appel)
Armed police confront protesters in Minsk in November 2020 (Photo: Homoatrox)
Lukashenko plotted murders in Germany
Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko authorised political murders in Germany in recent years, according to a sensational recording of his former spy-chief obtained and published by EUobserver.
The Germany attacks never took place, but the plot, which discussed use of explosives and poison, shows the danger posed to EU states by his rogue regime.
Lukashenko's intelligence service, the KGB, also targeted a Belarusian journalist, who was subsequently killed in Ukraine.
The revelations come as Lukashenko is trying to crush a pro-democracy movement at home using increasing violence.
The fact his spy-master was so incompetent he let himself be bugged is a loss of face for the regime.
And this website's publication of the bugged KGB recording amounts to a public colonoscopy of Lukashenko's most private organs of power.
"The president [Lukashenko] is waiting for these operations," Vadim Zaitsev, the then KGB chairman, said in his office on Independence Avenue in Minsk shortly after 8.45AM on Wednesday 11 April 2012, according to an audio file of the meeting, which was secretly recorded on a hidden device, and shared with EUobserver using a secure app.
Zaitsev was briefing officers from the KGB's Alpha Group, an elite counter-terrorist unit.
More specifically, he was briefing members of the Alpha Group's Seventh Department, a clandestine task-force, which Zaitsev had created to target the regime's political enemies.
And Zaitsev was talking about killing three of them who lived in exile in Germany - Oleg Alkaev (a Belarusian former prison director), Vladimir Borodach (an ex-colonel), and Vyacheslav Dudkin (a former anti-corruption chief).
Lukashenko had put "over $1.5m [€1.2m] in a dedicated account" for off-the-books operations of this type and wanted to "see some results," Zaitsev said, in the bugged 2012 meeting.
He wanted to leave no trace of KGB suspicion in Germany.
"It's important to me that no one even thinks about the KGB," Zaitsev said.
"It's clear how we could drown or shoot someone. It's clear. But how to initiate a chance explosion, how to start arson and not leave traces, murder, and stuff like that - this is unclear," he said.
The KGB also discussed killing a Belarusian-born journalist, Pavel Sheremet, who was living in Russia at the time.
"We should be working Sheremet, who is a massive pain in the arse," Zaitsev said, according to the 2012 recording.
But Lukashenko's spy-chief wanted Sheremet's assassination to send a public message.
"We'll plant [a bomb] and so on and this fucking rat will be taken down in fucking pieces - legs in one direction, arms in the other direction. If everything [looks like] natural causes, it won't get into people's minds the same way," Zaitsev said.
Belarus had put Sheremet under observation in Moscow, according to an internal KGB surveillance report, which was also leaked to EUobserver.
Sheremet was later killed by a car bomb while he was in Kiev on 20 July 2016, echoing Zaitsev's macabre words.
And four years later, Ukraine has still not caught the people who did it.
The bugged KGB recording from Zaitsev's office, as well as the leaked Sheremet surveillance report, were originally obtained by Igor Makar, a Belarusian opposition activist, who sent them to this website in Brussels.
A transcript of the conversation can also be read in Russian or in English.
Zaitsev is the first speaker, who begins with a stammer, and his voice in the recording can be openly compared with one of the KGB chairman's public speeches on YouTube.
It "sounds like the same guy", a contact from a Nato country's intelligence service, who was familiar with Zaitsev and who examined the bugged audio file for EUobserver, told this website.
A forensic examination of the file was inconclusive.
The audio was too poor quality, from a technical point of view, to do biometric "speaker recognition analysis", Catalin Grigoras, the director of the National Centre for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado in the US, who also examined the leaked file, said.
It had been edited at least once, probably to delete a digital signature which could have identified the KGB mole who planted the recording device in Zaitsev's office, Grigoras told EUobserver.
But the forensics expert "didn't find" any obvious "trace of audio-manipulation" on the file, he said.
For his part, Makar told EUobserver: "I'm prepared to testify in court that the bugged recording is authentic and that Zaitsev is the speaker in the audio file [published above]".
"I'm ready to risk my life so that [Belarusian] people can be free, to help demolish this Lukashenko regime," he said.
Makar is a former special-forces officer, who used to serve in the Almaz Special Anti-Terrorism Unit, a Belarus interior ministry swat team, but who now lives in hiding in the EU.
When he first got the KGB recording from his contacts back in 2012, Makar said, he quietly shared it with a US diplomat in the EU, whom he declined to name.
