Belarus Embarks on A Corruption Sweep

Lukashenka in July 1990: "Take power away from those who don't know how to use it."

Following the unrest in Ukraine, the Belarusian government has reinvigorated its anti-corruption offensive.

On June 17, former deputy prosecutor-general, Alyaksandr Arkhipau, was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of office and bribe-taking.

The court found his co-defendant Uladzimer Kanapliou, former Chairman of the House of Representatives, guilty of not reporting the crime. Many others, including directors and deputy directors of major enterprises, received corruption charges earlier this year.

The corruption crackdown may help Lukashenka’s 2015 presidential campaign at a time when economic growth, a staple of some of his previous campaigns, lags. However, it will hardly eliminate corruption. In the absence of political and economic competition in Belarus, the potential gains to be made against corruption remain limited.

Turning Against Former Friends and Allies 

Kanapliou, one of the defendants in the case, has been close to Lukashenka since the early 1990s. He helped collect signatures for Lukashenka’s presidential candidacy and engineered the presidential hopeful’s first anti-corruption campaign in 1994.

When Lukashenka won the presidency, Kanaploiu rode his coattails. He first served as an assistant to the President of Belarus and later as Chairman of the House of Representatives as well as Chairman of the Belarusian Handball Federation. In 2010, pundits speculated that Kanapliou would head Lukashenka’s electoral team in yet another presidential campaign. Indeed, Kanapliou’s name may help Lukashenka’s anti-corruption drive ahead of the 2015 election, albeit in an unanticipated way. 

This is not the first time the populist leader has turned against his former friends and allies. Even though the president has ruled for the last twenty years, considerable turnover and uncertainty prevail in many other politically important offices in Belarus.

Corruption provides one of many possible excuses for rotating and dismissing high officials. 

Corruption provides one of many possible excuses for rotating and dismissing high officials. In 2013, minister of energy was fired; in 2012, the top echelons Belarusian KGB were purged and the minister of foreign affairs was dismissed; in 2011, the minister of justice was removed; 2010 saw a wave of dismissals in the defence branch following the “teddy-bead affair”; ministers of economics and minister of taxes and duties were dismissed in 2009. If initially analysts optimistically interpreted such high-level purges as signals of change, today they increasingly signal stability and Lukashenka’s power.

Corruption sweeps keep Lukashenka’s allies loyal and also show the electorate who is to blame for the nation's endless string of economic problems. When Lukashenka’s friends go astray, their corrupt behaviour is exposed. Some, however, have been brought back into the fold upon surrendering stolen property and apologising. For example, the chairman of "Belneftekhim" Alyaksandr Barouski was charged with abuse of office in 2007, pardoned a year later, and then appointed to be the general director of a major state-controlled company BelavtoMAZ. 

Summing up Two Decades of Anti-Corruption Battles

In 1994 Lukashenka, then a relatively unknown parliamentarian, was elected on a populist anti-corruption platform.

He stood out as an outsider, untarnished by any having any direct involvement in the system, whose only prior political engagement was managing a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating governmental corruption.

Corruption has remained on the top of Lukashenka’s agenda to this day. There is surprisingly little progress in reducing it, however. 

According to official statistics, the number of corruption cases has steadily decreased over time, from 6,840 in 2002 to a mere 2,301 in 2013, as shown in the figure above.

However, the corruption perception index provided by Transparency International suggests the opposite is true. The index, constructed on the basis of expert and business surveys, shows that Belarus is doing poorly in dealing with corruption, even compared to its neighbours in the post-Soviet space.

In 2013, Belarus was ranked 123rd (out of 177 countries) by Berlin-based Transparency International - better than Ukraine (144th) and Russia (127th) but much worse than its EU neighbours Poland (38th), Latvia (49th) and Lithuania (43rd). 

Why such a drastic discrepancy? Changes in the type of crimes classified as corruption in the Belarusian Criminal Code can explain the drop in corruption crimes observed between 2010-2011.

In 2011, the list of 14 crimes was reduced to 10, with forgery, receipt of illegal remuneration, smuggling, and financing of terrorist activities no longer being classified as corruption-related crimes.  

Do Anti-Corruption Initiatives Affect Public Opinion? 

There is no doubt that the top-level officials that have incurred Lukashenka’s ire are indeed corrupt. But will they help Lukashenka’s public image? According to a survey conducted by NISEPI, an independent source of public opinion in Belarus, in June 2013, only 30% of respondents agreed that the president would succeed in his anti-corruption campaign.

Another 37.5% believed that Lukashenka himself had dealings with corrupted ministers and was interested in keeping corruption up, while 28% believed he would fail because corruption is deep-rooted in Belarus. 

In a 2014 survey on the effects of his long-term presidential rule, over a fifth of respondents said that prolonged presidency contributes to the growth of corruption and abuse of office. While twenty years ago Lukashenka was still an outsider, now he is deeply implicated in the system, and his arguments about eliminating corruption may have lost credibility. 

How Political Competition Undermines Corruption 

Thus, at least a fifth of the Belarusian public seems to have diagnosed the problem correctly. Among the most important factors linked to corruption is the absence of economic and political competition. 

Political competition can reduce corruption in a number of ways: on the one hand, the need to get re-elected and the risk of being replaced lowers the appetite for bribes of the politicians in power; on the other hand, frequent turnover among the political leadership diminishes the brazenness with which economic actors can rely on corruption under the protection of any one leader.

Additionally, freedom of information and association permits society to monitor public officials, thus limiting opportunities for corruption. The lack of economic competition may also contribute to higher corruption levels, as it allows businesses to seek higher rents, which increases incentives to control public entities to seek bribes.

Therefore the prospects for eliminating corruption in Belarus remain dim. The authoritarian nature of the system and the large share of public ownership of enterprises in the economy (about 70% of country’s GDP) make the problem worse. Thus, all of the president's efforts to reduce corruption can have only limited results.

Indices on the scale of 0 (corrupt) to 10 (clean) were averaged for countries in each region.Corruption is an ever-present problem in the post-Soviet region. Comparing corruption averages for the post-Soviet and Central European states shows that they are moving in the different developmental trajectories.

Therefore, the rampant corruption in Belarus can be seen as a legacy of its economic and political development in the 20th century.   

Expert debate about the extent of corruption-induced harm remains unresolved. However, studies suggest that when compared to democracies, non-democratic states are much more likely to suffer substantial economic harm from corruption.

The true scale of corruption and its economic consequences in Belarus remain unknown, but it is clear that the new anti-corruption drive will fail to address the root of the problem. 

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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