Lukashenka Reshuffles the Government Before the 2015 Elections
On 27 December, Alexander Lukashenka ordered a major reshuffling of the government as Belarus weathers economic troubles and prepares for the 2015 presidential campaign.
He appointed a new Prime Minister and his deputies, heads of the National Bank and the Presidential Administration, as well as a number of new ministers and regional governors.
The new appointees will have to ensure that Belarus avoids any potential economic disasters while postponing any serious reforms in 2015.
Despite popular expectations, Lukashenka did not use the recently fired officials as scapegoats for the mounting economic problems. On the contrary, he offered some of them lucrative jobs in order to thank them for their long years of service.
“A Traditional Move Before the Elections”?
Rumours and speculation about an imminent government reshuffle have circulated throughout the year. On a number of occasions, the ousting of Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich looked inevitable but his government held on. Few pundits expected that a sweeping government reorganisation would happen only days before the New Year.
According to Lukashenka, the reshuffle should be looked upon as a traditional move that he makes before a presidential campaign rather than an extraordinary move. However, in all probability, the country's recent financial troubles did speed up the government's reorganisation.
On 19 December, the authorities had to make several urgent moves to prevent panic on the foreign currency exchange market following last week’s dramatic decline of the Russian ruble. According to a source close to the government, Aliaksandr Lukashenka explicitly prohibited the devaluation of the Belarusian ruble but simultaneously demanded some measures to protect hard currency reserves.
Faced with such a conundrum, the National Bank imposed a temporary 30% fee on all foreign currency purchases, raised interest rates and provided state guarantees for deposits in Belarusian rubles.
The measures managed to curb the public's panic but became subject of serious criticism from business unions and experts. After a series of economic discussions with the Myashikovich government, Aliaksandr Lukashenka finally decided on 27 December that a new government was needed to manage the economy.
Mainly the Same Faces
The reshuffle mainly saw the same familiar officials moving from one office to another. All in all, 24 officials received new portfolios in the Government, the National Bank, the Presidential Administration and large state companies. The most prominent appointments are:
Andrei Kabiakou, the former head of the Presidential Administration, has replaced Mikhail Myasnikovich as Prime Minister. Kabiakou has extensive government experience: in 2000-2010 he served as a Deputy Prime Minister. He also worked as the head of the State Control Committee, Minister of Economy, deputy head of the Presidential Administration and Ambassador to Russia.
Aliaksandr Kasinets has become the new head of the Presidential Administration. Before this appointment he chaired the Vitsebsk Region Executive Committee and previously he held the posts of deputy Prime Minister and rector of a medical university.
Pavel Kalavur has replaced Nadzeya Ermakova as the chairperson of the National Bank. In 2010-2014 he headed a commercial bank, but before that he spent 17 years in the capacity of deputy chairman of the National Bank.
Uladzimir Zinouski has moved to the position of the Minister of Economy. Before that he headed the National Statistics Agency for 16 years and also chaired the Council on the Development of Entrepreneurship.
Other noticeable appointees include:
- New deputies of the Prime Minister: Vasil Matsyusheuski (previously, chairman of a commercial bank) and Natallia Kachanava (head of Novopolotsk City Executive Committee);
- New deputies of the Head of the Presidential Administration: Mikalai Snapkou (Minister of Economy) and Ihar Buzouski (chairperson of the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth);
- New Minister of Education: Mikhail Zhuraukou (the first vice-rector of the Belarusian State University);
Also, Aliaksandr Lukashenka replaced the appointed governors of three regions: Vitsebsk, Brest and Mahiliou.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Alexander Lukashenka did not use the reshuffle as an occasion to place all the blame for the mounting economic problems in the country on the fired government officials. He even made a number of symbolic “honorary appointments”.
Mikhail Myasnikovich has become the speaker of the parliament’s upper chamber – the Council of the Republic. His ex-deputy Piotr Prakapovich and the National Bank’s former chairwoman Nadzeya Ermakova will now head two commercial banks. Several other long-serving officials whom the president replaced (Anatol Tozik, Siarhey Matskevich, etc.) will probably get new honorary posts soon.
This is an important development to pay attention to if one wants to understand the logic of the state apparatus in Belarus and the principles that govern it. No doubt, the whole system works to guarantee the stability and security of the president’s rule and the latter sometimes presents individual officials as scapegoats for the state's most worrying problems. However, Alexander Luakshenka also has to adhere to certain informal rules and principles in order to send the right signals to his bureaucracy.
