Prosthesis Scam Lifts Lid On Massive Belarusian Health-Care Scandal

Vasil Belmach sensed something wasn't right when he went to purchase a prosthesis at a hospital in the Belarusian capital of Minsk two years ago.

Versed in the law from his days working as an assistant to the Belarusian military prosecutor, Belmach said the device provided by Minsk Hospital No. 6 was way overpriced and lacked required documentation.

Like others in Belarus, Belmach was depressingly aware that graft and cronyism were part of life in the Eastern European state of 9.5 million that has been ruled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka since 1994.

But this seemed beyond the pale, even for Belarus.

Fed up, he decided to act, collecting proof of what he claims was corruption and its cover-up at the highest levels of the Belarusian Health Ministry.

"I have documents that attest to the illegal actions of the Health Ministry, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the court. These are things that contradict the tenets of the law," Belmach told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in a recent interview.

For a year and a half, Belmach became a gadfly to Belarusian authorities, providing a raft of documents he said exposed graft within the Health Ministry.

His whistle-blowing apparently worked. Belmach's efforts are widely credited with sparking the exposure of what is being called one of the biggest corruption scandals to rock Belarus since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has had fallout at high levels, including the dismissal -- widely believed to be over the scandal -- of a deputy prime minister as part of a bigger cabinet reshuffle.

KGB Roundup

Beginning in June, the State Intelligence Service of Belarus, the KGB, began rounding up public officials and others linked to a sophisticated scheme in the Health Ministry.

Those charged are accused of wheeling and dealing in medicines and medical equipment, arranging for their purchase at bargain-basement prices, and selling them on to the state at a hefty markup. Bribery and tax evasion are among the main charges they face. All told, 33 public officials -- including former Deputy Health Minister Ihar Lasitski -- and others were detained by the KGB as cases involving more than 50 people were launched. Stacks of cash, including $500,000 hidden in one official's garage, were uncovered. Earlier this month, three former hospital officials were convicted, receiving hefty prison sentences of up to seven years.

Deputy Prime Minister Vasik Zharko was one of several officials sacked in a major cabinet reshuffle on August 18, including the firing of Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakov.

Addressing Prime Minister Syarhey Rumas and the other cabinet ministers on August 20, Lukashenka warned that officials guilty of corruption would end up in prison, according to the presidential press office.

Lukashenka said that he had no choice but to dismiss Zharko, former head of the Health Ministry between 2006 and 2016, over corruption in the health sector.

"I had warned him three times: Look around, sort things out. And things collapsed there. How can I work with such a person?" he said.

Who And What Are The Charges?

According to the KGB, officials received bribes ranging from $10,000 to $450,000 in exchange for contracts on procuring medical equipment and medicines.

In televised comments in July, KGB Director Valery Vakulchik denounced what he termed a massive system of procurement of drugs and medical equipment at inflated prices.

Prices were habitually hiked by up to 60 percent, and in some cases even doubled, he said in comments quoted by the AFP news agency.

Vakulchik also took aim at the rigid, centralized, bureaucracy in Belarus, accusing it of promoting corruption.

"The existing system of procuring medical equipment and drugs created the conditions for corrupt practices," he said.

Those detained in the scandal include Deputy Health Minister Ihar Lositskiy, doctors at reputed clinics, and leading business figures involved in producing and importing medicines.

According to the Belta state news agency, a search at the home of Alyaksandr Byaletski, a medical center director in Minsk, uncovered $500,000 in cash.

Indeed, it is the biggest corruption case in the Belarusian government since Belarus independence. More than 40 people are under investigation and about 30 of them are arrested."

In another case, officers found $620,000 in the garage of Alyaksandr Sharak, the director of Belmedtechniki, a public enterprise importing medical equipment.

One of those arrested was Syahey Shakutin, owner of Iskamed, another leading Belarusian pharmaceutical importer. He is also a brother of senator and prominent businessman Alyaksandr Shakutin.

Experts estimate that 10 private companies control some 75 percent of all drug imports to Belarus. Many of these companies are owned by or have connections to the ruling elite, as in the case of Shakutin.

Alyaksandr Papko, a research analyst at the EAST (Eurasian States in Transition) Center in Warsaw, said the scandal is unprecedented in post-Soviet Belarus history.

"Indeed, it is the biggest corruption case in the Belarusian government since Belarus independence. More than 40 people are under investigation and about 30 of them are arrested," Papko explained to RFE/RL in a recent telephone interview.

While massive, Papko explains, many in Belarus are doubtful the crackdown will bring change to the country's authoritarian system.

"All of this corruption investigation is under the control of the government. And the actions of the authoritarian government in Belarus are not clear. This case will not change the system. They now imprison some of those for corruption, but this corruption is produced by the system," Papko adds.

Amid such reservations, justice, Belarusian-style, has been meted out, with three officials already receiving hefty prison sentences.

On August 21, Arkadz Patapau, the deputy chief doctor at a Minsk children's hospital, became the first to be sentenced, receiving a six-year prison term.

On August 27, two more convictions were handed down.

The scandal comes amid a rise in the reported number of graft cases in Belarus, as reported by the independent Warsaw-based Belsat TV, in January 2018.

Last year, 1,922 cases of bribery were officially recorded in Belarus. This is 1 1/2 times more than a year earlier. In 2016, the Internal Affairs Ministry noted a 12.8 percent rise in corruption crimes.

However, Freedom House has suggested that the rise in reported corruption could be due to more concerted efforts to crack down on graft.

In its 2018 report on Belarus, Freedom House said the country's corruption rating had actually improved "due to the cumulative effect of improvements in this sphere. Additionally, efforts to combat corruption brought a considerable increase in the number of criminal charges against low and mid-level officials, while none of these cases was recognized as politically motivated."

And the numbers crunched by Transparency International are not glowing but not atrocious either.

According to the global corruption watchdog's Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, Belarus ranks 68 out of 180 surveyed countries.

For the retired Belmach, the authorities' actions are welcome and long overdue.

"This action was taken much too late. Everyone knew that corruption in health care exists and thrives," Belmach explains.

Balmach is convinced that, for average Belarusians struggling to get by on a few hundred dollars a mont, the arrests at least offer a bit of justice.

"Go into any store and listen to what the people are talking about. This is the most popular topic. In average polyclinics and hospitals, the staff applaud and welcome these detentions. After all, we know what a nurse earns. And here they find $500,000."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Ales Dashchynski and other reports by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service