He did so in the hope of protecting Alkaev, who was his friend, as well as the other targets on the KGB's kill-list, Makar told EUobserver.
And now, eight years later, Makar has decided to go public by also sharing the KGB audio file with EUobserver out of solidarity with Belarus' pro-democracy protesters, who have endured four months of "beatings, tortures, rapes" since August 2020, he said.
A second Belarusian source, who did not want to be named, also told this website that he would testify in court, if need be, that the 11 April 2012 KGB meeting really took place, that Zaitsev was there, that the bugged recording was authentic, and that it was Zaitsev's voice in the audio file.
Alkaev, likewise, corroborated Makar's account.
German authorities, shortly after Makar gave the file to the US diplomat in the EU, warned Alkaev that his life was in danger and gave him special protection, according to a German police letter from May 2012, which Alkaev showed to EUobserver.
"The [German] police told me they could guarantee my safety in Germany, but advised me not to leave the country," Alkaev said.
The German plot was never carried out and Zaitsev left the KGB in November 2012.
The former spy-chief is now director of a Belarusian broadcaster called Cosmos TV.
EUobserver's sources did not know if the Alpha Group's Seventh Department was later disbanded or if it ever harmed anybody, despite the sinister implications of the leaked KGB surveillance report on Sheremet.
But Zaitsev's boss, Lukashenko, who shared his criminal mentality, is still in power in 2021.
And Zaitsev's former KGB deputy, Ivan Tertel, who was recently blacklisted by the EU for "torture" of pro-democracy protesters, and who also shared that mentality, is now the KGB chairman.
Meanwhile, some of the homicidal ideas discussed in the 2012 KGB meeting showed that EU citizens, as well as Belarusian refugees, were in danger.
One of Zaitsev's ideas was to get "a professional or a car mechanic who will do it in such a way that no fucking expert [in Germany] will figure out that the car was intentionally broken in advance and why it went off the fucking road," he said in the leaked audio file.
But use of explosives, proposed by one KGB officer in the meeting, could have harmed bystanders.
"We might need TNT, plastic explosives, detonators," the unnamed KGB officer told Zaitsev in the audio file.
"Here's another interesting suggestion ... There's a professor in Vitebsk [a town in north-east Belarus], who is a toxicology expert, knows both natural and artificial poisons very well," the KGB officer also said.
"There's one amateur chemist who claims he can make any chemicals. You can even tell him the height and weight of the person and he can prepare [them] for anyone," another unnamed KGB officer said on 11 April 2012.
"Go ahead and find this person [chemist] and then go get everything prepared," Zaitsev said.
EUobserver's KGB-plot revelation poses questions for the safety of Belarusian refugees living in the EU today.
Some 320 Belarusians have sought asylum in Poland since August last year, when Lukashenko began his crackdown on protesters in the wake of rigged elections, the Polish interior ministry said.
Another 67 have applied in Lithuania.
There were 100 Belarusian refugees already living in Germany and more than 400 others had applied for asylum since 2019, the German interior ministry said.
Poland declined to comment on whether Belarusian refugees were at risk of KGB surveillance or worse.
Egle Samoskaite, a spokeswoman for Lithuania's intelligence agency, the VSD, told EUobserver: "We haven't got any signals, which could indicate an increased threat level for Belarusian exiles in Lithuania".
And Germany "currently does not have any information to suggest Belarusian opposition activists living in Germany are at risk," the German interior ministry's spokeswoman, Alina Vick, also said.
"Local police alone are responsible for protecting vulnerable persons. They would contact authorities responsible for the protection of the constitution [German intelligence] only in cases of apparently politically motivated threats," Vick said.
Opinion was mixed among Belarusian refugees.
Alkaev and Makar, who recently formed a joint initiative called the Belarusian People's Tribunal, which outed a policeman who killed a pro-democracy protester called Alexander Taraikovsky in Minsk on 10 August, said they felt at risk despite living in the EU.
Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition activist living in Poland and the Baltic states, said he did not.
"I'm driving on the highway with my wife as we speak and I feel fine," he told EUobserver from Latvia.
Maksim Milta, a spokesman for the European Humanities University in Vilnius, which has hundreds of Belarusian students, said: "We haven't yet witnessed any threat".
Opinion also diverged among security experts.
"The Belarusian KGB would not hesitate to run operations against Belarusian exiles anywhere, their capabilities are not too impressive though," Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian MP who used to be the country's national intelligence coordinator, told this website.
