A Russian-born Jewish lawyer who had been sitting in a prison hospital in Belarus was released from a penal colony yesterday after a lengthy guessing game about his fate and the reasons for his arrest.
Emanuel Zeltser, who moved to America during the Soviet Jewry movement, had been sentenced to three years in prison last summer after being charged with smuggling documents and narcotics into the country.
Zeltser’s case has largely been seen as a tactic in a broader diplomatic battle between the United States and Belarus, which has been referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe due to the authoritarian tactics of President Alexander Lukashenko. Indeed, it was Lukashenko who decided to pardon Zeltser. Lukashenko said he made the pardon in order to “help create a normalization of our relations” with the United States. Lukashenko has been cozying up to the West in recent months after years of being one of Russia’s staunchest allies.
But the Forward reported last year that the case also appeared to be linked to a feud between Russian oligarchs. Zeltser was a lawyer for relatives of Georgian tycoon Arkady “Badri” Patarkatsishvili. Zeltser was arrested in Belarus just a month after Patarkatsishvili’s death — and was hit with additional charges of narcotics smuggling just two weeks after a Georgian court decided in favor of the side represented by Zeltser.
If that sounds confusing, it might be because oligarchs from the former Soviet Union don’t go out of their way to create transparency in their affairs. Firm explanations about what actually happened are unlikely anytime soon.