A revolutionary 2018? Belarus’s government changes its face
2018 witnessed huge changes in the Belarusian government. In August, President Alexander Lukashenka dismissed the prime minister, three deputy prime ministers, three ministers and the chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. At the same time, commenting on the government reshuffle, Lukashenka said that his decision was far from spontaneous.
While criticising the previous government, the President of Belarus mostly focused on discrepancies in the course of national development, as well as on the low level of labour discipline. Addressing these issues, Lukashenka appointed a team of relatively young technocrats in order to mobilise the state apparatus and tighten his grip on power ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections due during 2019 and 2020. In addition, several experts view the government reshuffle as Lukashenka’s response to the growing pressure from Russia.
The unexpected government reshuffle
In August, Lukashenka fired the ten key figures in the Belarusian government, including the prime minister, Andrei Kabiakou. While explaining his decision on Belarusian state TV, Lukashenka maintained that Kabiakou’s government had failed to demonstrate the due level of discipline and adhered too much to various privatisation initiatives. In fact, Lukashenka blamed the government for declining living standards of Belarusian people:
How much blood was spilled (and I had to do it, personally) in order to convince the government that people should have at least one thousand rubles as average pay in the country? (Approximately $500 – ed.) The lowest paid social strata, including nurses and caretakers, and people working in the cultural sphere and social services, as well as nursery teachers, should earn more.
At the same time, Lukashenka had particular considerations for firing each top official, starting with the prime minister. According to Arsien Sivitsky from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Andrei Kabiakou acted merely as administrator without his own programme. Lukashenka, on the other hand, looked for a more pro-active approach from the Belarusian government amid growing pressures from Russia. In this way, the absence of a distinct governmental program cost Kabiakou his job.
The dismissal of deputy prime minister Vasil Zharko links to a series of corruption scandals in the health care sector he oversaw. On the other hand, the dismissal of another deputy prime minister, Uladzimir Siamashka, merely related to the state of his health. The dismissal of Vital Vouk, the Minister of Industries, turned into a farce. Though Vouk received the highest amount of criticism from the Lukashenka, the president appointed him to the post of presidential aide in the Vitebsk region; a de facto promotion.
The new team of pro-market technocrats
As a result of the government reshuffle, Lukashenka appointed Siarhei Rumas, the Chairman of the Board of the Development Bank, as the new prime minister. Rumas held the position of a deputy prime minister previously, during the economic crisis of 2011–2012. Rumas’s reputation marks him as a skilled negotiator and a consistent supporter of market reforms, capable of dealing both with his Russian counterparts and with international financial institutions. Moreover, Homiel-born Rumas is a Belarusian national by blood (unlike his predecessor Kabiakou, who is of Russian origin).
According to Rumas, the major task of his government remains “providing Belarusians with a ‘decent standard of living,’ in particular:
We are not talking about state benefits and budget support, we are talking about how to make it possible for Belarusians to earn a decent standard of living.
Shortly after his appointment, Siarhei Rumas distributed responsibilities between the new deputy prime ministers. First Deputy Prime Minister Alyaksandr Turchyn has been tasked with implementing the “progressive” measures set forth in presidential decrees on the development of entrepreneurship and ICT. Accordingly, Turchyn will closely cooperate with the Ministry of Economy (under its new head Dzmitry Krutoy) and the Ministry of Communications and Information (under its new head Kanstantsin Shulgan).
Turchyn has already made several statements regarding his further steps in information and communication technologies. According to Turchyn, the Ministry of Communications, under the leadership of Shulgan, will become the supporting ministry for the implementation of the ambitious IT-country project and, probably, the basis for the creation of a Ministry of Digital Economy.
Another of the new deputy prime ministers, Uladzimir Kukharou, will supervise the problematic housing and utility sector (as well as construction, transport and the Ministry of Emergency Situations). Kukharou’s main task, given his background as the controller of Minsk’s public utilities, will include the delicate increase of the share of services paid by the population without an explosion in utility tariffs. The resolution of this issue remains among the major conditions for Belarus to receive a loan from the IMF.
