The New Mayor of Minsk: a New Trend in Top Level Appointments?

New Mayor of Minsk Andrei Shorats. Image: Dokshitsy.by

On 6 November, President Lukashenka appointed a new mayor to the nation's capital. The appointee Andrei Shorats (41) represents a new generation of state officials. Most of his life passed in independent Belarus. He and Andrei Shved (41), chairman of the Investigative Committee, are the youngest members to climb to top ranks of the state bureaucracy.

The Mayor of Minsk is always a major figure in Belarusian politics. After all, every fifth Belarusian lives in the capital and 25% of the country's jobs are concentrated in Minsk. One of the recent mayors, Uladzimir Yarmoshyn, jumped directly from the mayor's office to the office of the prime minister.

The newly appointed Shorats, who has so far advanced relatively quickly in his career, may continue his rise. This rise deserves additional attention because of the liberal economic views held by Minsk's youngest mayor in recent history.

Decorated and Dismissed

The previous mayor of Minsk Mikalai Ladutska ran the city for almost five years. Although Lukashenka more than once publicly criticised the work of the Minsk City Executive Committee (the city's governing body)– last time being in April– hardly anybody expected Ladutska be removed.

After all, he was able to cope with holding the Hockey World Cup in May and Lukashenka decorated him with a state honour in September. Ladutska missed no opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the president and declared himself to be "a man who is serving the “vertical” [of presidential power]. I was appointed to that office by the Head of the State and my task is to ensure to the fullest extent the implementation of his policies”.

There are many reasons that could have led to the decision to remove Ladutska. Minsk still had problems with attracting investment and was struggling with economic stagnation in recent years. Ladutska would be a useful scapegoat for them, especially when considered against the backdrop of a corruption scandal which involved his team in the city administration.

More importantly, he angered numerous Minsk citizens by relentlessly pursuing policies that lead to more and more construction in already settled parts of the capital. It frequently led to more crowding in already densely populated areas and people were increasingly being deprived of the green spaces and playgrounds they had enjoyed around their homes. Such ruthless development added to societal tensions in the build up to next year's presidential election.

A State Manager

The new chairman of Minsk City Executive Committee was born in 1973 in Northern Belarusian city of Vitsebsk. In 1995, he graduated from the Vitsebsk Technological Institute of Light Industry. He rapidly created a career for himself in managerial positions in public sector, specifically dealing with energy, transportation and other public utility matters in the Vitsebsk Province Executive Committee.

In 2010, he arrived in Minsk as the Deputy Minister of Housing and Communal Services and in June 2011 became the head of this Ministry. His responsibilities included a wide array of services that are consumed daily by the public: electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, etc. In Belarus, all of them are provided by state organisations and firms.

In other words, this means while serving in this arduous office he ran a huge organisation forever dependent on state subsidies – after all consumers pay only a small fraction of the costs for public utility services (e.g., 23.7% in January-March 2014).

He Who Cannot Pay Shall - Move Out?

Shorats had all the appearances of an effective and liberal manager. Among the many innovations he proposed was to allow private providers to enter the market of public utility services – a revolutionary move in Belarus.

Shorts demonstrated his liberal economic views in 2013 when he proposed to change the legal status of apartments which were given to citizens by the state and that have not yet been privatised. This radical initiative threatened to turn 392,000 non-privatised flats into so called “commercial housing”.

There is one comparison that aptly indicates that Shorats has been the recipient of help from the very top. Just before he put forth his plan, senior officials at the Energy Ministry lost their offices in an act of demonstrative punishment after they tried to increase energy tariffs for consumers.

As minister, Shorats also made other attempts to reform the housing sector. In 2011, he publicly discussed the idea of moving people who cannot pay for public utility services into smaller flats and stated, absent any hubris, that “nowhere in the world are there are as many homeowners as there are in Belarus – 85.5%! Everybody is an homeowner here”. His comments were directed towards the fact that in Western countries many people live in rented housing.

First Liberalise Minsk?

The new mayor is going to continue his liberalisation campaign in Minsk. His former ministry has developed a plan for reforms of the public utility system. At this point, Lukashenka has himself has ordered him to reform public utility services in the capital. The reform will lead to rising prices for local population, aas well as property transfers with the prospect of gradual privatisation and reductions in the state's social welfare support.

Shorats himself has outlined his priorities in Minsk as improving the city's attractiveness for investors, fixing the public healthcare system and dealing with the “economics of enterprises belonging both to the state and city”. Not long after this statement, he elaborated on the last point by declaring his plans to bring together shops which belong to the city under one umbrella.

The new mayor also plans to drop some of the city's social welfare commitments. He is openly urging the development of a new added fee for communal services. The government would then use residents' money to upgrade living environments of their buildings.

Lukashenka Finds New Faces

The Belarusian leadership - however slowly - is trying to carry out renovations to the government. Last year some members of the opposition media* described the government as a team of pensioners and compared the relative age of officials in the Belarusian and Georgian governments. Yet there is no point in such a comparison given that Georgia represents an extreme and should be viewed only as an outlier.

By regional standards the Belarusian government is quite ordinary when it comes to its age and personnel structure. Moreover, the current leadership is finding new people to promote up through the ranks - people who are demonstrating an ability to work in a different way. The cases of Pavel Latushka and Andrei Shorats prove precisely this point.

If the new mayor of Minsk succeeds in the implementation of his quasi-liberal plans in Minsk, this can push the country in a new direction. The government is increasingly moving to get rid of as many social support welfare schemes as possible and is continuously introducing a market economy in so far as it suits the ruling elites.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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