Lukashenka Reshuffles Top Officials: Will Anything Change in Belarus?

Andrey Kabyakou - the new No.2 in Belarus

This August is remarkable because of a number of new appointments of top officials in Belarus.

The most notable changes include yesterday's appointment of the new head of the Presidential Administration Andrey Kabyakou, new foreign minister Uladzimir Makey and new presidential aide on economic affairs Piotr Prakapovich.

These officials have significant powers to shape domestic and foreign policy of Belarus. While the reshuffle is likely to have a positive impact on economic decision-making, its effect on foreign relations is more difficult to predict. However, the reshuffle will hardly bring about a serious change to the government’s policies. All important decisions are made by the president. 

The appointments also demonstrate that Alexander Lukashenka has a very limited pool of top bureaucrats to choose from and, therefore, has to reshuffle the very same people.

Why now?

The logic and timing of the latest reshuffles are difficult to understand. As always, there is only one man – President Lukashenka – who knows why these decisions were made now. 

Rumours about the expected dismissal of the former head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makey were circulating already after the dramatic events on 19 December 2010. The brutal crackdown on the demonstrators in Minsk meant an end to the rapprochement with the EU and USA that Makey had presumably been in charge of.

According to some insider sources, the head of the Administration lost Lukashenka’s trust as the latter thought that Makey’s games with the West almost brought about a coup on the night of the 2010 presidential elections. However, that opinion proved to be incorrect as Makey remained in his position for 20 subsequent months.

At the same time nothing signalled the change of the president’s chief economic advisor – Siarhey Tkachou. He had worked as Lukashenka’s aide on economic affairs since October 2001 and has a reputation as a convinced Marxist and even Stalinist.

Because of his notorious views he was not very popular among the other top officials in the economic block of the government. Last year Tkachou’s disagreement with Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich even went public. Interestingly, Lukashenka then took the side of his aide and even threatened to sack the prime minister.

Less Marxism Does Not Mean Economic Liberalisation

The latest wave of appointments is interesting from an economic point of view. On 22 August Russia became a fully-fledged member of the World Trade Organisation which will put even more pressure on Belarus to reform its command economy. The government needs more reform-minded policy-makers.

In this respect the departure of Siarhey Tkachou is good news. The staunchest Marxist is now out, but who is in?

The new presidential aide on economic affairs is a well-known figure in Belarus and abroad. Piotr Prakapovich was head of the National Bank from March 1998 until July 2011. A construction engineer by training, he made a career in the economic sphere. Far from being a strong market reforms proponent, Prakapovich has a reputation as a reasonable economic manager.

However, his monetary policies in 2010-2011 became the major cause of last year’s economic crisis. He is also widely remembered for his public promises on the eve of that crisis. In March 2011 he appeared on national TV and assured the population that there would be no one-time devaluation of the Belarusian rouble while he was head of the National Bank. And two months later the rouble was devalued by a record 54.4 per cent.

Another fresh appointee – the head of the Presidential Administration Andrey Kabyakou – also represents the economic block of the incumbent regime. From November 2011 and until 27 August 2012 the Moscow-born Kabyakou served as ambassador to Russia. But before that he held economic positions in the Presidential Administration, Council of Ministers and other government bodies.

Kabyakou is no market champion either. Moreover, during his many years of government service he made numerous statements which characterise him as a typical post-Soviet bureaucrat with a narrow state-centred understanding of economics. Thus, there is little hope that the new head of the Presidential Administration will become a source of reform initiatives.

At the same time, in contrast to Tkachou, Kabyakou is not really consistent in his economic views. He is more concerned about his personal career than the contents of the policies that he has to carry out. Therefore, he will never fight against market reforms if his boss decides to launch them.

Foreign Policy Gets More Contradictory

As head of the Presidential Administration (No.2 top position in the political hierarchy in Belarus) Kabyakou will also have significant influence over the country’s foreign policy. Under Uladzimir Makey the Presidential Administration was, in fact, the centre of foreign policy decision-making. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acted as the Administration’s executive branch.

It remains to be seen whether Uladzimir Makey will be able to change this status quo and turn his new ministry into a decision-making body. But in any case, Andrey Kabyakou will gain weight on foreign policy matters. That is why some facts in his biography become noteworthy.

Andrey Kabyakou has good connections in Russia, the main sponsor of the Belarusian regime. He was born in Moscow. In 1983 he graduated from Moscow Aviation Institute. As deputy Prime Minister he was in charge of integration talks with Russia. Finally, he spent several years as ambassador to Russia just before this appointment. This suggest that Kabyakou is going to be a good negotiation partner for Moscow, whereas under Makey the Administration had a good network of contacts in the West.

The main intrigue now is whether Makey still has a mandate to restore Belarus' relations with the European Union. If so, it will be interesting to see how the new head of the Administration and the new foreign minister will separate their foreign policy functions and whose word will be of more weight for Lukashenka.

Still Only One Politician with the Same Cadres

But the most remarkable thing is that Belarus remains the country of just one politician. Alexander Lukashenka personally decides all important issues. Therefore, no matter how he reshuffles his officials the country’s policies generally stay the same.

Moreover, the cadres at Lukashenka’s disposal also remain the same. There are almost no new faces at the top of the regime. The same officials migrate from one top position into another without generating new policies, visions or ideas.

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.

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