Ihar Lyashenka, another appointment to deputy prime minister and former chairman of the Belneftekhim Concern, replaces Uladzimir Siamashka and will oversee both the energy complex and industry as a whole. Lyashenka’s main tasks include carrying out an intense communication with Russia and monitoring those Belarusian companies receiving large profits from the illegal oil re-export industry, operating under the guise of oil products.
Finally, new deputy prime minister Ihar Petryshenka, who replaces the scandal-clad Vasil Zharko, found himself in the most difficult situation of dealing with “social issues.” At present, the situation with Belarusian health care remains tense due to the latest corruption scandals. Moreover, Petryshenka will have to implement the latest version of the deeply unpopular presidential decree persecuting the so-called “freeloaders,” or Belarusians without an official work contract.
Will Rumas’s government bring real changes?
A noteworthy circumstance of Lukashenka’s government reshuffle lies in his constant referral to the “difficult times” facing Belarus. According to Sivitsky, “difficult times” means the growing difficulties in relations with Russia. By appointing a team of young Belarus-born technocrats, Lukashenka attempts to mobilize the state apparatus to repel any blows from the Russians if needed.
According to Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst with the analytical centre “Strategia,” Lukashenka decided to reshuffle the government in order to punish “the old guard” who had lost their fear of the Belarusian leader. The appointment of new and relatively unknown people to the top governmental positions should strengthen first and foremost Lukashenka’s power grip.
Despite the reputation of a “free market champion”, Siarhei Rumas will most probably fail to bring any notable market changes as the President of Belarus de facto defines the government policies himself.
Stanislau Bahdankievich, the former Chair of the National Bank of Belarus, agrees with Karbalevich’s low expectations on Rumas’s government. According to Bahdankievich, Lukashenka remains unprepared for the drastic changes needed in the economy. As for Rumas, the new prime minister has so far failed to recognise publicly the biggest challenges which face the Belarusian economy: the unprofitability of state companies, large stocks of unsold products, and huge accounts payable. Therefore, as the economy will likely continue its stagnation, the living standards of ordinary Belarusians will stay the same. Consequently, in about a year, Rumas risks facing the same kind of criticism from Lukashenka that Kabiakou faced in August.
Pressure against Belarusian independent media: what’s next?
Since August 2018 till present, the Belarusian authorities put pressure on independent media resources, including the top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY. Taken into account that Alexander Lukashenka recently expressed the idea that “We must approach the elections in such a way that there is not even an alternative in people’s minds”, the Belarusian authorities will most probably keep the pressure on editorial offices of independent Internet resources.
The Internet resource TUT.by is the largest mass medium in Belarus with over one million daily visits. Besides advertising, TUT.by provides quite neutral information about current events in Belarusian politics, economy and society. As of November 30, the chief editor of TUT.by Maryna Zolatava stayed charged with article 425 part 2 of the Criminal Code (inaction of a person in office). The article envisages a penalty from a fine to deprivation of liberty up to five years.
Lukashenka’s dissatisfaction with TUT.BY: early clues
Several years ago, the first signal appeared that Lukashenka was dissatisfied with the existence of such a significant independent mass medium as TUT.BY and its owner Yury Zisser. When Lukashenka was giving a speech, “addressing to the people and Parliament”, he got off a topic and said a phrase: “Yakubovich and Shapiro! Deal with Zisser.”
At that time, the audience giggled. The sentence sounded like a joke. Lukashenka did not go into details about how Yakubovich and Shapiro had “to deal” with Yury Zisser, the founder and owner of TUT.by.
Lukashenka has one more reason to dislike Yury Zisser. The latter is the only representative of the large business who financed a number of events for those whom Lukashenka calls “the fifth column”. In June 2018, Zisser donated a significant sum of money for holding an event of For Freedom movement. An award “For freedom of thought” was presented at the birthplace of the famous Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, at village Bychki (Vushachy district, Vitebsk region). Also, Yury Zisser donated to the Polish literary award for Belarusian writers named after Jerzy Giedroyc.
