Pavel Latushka: The Liberal Face of the Belarusian Regime

Earlier this month Belarusian ambassador to Paris Pavel Latushka harshly criticised Belarusian producers for their alleged low reliability and problems with selling their goods abroad on a state TV channel. Latushka with his sophisticated background and behaviour always remained flamboyant and never quit fit into the standard image of a Belarusian official.

He has been steadily rising in the state hierarchy and represents a new generation of Belarusian higher officials. Whether his ascendancy results from support at the very top or is a matter of luck does not really matter. Latushka can become the new face of the current regime. 

He can also be the regime insider who ultimately negotiates with the opposition on political transition. Lukashenka's opponents cautiously welcomed his rise, yet the man has so far demonstrated unquestionable loyalty to the Belarusian leadership.

No Soviet Background

Pavel Latushka belongs to the younger cohort of Belarusian higher officials whose adolescent life was spent in an independent Belarus. He was born in 1973 in Minsk and, as he himself admits, his father influenced him in his commitment to the Belarusian language. That means more in Belarus than elsewhere, since Belarusian nationalism is extremely language-focused.

He started his studies at the most “nationalist” history department in the country at Belarus State University (BSU) at the time of Belarus' national revival in the early 1990s. However, he then switched to the BSU Law Department, a move that can be seen as less romantic yet more promising for his career, finally graduating in 1995. The following year, he also got a degree from Minsk State Linguistic University and is known to have a good command of both English and Polish.

In 1995, Latushka immediately started to work at the Foreign Ministry of the newly independent nation. The ministry then needed qualified people with foreign language skills.

Coal Deals and Landlords

In 1996-2000, he worked at the Belarusian consulate in Polish Białystok, then as a Foreign Ministry's press secretary, and later in 2002-2008 he became the Belarusian ambassador to Warsaw. Those were not easy years, as Minsk and Warsaw clashed regularly on their own and as part of bigger disputes between Belarus and the EU. Latushka was time and again recalled to Minsk for consultations with the leadership.

Still, he managed to build up a broad and diverse array contacts in Warsaw. According to some rumours, Latushka strongly supported the investment plans of Jan Kulczyk, who is also known as Poland's richest man. Kulczyk reportedly wanted to construct coal-consuming power stations in Belarus, supply them with Polish coal and export power back into Poland. The gist of the plan was to structure the whole operation to avoid of the EU's strict environmental regulations on carbon dioxide.

Among the other contacts of Latushka were Radziwiłł family – the former major magnate family of Belarus, whose property was expropriated after the reunification of Belarus within a socialist republic in 1939. In his 2009 interview to Zviazda daily, Latushka discussed the necessity to establish or activate – in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry - contacts with other magnate families whose “roots are linked to Belarus.”

Latushka became a major figure in Belarusian relations with Poland. Furthermore, he took a friendly line with Warsaw, a kind of diplomacy that sometimes bordered on outright lobbying. Later on, he demonstrated his friendly stance on the Polish vision of such important issues to Warsaw as the Katyn massacre. As Culture Minister he attended in June 2010 an official ceremony dedicated to Katyn in Minsk.

After viewing Andrzej Wajda's famous film on these historical events at the ceremony, Latushka commented to Radio Libery: “I could not sit in a car, I needed to walk and breathe fresh air. Indeed, those were huge – impossible to overestimate – emotional impressions. I never have been to Katyn, yet I have understood the pain.”

Removing Bans

In 2009-2012, Latushka became the youngest member of the cabinet as Minister of Culture. Liberal Nationalist weekly Nasha Niva welcomed Latushka as “the first Belarusian-speaking minister”. He actively attended all possible cultural events, going as far as to attend the crypto-nationalist Belarusian Poetry Festival in a village near Maladzechna, and reciting Belarusian classics at public events.

This all stands out as quite a new approach for a higher official in Belarus. Of course, his work has caused a number controversies as well. As a new minister, he boasted to launch a new and more comprehensive reconstruction program for old churches and castles, yet some experts like Anatol' Astapovich expressed criticism concerning the quality of the programme. The ministry – honourably  – publicly admitted some faults.

Latushka even challenged what is considered perhaps the most hard line element of the Belarusian regime – its one time chief ideologist Colonel Uladzimir Zamiatalin – over the failure of the film “The Dniapro Line” produced under Zamiatalin's supervision and presented as a patriotic movie. European Radio for Belarus suggested that it was Latushka who ousted Zamiatalin from his last major position – the chief of national Cinema Studio “Belarusfilm”.

The new culture minister displayed a liberal approach on several other occasions as well. After the introduction of ban on public performance by some bands, the minister successfully defended in October 2012 one of them, the well-known group “Palac”. The concert was dedicated to the band's 20th anniversary in Minsk was able to take place after the removal of the initial ban on the event.

All in all, Latushka is known for his consequent support of the Belarusian language – an extremely politicised and sensitive issue. He has publicly spoken in his native tongue for years, and even joined the Belarusian Language Society. On the other hand, Latushka rejects strong state-sponsored measures to return Belarusian to public and state usage. “When we start to greet one another in Belarusian, when we start speaking to friends in Belarusian, then the use of Belarusian in society will increase.”

Latushka as Symbol

In November 2012, Latushka became the Belarusian ambassador to France. Lukashenka apparently made a gesture with this appointment. The sophisticated Latushka succeeded an ambassador who was formerly a tank driver, General Lieutnant Alyaksandr Paulouski. The contrast could not be greater. The new ambassador in his intellectual outlook resembles Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey. Latushka has admitted to loving Vienna and French novels, he reads Schiller, Vasil Bykau and goes to the theatre regularly.

Latushka symbolises the new face of the Belarusian regime which is willing to deal with partners in the EU and avoid unnecessary tensions if no vital interests of the regime are concerned. His statements and actions are illustrious evidence that the “Soviet heritage” and Russian cultural heritage are increasingly less visible and apparent in Belarusian state policies.

At the same time, the capability of current ruling elites to rejuvenate their strength remains uncertain. The regime has gotten rid of any truly strict ideology and thinks mainly about its own survival. Therefore such hard liners as Zamyatalin, Kryshtapovich, Yancheuski have become marginalised. But young cadres remain scarce at the higher levels of state hierarchy. Thus, only two ministers and one deputy minister are younger than 45. The age of the other two ministers and a deputy minister is between 45 and 50.

The current leadership relies on grey mass of ordinary bureaucrats who smoothly function under normal conditions yet who can have problems with reforms or any potential political or economic crisis. It is only in these conditions, it seems, that other people will come on stage to replace them. Among them, without a doubt, will be Latushka. There are only doubts on whose side he will then be.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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