Lukashenka Struggles to Prevent Civil Servants From Leaving Their Jobs

On 10 December Alexander Lukashenka held an unusual event – the first-ever nationwide executive conference that gathered more than 250 top officials from across the whole country.

He called it the “most important event of the year” and compared it to the Soviet-era plenary sessions of the Communist Party. A major issue for the conference participants was how to improve the management of state executive personnel and make sure that qualified civil servants stay in government jobs.

In broader terms, the conference looked like a deliberate attempt by President Lukashenka to prevent a governance crisis, which is looming large in the light of recent studies and scandals.

However, Lukashenka is not yet ready to move forward with real structural reforms. His current attempts are little more than cosmetic measures, such as his firing of high-ranking bureaucrats or appointing special investigative commissions, and will most likely fail.

“The Most Important Event of the Year”

The nationwide executive conference came as a surprise to Belarusian society. Normally, preparations for important state events take a great deal of time and bureaucratic effort and attract wide publicity in the media. This time, however, the public learnt about it only a day before, when Lukashenka briefly mentioned it during a meeting with the prime minister and the head of the Presidential Administration.

At the same time the President called the conference the most important event of the whole year and even said that it would become an analogue to the plenary sessions of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, a platform for working out the strategic direction for the country’s future development.

The spontaneity of the event and its high-level comparison with the Soviet past suggest that the conference was meant to address urgent and particularly worrisome issues.

What Worries the Authorities?

In his opening remarks, Lukashenka said, “Unfortunately, we have not developed a system at the highest state level to manage executive personnel, and we do everything in a highly inconsistent manner”.

the government sees it as an increasingly difficult task to find qualified candidates

Later, the head of the Presidential Administration Andrei Kabyakou provided more details. In his words, the government sees it as an increasingly difficult task to find qualified candidates to fill existing vacancies in ministries and other state institutions. He gave a couple of examples. The position of Deputy Minister of Economy has been vacant for almost two years. Important management jobs have remained open for a long time at the ministries of agriculture, architecture and construction, sports and tourism and others.

In the regions, the situation looks even worse. According to Kabyakou, few qualified executives agree to head local administrations these days. For example, the Administration of Krupski District (in central Belarus) remains without a deputy chairman as already nine potential candidates have declined the job offer - something unimaginable before.

The delegates of the nationwide executive conference correctly defined the main factor behind the problem – low salaries and a huge workload with the overblown responsibilities that state executives have. It is enough to briefly compare the levels of pay in the public sector and in the commercial sector (in Belarus and in Russia) to see the difference.

The problem of uncompetitive salaries in the government sector was already addressed by the so-called public administration reform that resulted in State officials continue to leave their posts and talented youth also prefer more rewarding jobs in the commercial sector. In Lukashenka’s opinion, this is a threat to the stability and wellbeing of the nation. Moreover, recent studies and scandals have given some ground to talk of a nascent governance crisis in Belarus, which Alexander Lukashenka relates to the problem with qualified civil servants.

The first portent came during the preparations for the public administration reform earlier this year. President Lukashenka once stated that he had commissioned an analysis of how many of his decrees and orders were actually executed by the central and local governments. He did not provide the details but said that the analysis revealed quite poor statistics.

But the real storm began when Lukashenka visited the wood-processing factory “Borisovdrev” at the beginning of November 2013. Exactly a year before he came to the same factory and found egregious problems with its modernization.

He then issued detailed orders to the management of the factory and government functionaries on how to improve the situation and set a one-year deadline. He even introduced a new form of serfdom – a presidential decree that prevented the workers of the wood-processing factories from leaving for other jobs – to make it easier for bureaucrats to comply with his orders.

On 8 November 2013, when the deadline expired, Lukashenka came to the factory again. And to his surprise he found out that few of his orders had been implemented. He immediately fired a number of high-ranking officials and appointed a special investigation commission headed by the Chairman of the Committee of State Control (a financial security agency) Alexander Yakabson.

Is It Possible To Invigorate the System With Cosmetic Measures?

Thus, the nationwide executive conference looks like another attempt, apart from firing executives and setting investigation commissions, by Lukashenka to sort out the emerging mess in the public administration sector.

However, all these measures appear cosmetic, as they do not touch upon the very foundations of the Belarusian governance system: command and administrative methods in the economy combined with authoritarian rule in politics.

Judging by the incumbent’s statements and the outcome of the public administration reform that resulted only in the sacking of officials without any structural adjustments, President Lukashenka firmly believes that he can avoid serious reforms and still make the public administration effective again by means of the measures he has always employed. But even the latest events show that this calculation will most probably be wrong.

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

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