Belarusian Government: Getting Older and Less Capable of a Reform
Belarus has one of the oldest governments among all of the post-Soviet nations. The average age of the high level state officials has reached 56 years. The average age of the Council of Minister’s members alone equals 55 years.
This is 6-8 years higher than in Russia and Ukraine and about 20 years higher than in some advanced post-Soviet reformist governments. The average age of the most senior officials in Belarus also becomes higher than in the neighbouring states.
As the majority of the high-ranking officials, who have been in top positions for the last 10-15 years get older the average age grows. With some exceptions, instances of young officials joining the top governing elite remain rare. This raises serious concerns about how Belarus could go through the challenges of the declared economic modernisation.
How Old Are Belarusian Top Level Officials?
This table prepared by Belarus Digest shows the years of birth and current age of the high-ranking Belarusian officials. The table does not rank the officials in accordance with their formal or informal roles in the political process. Their placement in the table is quite random but it makes the age point quite clearly.
The average high-ranking Belarusian official was born in 1956 and his/her age today reaches 56 years. This nearly equals Alexander Lukashenka’s age. And the average member of the government (the Council of Ministers) is just one year younger – 55.
The oldest persons in the Belarusian political hierarchy remain the Speaker of the parliament’s upper house Anatol Rubinau, Chairman of the Supreme Court Valyancin Sukala and Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prakapovich. They have reached the age of 70. The youngest one, Andrei Shorets (40 years old), heads the Ministry of Housing and Utilities.
Among Oldest in the Post-Soviet Space
Comparisons with other former Soviet states reveal that the Belarusian governing elite becomes more senior than the region’s average.
For example, the average age of the members of the Russian government stays at 49 years. However, if we add the other top-ranking officials (to make it comparable with the entire Belarusian list) then the average age of the Russian leadership goes up to 56 years, which looks the same as in Belarus.
The average age of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers (as of December 2012) equals 47 years. The government of Kyrgyzstan – 53 and the government of Kazakhstan – 49.
Comparing the age of the most senior state officials in Belarus and the neighbouring countries also shows that Belarusian top officials are rather old.
Gerontocratic Rulers Incapable of Reform?
Can we call the present-day Belarusian government and ruing elite in general a gerontocracy?
Perhaps, not yet. This despite the fact that the average age of the top-ranking officials significantly exceeds the average age of the Belarusian population. According to the 2009 census, the latter equals 39.5 years old.
While the top Belarusian officials get older the majority of the public servants stay in their 30s and 40s. According to the Belarusian statistics agency, as of the beginning of 2013, 53,7% of all state officials were born between 1963 and 1983. And only 11.2% of them have already reached the pension age.
However, the latter have far better positions in the decision-making system. And here one more aspect seems crucial to this discussion: intuitively, the age of the high-ranking officials has to impact their ability to think and act innovatively. In particular, the ability to design and carry out effective systemic and sectoral reforms that Belarus definitely needs. This seems particularly topical in the framework of the declared modernisation plans.
The examples of such reformers as Estonia in the 1990s or Georgia in the 2000s suggest that the younger the government the more likely it is to achieve groundbreaking results in modernising a country.
The average age of the Estonian post-Soviet government that Prime Minister Mart Laar formed in September 1992 was slightly above 30. And the premier himself only celebrated his 32nd birthday. Mart Laar names the young age of his government as one of the factors of the successful reforms: “we did not know what was real and what was not and thanks to that managed to accomplish unreal results”.
On the contrary, when the 71-year old Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Piotr Prakapovich becomes responsible for the program of economic modernisation we can hardly have high hopes in him. Especially after his time as Chairperson of the National Bank and the financial turmoil of 2011 that followed Prakapovich’s term at the National Bank.
Slow Generation Change
Overall, younger officials find it difficult to enter the highest echelons of power. Several factors could explain it.
First, the Belarusian bureaucratic machine follows rather specific selection rules. Connections seem to be a core criterion. The interviews with public servants that the Liberal Club conducts within its studyon the public administration reform clearly confirm this.
And the higher an official climbs the career ladder the more his/her age becomes important. The corporate logic does not normally welcome “wunderkinds”: one has to earn the right to get high.
Second, top officials in Belarus are appointed by the authoritarian president rather than elected by a popular democratic vote. Regular elections only have to legitimise the leader’s decision in the eyes of Belarusians and foreigners. And in this situation a long record of good and loyal service becomes more important than talent and competence.
In addition, Lukashenka might find more psychological comfort working with the old cadres he knows well. As the saying goes, no one prefers to change horses in midstream.
However, exceptions happen from time to time. The latest examples include the minister of utilities and housing Andei Shorets (40 years old) and the president’s economic affairs aide Kiryl Rudy (35 years old). Each such case becomes resonating news within the state apparatus and society at large.
Moreover, there has been a lasting story of the so called “young wolves” in the government led by the president’s oldest son Viktar Lukashenka. But no one knows when and if these “young wolves” manage to gain full control and whether they will still be young by that time.
In the meantime, the old generation continue to rule the way they deem proper. They would love to preserve the political and socioeconomic status quo in the country and for that try to prevent any serious reform as long as they can. And even if the situation forces them to go for reforms one can hardly expect any innovative thinking there.
The European Humanities University Responds
The European Humanities University (EHU) certainly welcomes the attention of the Belarus Digest team (including the Centre for Transition Studies) and any and all constructive discussions about EHU’s ongoing mission.
