Meet Belarus's answer to Wagner's Prigozhin – shady deals in Africa to bumping off rivals

Meet Belarus's answer to Wagner's Prigozhin – shady deals in Africa to bumping off rivals

Aside from Alexander Lukashenko, Viktor Sheiman is the most influential man in Belarus.

He is believed to be worth millions if not billions of dollars.

Since 1994, when Lukashenko came to power, Sheiman has been at his side, aiding and abetting in his shady dealings and suppression of the Belarusian people.

Many do not know who Sheiman is: a 65-year-old who has in later life followed a similar path to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group chief currently in exile in Belarus.

The pair have both sniffed out money to be made on the African continent, each wooing the leaders of regimes whose power rests on enforced control.

Despite the sway Sheiman holds in Belarus, he isn’t part of the Belarusian government.

He previously had a string of titles including the Head of the Administration of the President of Belarus, the Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, and the Co-chairman of the Belarusian-Venezuelan Joint Commission, all culminating in his 2009 appointment as Assistant to the President for Special Commissions.

“He doesn’t have a position, yet he still works in Africa on behalf of Belarus and meets Lukashenko,” said Pavel Slunkin, who worked in Belarus’s foreign ministry from 2014 to 2020. “Sometimes the African leaders even call him Vice President Sheiman.”

Mr Slunkin described Sheiman as Belarus’s Prigozhin, a man who has made vast fortunes through his ties with a despotic leader.

He is also said to have engaged in shady activities outside the business sphere. In 2018 — despite having served as Belarus’s Prosecutor General, a role intended to uphold the rule of law — the EU slapped hefty sanctions on him.

The charge? His involvement in the disappearance of several prominent critics of Lukashenko. Two years later, the US followed suit.

International human rights organisations went on to accuse Sheiman of organising “death squads” responsible for killing members of organised crime groups, opposition politicians and Russian Channel One cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski.

By 2022, Sheiman was blacklisted by Canada, Switzerland and the UK.

Restricted now in his business in Europe, Sheiman set his sights on Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, where he met with officials to discuss “expanding economic cooperation” between it and Belarus, and had brokered an opportunity for “the creation of a mining enterprise”.

That year, he told reporters that the trip had reaped great rewards and would allow Belarus to explore for minerals such as gold, platinum and rare earths through a joint venture in mining.

The details of Sheiman’s mining empire in Africa are murky. While he claimed his efforts on the continent were to help boost the Belarus state’s coffers, the 2021 Pandora Papers revealed that the new joint venture, Zim Goldfields, was secretly co-owned by Sheiman’s son, Sergei, with no stake for the Belarusian state.

His partner in the gold mining scheme was Belarusian businessman Alexander Zingman, who has served as Zimbabwe’s honorary consul in Belarus since around early 2019.

The Pandora Papers show how the pair used shell companies — used for tax avoidance or money laundering purposes — in the Seychelles and the UK to hide their involvement and the conflict of interest in the deal.

“But he’s still one of the most influential people because he’s proven his loyalty to Lukashenko,” Mr Slunkin said.

“He continues to do the same as Prigozhin in Africa, getting the continent’s resources to make money by corrupt means and working with leaders there.”

While Sheiman has profited handsomely off of his dealings in Africa, Mr Slunkin said Lukashenko hasn’t gone empty-handed.

Rather than helping the Belarusian state, as Sheiman claimed in 2018, Mr Slunkin says Lukashenko and his cronies have lined their pockets from Sheiman’s African exploits at the expense of the Belarusian people.

He added: “And so I think with the introduction of Prigozhin in Belarus, I can see him and Sheiman finding some cooperation, strengthening their positions in Africa.”

In late June, Pavel Latushka, Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus — the government in exile — claimed that Lukashenko’s son Viktor, Sheiman, and Prigozhin were “planning a joint business in Africa“.

He predicted that a Wagner base would soon appear in Belarus, and a week later, a campsite believed to be housing the mercenaries turned up just outside of Minsk.

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