Why Belarus Needs To Reform Its Bureaucracy

Belarus is awaiting reforms to the public administration system, ordered by Alexander Lukashenka last year. It looks like the president’s main motive is to save money. Considerations of efficiency come second. However, the existing system of public administration cannot boast of particularly outstanding achievements.

Several indicators point to the necessity of a serious overhaul. Reasons for public administration reform are as evident as, perhaps, never before.

International governance ratings score Belarus very low. Bureaucrats are becoming increasingly uninterested in state service. The state apparatus systemically fails to reach socioeconomic targets. The functions of government bodies remain excessive and often overlap. Finally, corruption is rampant.

Quasi-Reform Out of Necessity

In 2012 the Belarusian president declared that he wanted to reform the system of public administration in the country. He said that the state apparatus needed optimisation and appointed a special state commission to prepare reforms.

In January 2013 the commission presented its conclusions. Among other things, the members of the commission provided a recommendation to liquidate two ministries: the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services. The commission also suggested that some functions be transferred from ministries to state corporations.

But Lukashenka only supported the idea to fire about 25 per cent of government officials – in order to save state funds and raise salaries for the remaining 75 per cent. He practically dismissed the commission’s recommendation to dissolve the two ministries saying that he was “not ready to make such decisions yet”.

Now the legal act that will define the contours of the proclaimed public administration reform is going through its final discussions in the Council of Ministers. According to a source in the government, the prime minister’s office is not going to push for something different to what Lukashenka announced in January. Even though primarily it spoke in favour of reforming the structure and functions of the executive branch.

Thus, it looks like the whole “reform” will be limited to mere personnel firing. And this obviously cannot solve the problems of the public administration system in Belarus, which, in Lukashenka’s own words, fails to deliver.

Poor Scores in International Governance Ratings

Respected international studies prove this failure. Worldwide Governance Indicators by the World Bank has the reputation of being the most thorough comparative study of public administration systems in the world. The chart below shows the 2011 results in in the category “Government effectiveness”.  

Officials Drain

Presumably, the problem of government officials leaving their posts in Belarus in search of better professional opportunities elsewhere became one of the triggers for Lukashenka. He publicly admitted it several times.

The situation looks logical. The level of pay that Belarusian bureaucrats enjoy leaves much to be desired. If we compare responsibilities and salaries in the public and commercial sectors, the latter is far more comfortable. And the commercial sector in Russia offers even better opportunities.

Hence, more and more government officials in Belarus prefer to change their jobs.

Average salary of a civil servant in Belarus

USD 560*

Average salary of a high-profile civil servant in Belarus (a  director of a ministry department)

USD 930

Average salary of a medium-level manager in the commercial sector in Belarus

USD 583

Average salary of a high-profile manager in the commercial sector in Belarus

USD 1400

Average salary in Russia

USD 813

Average salary in Moscow

USD 1483

Average salary of a high-profile manager in the commercial sector in Moscow

USD 2683

*As of November 2012

The problem seems self-evident. And it goes beyond miserable salaries in the government sector. Huge workload is another factor.

Socio-Economic Flaws

During an 8-hour long session of the Council of Ministers on 1 March President Lukashenka disclosed many secrets of the Belarusian government. He pointed to personal shortcomings of almost all ministers and made several catchy statements about the state of the public administration in the country. For example, he emphasised that a great deal of his own decrees never come into being because of the government’s poor performance.

For observers of Belarusian politics this was a familiar scene: the populist authoritarian leader publicly reprimanding his appointees to demonstrate to the general public that he remains in full control of the situation. But in fact, Lukashenka really spoke the truth.

Analysis of the government’s achievements proves a poor record. Take for example the 2006-2010 Program of Socioeconomic Development (Belarus sticks to the Soviet tradition of 5-year long macro-plans).

Technically the government accomplished most of the quantitative goals, like general investments and personal income growth. But the achievement came at a very high price. The authorities’ policies led to huge macroeconomic imbalances, which in their turn led to the 2011 financial crisis. The latter resulted in the 300 per cent devaluation of the national currency and enormous monetary losses for the population: according to some estimates, the Belarusians lost more than USD 1 billion.

In any democracy in the world this is reason enough for the government to step down. In Belarus, however, the government lingers on, as President Lukashenka does not have much choice from among his nomenclature to form a new one. However, such poor performance definitely signals the need to reform the governance system that fails to deliver on its basic functions.

Excessive and Overlapping Functions

A popular saying in Belarus goes that you cannot even sigh without official permission.

According to the legislation, the state apparatus has 1500 functions. But as the Ministry of Economy found out, if we take a closer look at all these functions it turns out that the real number exceeds 3800. The laws are often so vague that one big function of the state bodies actually foresees three or four smaller functions. Not surprising, therefore, that the government seems to be everywhere in the country.

And also unsurprisingly, the functions of different government institutions quite often overlap. The state’s controlling activities serve as a classic example.

The central body that deals with controls is the Committee of State Control. But besides them, 37 (!) other government institutions have the right and responsibility to exercise controlling functions. For local businesses this turns life into a real nightmare. Each year entrepreneurs’ unions call for a fully-fledged government reform to stop the controlling mayhem.

Untamable Corruption

Finally, corruption.

If we compare corruption in Belarus and, say, Ukraine, the former will look almost flawless. And this is an argument that the authorities in Minsk often proudly make.

However, numerous international corruption indices do not leave much room for pride. For example, in 2012 the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International ranked Belarus 123rd. In 2011 the result was even worse – 143rd place. This is another reason for the Belarusian authorities to seriously consider public administration reform.

To sum up, the Belarusian system of public administration definitely finds itself in crisis. By merely firing a quarter of civil servants, the government solves no major problem. Comprehensive reform is knocking on the door.

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

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