"Somewhere in the EU, like Germany, would be hugely problematic, somewhere like Ukraine ... is more wide open [for a KGB strike]," Mark Galeotti, a British academic at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London, said.
"They [the KGB] are active abroad in monitoring politically active émigrés, but they're much more interested in domestic security," Galeotti said.
"I've never heard anyone [in security circles], even from ... Poland or the Baltic states, say: 'Oh, there's a problem or serious operation under way'," he added.
That still left the question of what Lukashenko was capable of doing to Belarusian people at home if the protests continued.
At least seven people have been killed so far, in isolated incidents.
And for Makar, the Belarusian ex-soldier, the KGB's Alpha Group, or special police units, such as Almaz and Omon, would not hesitate to open fire on a crowd of demonstrators if they were ordered to.
"As soon as Lukashenko gave the order, they would start [shooting]," Makar said.
For Alkaev, who used to be in charge of death row in the Belarusian prison system, some regime gunmen might disobey.
"There are those who are sick in the head and who would shoot civilians, but there's also normal people [in Belarus security forces] who wouldn't take part," Alkaev told EUobserver from Germany, where he still lives.
"They'd deliberately shoot in the air or at doorposts, but not to hit anybody," Alkaev said.
If Lukashenko ordered the KGB to shoot people, then his order would have to go through Moscow, Kross, the Estonian expert noted.
"Some consider the Belarusian KGB ... a branch of Russia's FSB [intelligence service]. They are in the same communications system, share databases, and rotate officers," Kross said.
"I'd think their [the KGB's] loyalty to Lukashenko lasts until Moscow decides it's no longer needed," Kross added.
A lethal flare-up also risked testing the loyalty of the Belarusian military, Galeotti said.
"The army has been very much kept out of it [Lukashenko's crackdown] so far, except for one paratrooper unit," the British expert noted.
"If you saw Omon shoot your sister-in-law in the street, for instance, and you're a Belarusian [army] captain, or colonel, or even a general - that's a point where you might feel you have to do something," Galeotti said.
Going back to Zaitsev's 2012 meeting, the fact Lukashenko's spy-master was bugged and is now being exposed is a serious loss of face for the dictatorship.
The KGB Alpha Group's Seventh Department was meant to be so secret that even the colonel who was then in charge of the Alpha Group's six other departments, Oleg Chernyshev, did not want to know what the seventh one was doing, according to the Belarusian source who asked not to be named.
But despite the attempted secrecy, the bugged and leaked 11 April 2012 audio file shines a harsh light inside the regime's most private deliberations.
For one, it makes the country's security elite sound like mobsters.
"How fucked up is that, this fuck-head ... the fuck do I need that?", Zaitsev, the country's then 48-year old intelligence chief, who was born in Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine, in Soviet times, said in the bugged meeting, in just a few of his numerous vulgarities.
"Sadly, this is how they [Belarus security bosses] speak, because Lukashenko deliberately recruits badly educated people, whom he considers to be more loyal," Makar, the 37-year old ex-soldier, who is from Grodno in western Belarus, said.
One of the KGB operatives planned to sneak into Germany on a six-month tourist visa after being invited by "friends" who already lived there, the bugged file also shows, indicating the weakness of EU border controls.
"They [Belarusian diplomats] can get me out [to Germany] in an embassy car, but I would not like to, especially for the first trip," one of the unnamed KGB officers said in the 2012 meeting.
The KGB men had access to "fake documents".
They planned to pose as Lukashenko "regime victims" to infiltrate the Belarus expat community in Germany and seek out their targets.
They were tasked with organising reconnaissance and recruiting local "agents" in Germany, some of whom they would teach "sabotage techniques", according to the leaked audio.
"For surveillance, one can put two young people in the apartment block hallway who would kiss each other and not make any noise, drink beer, and so on, and no one cares," Zaitsev suggested, in more general chat on KGB spy-craft.
He reflected that it might look odd, as if the KGB agent was "some kind of pervert, who only gets horny in the hallway, but not other places", however.
So he discussed hiring prostitutes to do the surveillance.
"Now Belokonev is reaching out to create a unit of the fucking girls. And everyone's fucking looking at him ... and I say it's great, at least he's able to think in a creative way," Zaitsev also said, probably referring to Oleg Belokonev, a Belarusian military officer, who was not present in the April 2012 meeting.
The Belarusian foreign ministry declined to comment, but one of its diplomats in Brussels, said, generally, that EUobserver was "campaigning in favour of certain [Belarusian opposition] activists".
Cosmos TV did not reply when this website tried to reach Zaitsev.