How the pressure against TUT.BY outburst
In August 2018, the director of the state-run informational agency BelTA Iryna Akulovich blamed the independent journalists, including journalists from TUT.BY, for stealing information and getting an unsanctioned access. Her claim served as the basis for initiating the criminal cases against the independent journalists.
On 7 August 2018 employees of the police held searches at the editorial offices of TUT.by. Information carriers and computer system units were seized. The police also searched flats of several employees of the TUT.by editorial office. On 8 August 2018, the TUT.by owner Yuriy Zisser and the director general Liudmila Chekina were questioned at the Investigative Committee.
On 10 August, a representative of the Investigative Committee reported that proofs and testimonies obtained from the suspects served as a basis for initiating criminal cases under article 349 of the Criminal Code (unsanctioned access to computer information).
Most suspects were released under recognisance not to leave the country, facing liberty deprivation term up to two years. Maryna Zolatava, the chief editor of TUT.by has been charged with article 425 (inaction by a person in office), she faces deprivation of liberty for a term up to five years.
During the questionings, employees of the Investigative Committee exerted pressure on the journalists. On September 25, the editor of the resource finance.tut.by Zmitser Bobryk said:
“I received direct threats — against me and against my relatives and close people. First, I was promised that some details of my personal life would be publicised if I refused to cooperate. It ended with threats concerning my relatives who could suffer. I signed a paper on cooperation.”
Reactions on TUT.BY pressure
Regarding the claims of the Investigative Committee, Yury Zisser said: “I do not understand why one needed to do this. The news from BelTA is in public access.”
Commenting on the detentions of journalists and searches at the editorial offices, Zisser remarked: “The events got a cosmic scale of coverage in various state mass media, totally irrelevant to the matter of the case, thus, political underpinning has become evident.”
The head of the informational campaign Ales Lipay called the charges “absolutely absurd”. The human rights defender Ales Bialiatski remarked: “It is a targeted policy of restricting the information space in Belarus in order to keep Belarusian citizens in the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and disinformation.”
On 19 October, employees of the Investigative Committee again turned up at the editorial office of TUT.by with an inspection: allegedly, after receiving a phone call that the office had been mined. Police employees often use such pretexts in order to enter premises of oppositional organisations, NGOs and to spoil their events and meetings.
On 22 November, all suspects of the BelTA case were summoned to the police to get registered on a criminal record for a term up to 15 years. Thus, they received a warning that they could turn up behind bars.
All other journalists involved in the case were held liable under the Code of Administrative Offenses and fined (in particular, the chief editor of BelaPAN Iryna Leushyna paid a fine of 735 BYN). The restriction to leave the country was withdrawn. The information carriers and system units were returned.
A pro-governmental TUT.BY?
According to Andrzej Poczobut, the famous journalist, an activist of the Union of Poles of Belarus, the pressure on the journalists “should be viewed in terms of counter-revolutionary strategy”.
The future will show if there will be any changes in the editorial policy of TUT.by. A gloomy scenario is probable, on the analogy with how the informational space got cleaned up in Putinist Russia. The authorities might pressurise the owner of TUT.by Yury Zisser, or might change the owner of TUT.by and then change the editors.
On October 5, the founder of TUT.by Yuriy Zisser in an interview to the Internet resource kyky.org replied to the question whether he was going to sell TUT.by:
“I do not see any sense in selling it. Most probably, after this, the portal will alter the course. A new owner will change the editor and will turn the portal into BelTA or Sovbeliya [state media outlets] – and nobody will read it.”
The former TV propagandist for Lukashenka and the head of the Belteleradiocompany, currently living in Russia media expert Alexander Zimouski remarked: “Zisser might be asked toughly to hire another editor to manage the portal.”
To conclude, the authorities are likely to keep the pressure on journalists of Internet resources. BelTA claimed material damages from all persons involved in the case varying from three to 17 thousand rubles (equivalent to 1.5 to 8.5 thousand dollars). Even for profitable companies like TUT.by paying such sums might be problematic. The BelTA case has been clearly fabricated. It might recur, and not even once. The authorities might trample on independent Internet resources from another side. There is no independent court in Belarus. When there is a will, there will always be a pretext for pressure.