How Decisions are Made in Belarus
In less than two weeks, the Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau has to submit his proposal on the optimisation of the law enforcement agencies ("siloviki"). This follows the Presidential Decree No. 168 aimed at reforming the public administration in Belarus.
This will again raise questions about the role of the “siloviki” and, ultimately, about how the country is governed and who makes the decisions. The obvious easy answer goes that, of course, Alexander Luakshenka does. In the personalistic authoritarianism he indeed makes all important decisions himself. However, it would be an extreme oversimplification to see only Lukashenka behind any single decision or piece of legislation.
The bureaucratic machine undoubtedly plays a decisive role in shaping policy alternatives that Lukashenka considers. It governs Belarus as much as its highest official does. Therefore, understanding the mechanics of this machine is crucial. A recent study of Minsk-based Liberal Club helps shade some light on it.
It shows that the state decision-making process looks like a cycle with four different stages. It is strictly top-down and, therefore, highly reactive. The study also reveals poor communication between different ministries and other governmental bodies.
The public administration system in Belarus, in a way, resembles a Papal conclave: the outcomes of its work immediately become public and there are always rumours about, but generally the decision-making process remains non-transparent to outsiders.
Off-record interviews with state officials present the only opportunity to get an overall picture of the world inside the Belarusian state apparatus. The Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club has conducted a series of such interviews as part of its study on the reform of Belarus' public administration system. This article is based on their findings.
20 semi-structured interviews were conducted in April-May 2013. The interviewees represent the Presidential Administration, Council of Ministers, 5 ministries, 2 state concerns, 2 Voblast Executive Committees and 3 City Executive Committees.
Four Stages of State Decision-Making
The recent interviews reveal that the established decision-making process has four major stages and no single legal enactment which regulates it. Of course, the four stages do not apply to extraordinary cases where Lukashenka decides on the spot – like, for example, the cases of the confectionery factories Kommunarka and Spartak or the recent case of the private medical centre Ecomedservice.
At the first stage officials identify problems that need addressing. This normally results from various forms of monitoring the socioeconomic and political situation in the country: opinion polls, household surveys, analysis of citizens’ complaints, inspections, etc.
Initiatives to address a problem are the responsibility of either the relevant government bodies (ministries or state concerns) or supreme governmental bodies (the Council of Ministers and the Presidential Administration). These bodies produce all sorts of annual legislative plans and state programmes that prioritise issues for the state.
At the second stage, once the priorities are set, thematic government bodies are assigned the task of drafting decrees or other legislative acts. According to the majority of the interviewees, ministries and those whom are assigned the tasks have enough competence to develop decent quality drafts.
However, the quality often suffers at the third stage, when drafts are circulated for discussion among all interested bodies. Among other things, each institution involved pursues its own corporate goals. The resulting balance of interests may significantly undermine the ideas of the original drafters.
Finally, at the fourth stage it will end up in the Presidential Administration. There they go through another round of balance-of-interests discussions. Influential officials have every chance to amend drafts the way they want (if high-ranking officials themselves do not clash over certain issues). Importantly, the Presidential Administration’s governing principle is political expediency. As a result, here the contents of some drafts become further modified and streamlined in comparison with their technocratic original drafts.
Only after these four stages Alexandr Lukashenka reviews the drafts (if they need his signature) and makes his own decision. No doubt, his opinion is heavily affected by the previous stages of decision-making and also by the people who present the drafts to him.
Socioeconomic plans serve as typical examples of this four-stage process. At a government meeting last year Lukashenka famously exclaimed: “Why do you submit these plans to me to sign and then fail to fulfil them?”
The answer is easy: because in the existing decision-making short-term political goals and populism often prevail over any reasonable analysis and long-term planning.
Another important implication of the findings is that state decision-making remains highly reactive. The majority of problems fall in the government’s focus only after they become very serious. This results from the top-down hierarchical approach to identifying problems and making decisions.
This partially explains why Lukashenka has to interfere personally in all sorts of problems: the system of governance often remains inactive without an impulse from him. Of course, it was precisely Lukashenka’s own political style that resulted in the consolidation of this very system. It is still important to remark that Lukashenka's personal involvement in every matter is often the only way to get things done by the bureaucratic machine.
Poor Inter–Institutional Communication
Finally, the interviews reveal another problem: the lack of proper communication among separate governmental bodies. If one ministry needs some data from another one, there is every chance that it will not get it. Or will not get it on time.
This strange situation primarily results from competition of powerful officials and state agencies. Sometimes they would rather be happy to learn of the bad performance of their colleagues than the country’s progress. The crisis-hit year of 2011, when certain cracks inside the government became obvious, serves as a good example of their disjointed relations.
In addition, Belarusian bureaucrats like to classify everything. Even harmless decrees can bear the “for internal use only” label. More sensitive documents get higher protection, which complicates the transfer of information even within the state machine.