Regrettably, the recent Belarus Digest article EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile? rehashes a number of myths and stereotypes that persist despite clear evidence to the contrary. It’s also unfortunate that the author declined our invitation to visit EHU campus while in Vilnius. We think it would have helped her to better assess how Belarusian EHU really is.
Even more disappointing “EHU: Optimising Impact on Belarus”—a paper by Belarus Digest Editor-in-Chief Yaraslau Krivoi and Alastair Rabagliati that promises to “look at the impact of the European Humanities University (EHU)…on Belarus-related studies, teaching and public discourse”. Instead, the authors deliver a superficial analysis that disregards information provided to them upon request on a range of issues (e.g., research, recruitment, labour contracts, communications, and others). This results in recommendations many of which are either already in progress or miss the mark in terms of the university’s character and mission. Even worse, the paper creates the erroneous impression that EHU does not consider educating Belarusian students its top priority (it does), that the university somehow lacks proper oversight (it has an international Governing Board and an independent Trust Fund administered by the Nordic Council of Ministers), and that Belarus-focused research and teaching is not the rule but the exception (more on this below).
Perhaps it’s best to begin with the general claim by the author of the first article that EHU “is struggling to find its identity” and is “torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a ‘normal’ European university based in Lithuania”. There is absolutely no question at EHU that our university exists for the sake of Belarus and Belarusians. It is by no means a “normal” Lithuanian university and it never will be. It is Belarusian, belongs in Belarus, and only operates in exile because it refused to put up with violations of its academic freedom. These included the Belarusian government’s demand to allow it to determine who may or may not lead EHU.
EHU is always striving to improve its offerings to students. Naturally, this entails regular reviews and evaluation of faculty and department performance as well as the changes necessary for improvement. Change is never easy, and not everyone is happy about every change. But the changes at EHU have nothing to do with any intent to “shift focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university” (to quote the article). The notion that EHU is “torn apart” by a “struggle to find its identity” is hyperbole.
The claim that EHU has “started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics” is unsubstantiated. There are, in fact, no such cases. Some fact-checking of a claim like this by the author (or the editors) would have been appropriate. In reality, over 90% of EHU’s full-time faculty is Belarusian, as is the majority of non-academic staff. Of the more than 200 faculty, only 12 are Lithuanians. There is only one department that is led by a non-Belarusian: the newly-created department of social and political science. All others are led by Belarusians. That said, it has never been the policy of EHU to employ only Belarusian nationals. Faculty and staff are chosen for the contributions each of them makes to an enriching experience for students.
As for EHU’s recruitment priorities, currently 95% of EHU students are Belarusian. Belarus is and will remain the focus of EHU’s recruitment efforts. At the same time, EHU’s leadership has decided that students and the university would benefit from a somewhat more diverse student body. So a decision has been made to increase recruitment of non-Belarusian students, with an upper limit set at 20%. Since non-Belarusian students would not be eligible for the financial support provided by most current donors, they would be full-fee-paying students who would help the university sustain itself financially, particularly when the number of high school graduates is falling dramatically throughout the region (due to the drop in birth rates following the fall of the Soviet Union). Non-Belarusian EHU students are subject to the same academic requirements as Belarusians. Attending EHU is an opportunity for all of our students to learn about Belarus and meet Belarusians while receiving a European education.
Being an international and a European university while maintaining a focus on Belarus are not mutually exclusive goals, and EHU has always done both. When it was in Minsk, EHU cultivated copious international connections and provided an education to Belarusians that was truly international in scope. This, in fact, was one of the reasons the university fell into the regime’s disfavor. At the same time, a Belarusian spirit permeates EHU. Programs are taught in a way that closely relates theory and general knowledge to the Belarusian experience. So it should be no surprise that:
- More than half of all student theses are Belarus-focused
- More than one-third of EHU’s scholarly events either focus on Belarus or take place in Belarus
- More than one-third of EHU courses focus on Belarus
- 44% of EHU publications are published in Belarus (16% in the Belarusian language), and academic journals like EHU’s Belarusian Historical Review focus primarily on Belarus
- EHU regularly hosts and participates in Belarus-related cultural events, including Belarus Freedom Day celebrations, concerts, workshops, excursions, and the like
- Students, alumni, and faculty participate in Belarus-focused events, including photo exhibitions, guest lectures in Belarus, competitions, and others
- EHU’s student newspaper, the EHU Times, is published entirely in Belarusian
- EHU’s new core curriculum includes a course called the History of Belarus in the Context of European Civilization that is required for all students entering undergraduate programs (starting this year)
Thus, the observation that ”it appears that [students] cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU” because “only one specialisation appears to have the word ‘Belarus’ in its title” is superficial, to say the least. And the idea that students at universities in Belarus can study such subjects as international law in the same way they learn it at EHU (with our strong focus on human rights and their ongoing abuse in Belarus) simply beggars belief.
As for the observations about EHU’s Founding Rector Anatoli Mikhailov, he is currently serving his second and final five-year term. It will end in 2016, in accordance with the university’s statute. EHU was registered in Lithuania in 2006, following its forced closure in Minsk in 2004, and Professor Mikhailov was asked to continue to lead it in exile. He was elected by the university’s Governing Board, as required by the statute, and governs in accordance with its regulations.
We are, of course, pleased that the authors of both pieces agree on the importance of supporting EHU. We agree that EHU is unique in what it offers to students and scholars from Belarus and is a vital alternative that is worthy of the support it has been fortunate enough to receive from an international community of donors. We take very seriously their trust and expectations and are continually striving towards excellence.
European Humanities University