Simply put, the state decision-making process in Belarus looks like a closed cycle broken into four main stages. The initial impulse comes from the supreme governmental bodies or even Lukashenka himself. Then it transforms into a draft that returns to the supreme level in a form suitable for the balance of interests and political expediency.
The natural drawbacks of this super-centralized system are poor inter-institutional communication and reactive actions instead of proactive strategic thinking.
Friends and Draniki – Belarus Civil Society Digest
"Friends and Draniki" initiative improves economic literacy by means of in-home discussion meetings.
Following civil society protests, Minsk authorities will not build a multipurpose centre "Park Avenue" on the banks of Minsk river Svisloch. Representatives of Belarusian ministries participate in a civil society round table on drug-related issues.
Two journalists arrested in Minsk are causing a protest from the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Discussions and Campaigns
“Friends and Draniki” club in Minsk offers in-home economic literacy campaign. According economist Anton Boltochko of the Liberal Club the campaign aims at eliminating of economic illiteracy among youth activists and students by organising informal home-based discussion meetings. The initiative was originally launched by Minsk-based Analytical Centre "Stratehija".
Discussion: Prospects for reforming media sphere. On the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, BAJ held a discussion with leading media professionals on the topic of challenges and opportunities of developments of the current media market. Around twenty media experts, editors and journalists took part in the event; unfortunately, all officials, representatives of state-run mass media and the Belarusian Union of Journalists ignored the invitation to the discussion.
Political Sphere conference. On 3-4 May, the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk hosted the 2nd International Conference "Recovery of History: Memory and Society in Central-Eastern Europe." The conference was organised by the independent Institute Political Sphere and attended by 30 scientists from Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, as well as other guests. One of the panel discussions was devoted to dispute of the Belarusian and Lithuanian vision of shared history.
Guide on domestic violence issues. Belarusian Association of Young Christian Women (YWCA of Belarus) published a handbook of state and non-profit organisations that provide assistance to citizens in domestic violence situations. The guide covers domestic violence issues, statistics on Belarus, the related legislative regulations, etc.
Online quiz. On 17 May, Centre for Environmental Solutions will hold a virtual "climate" quiz. A team can consist of any number of people. For answering the questions, one can use any sources of information. The main condition is to answer as many questions during 2 hours, that is, the time of the online game.
Belarus Press-Photo-2013 sums up the competition results. The international jury of the news photo contest has announced the names of the contest finalists. The best works will be demonstrated at an upcoming exhibition. The organisers are planning to hold the award ceremony on 10 May.
School of Leaders: Acting with unlimited opportunities. The Disrights office, and the Polish School of Leaders have organised a joined project “Acting with unlimited opportunities”. Currently, the organisers are selecting 15 participants from various regions of Belarus to participate in the program. The goal of the School is to develop leadership skills of the representatives of specialised Belarusian NGO’s in order to promote the rights of people with disabilities, as well as enhance the participation of such people in the lives of their local communities.
The school of ecological activists is announcing an open call for new applicants for 2013. The SEA is an annual event organised by the Green Network society with the goal of increasing the level of eco-education and give an opportunity to all those who wish to learn more about the green movement.
Interaction between the State and Civil Society
Controversial project "Park Avenue" abandoned. Construction of a multipurpose centre "Park Avenue" on the banks of Minsk river Svisloch will not be constructed, informed the Minsk Committee for Architecture and Urban Planning. Local residents and civil initiative European Perspective, which led a campaign to protect this area from January 2013, welcomed the decision of the authorities.
State and civil society discuss drug-related issues. Representatives of the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Interior, General Prosecutor's Office and civil society organisations recently met at a round table to discuss the benefits and risks of the use of methadone substitution therapy for the treatment of drug addicts. Director of the anti-drug project "Antimak", Alexander Shpakovsky had the opportunity to present his point of and emphasises that methadone programmes are "absolutely wrong road rehabilitation of drug addicts."
Journalists Halko and Yarashevich sentenced to arrest. On 7 May, a journalist Aliaksandr Yarashevich and blogger Dzmitry Halko were sentenced to 12 and 10 days of arrest respectively, for “using the obscene language and resistance to the police”. Both persons were detained while returning from the delinquents' isolation centre in Akrestsina after meeting the civic activists who had been released from it after serving arrests for the participation in the "Chernobyl Way" rally. BAJ made a statement of protest condemning the recent arbitrary detentions and arrests of journalists.
Civil society solidarity. On 4 May, Pavel Vinahradau, the leader of Tell the Truth! youth wing, was released after serving administrative arrest for staging an authorised action in support of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich. When in detention, Vinahradau urged all opposition leaders and civil society activists to express solidarity and welcome his release in front of the detention centre. He was met by Vladimir Nieklyaev, Andrei Dmitriev, Vladimir Matskevich and about 30 civil activists; there were no other leaders attended.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.