In particular, he cannot just fire long-serving and reputable officials and blame all of the nation's problems on them. Individual cases might arise from time to time but the general rule requires that the president treats such officials respectfully and offer them lucrative opportunities upon their departure from active service.
What to Expect from the New Government?
The government reshuffle caused a wave of speculation in the Belarusian media about its likely implications. The majority of commentators do not expect any essential changes in the state's economic or social policies.
The decision-making system remains unchanged and nothing appears to indicate that Alexander Lukashenka will allow the new government to launch structural reforms that international institutions, like the IMF or EBRD, want to see. Moreover, the president made it clear what he wants from the new government – to secure his own victory in the 2015 presidential campaign. He has traditionally called this period “an exam” for the whole state apparatus.
The government will have to ensure that Belarusians do not suffer any deep blows to their well-being before they cast their ballots next year. Therefore, the newly appointed officials will do their best to balance between minimising the negative effects of Russia’s recession and falling oil prices, on the one hand, and postponing painful socioeconomic reforms – on the other.
For these very tasks, the appointees seem like proper choices. Only Pavel Kalavur has the reputation of being a pro-market banker, however. The others represent the same views that have dominated Belarusian policy-making over the last two decades: massive state property and government control over the economy, administrative measures over market tools, pushing for as little reform as possible. Among the new officials, Prime Minister Kabiakou is the most prominent incarnation of these non-reformist ideas.
However, if the economic situation in 2015 becomes really dire, the new government will hardly be more effective than their predecessors.
Will Belarus Increase Internet Censorship after December’s Financial Panic?
On 19 December, Belarus resorted to an unprecedented step to stop the rapidly unfolding panic on the foreign currency market. It blocked a dozen popular independent web sites, who published news on the growing financial trouble.
Previously, the authorities blocked Internet content only during times of major electoral campaigns. Now, they seem to use this approach to restricting the flow of information to resolve Belarus's growing economic problems, which are a byproduct of Russia's recession.
The recently adopted new amendments to the Law on Mass Media will give the authorities even more instruments to control and restrict Internet media freedoms ahead of the 2015 presidential elections and the ongoing economic instability.
The Russian Crisis Causes Panic in Belarus
The rapid devaluation of the Russia rouble in recent months has made many Belarusians excited, sending them on a spending for cheap cars and gadgets from Russia. The Belarusian authorities seemed to observe the situation with caution, as Belarus is deeply dependent on Russia economically, but they did not make any serious moves — until recently.
All of a sudden, in the second half of December rumours of a new round of devaluation began making its way around Belarusian society. Queues near currency exchange points started to grow, fuelled by Lukashenka's statement that Belarus is not going to devaluate its currency. People still remember the 2011 crisis well, when similar claims were made and followed by sharp round of devaluation, sending everyone rushing to currency exchange points.
The government, which also took lessons from 2011, this time reacted fast. On 19 December it ordered banks to stop selling foreign currency and, instead, trade it on the foreign exchange market. Shortly thereafter, it also introduced a 30% commission fee on the purchase of foreign currency to alleviate the panic and prevent another financial catastrophe. At that point two of the most popular web sites in Belarus, tut.by and onliner.by, were overloaded with visitors and broke down, as people wanted to know what the situation really was.
Realising the major role of Internet in how information is spread, the authorities decided to resort to a very radical measure – they blocked a number of independent web sites, which published information on financial developments.
Many of the most popular independent web sites were blocked, among them Charter97.org, belaruspartisan.org, prokopovi.ch, gazetaby.org, belapan.by, naviny.by, zautra.by and udf.by.
However, the authorities refused to take responsibility for this move. Beltelekam, the Belarusian state-owned Internet monopolist, claimed that its data processing centre was DDoSed and therefore some of the web sites of the Belarusian Internet zone might be inaccessible as a result.
The next day the Minister of Information Lilija Ananič gathered the editor-in-chiefs of all of the major independent Internet media outlets. According to the head of the Narodnaja Volia newspaper, Iosif Siaredzič, the Minister asked the media not to stir up panic in society. She urged them to take information only from official sources, and not to use insider information or anonymous leaks.
The editors in response declared their protest with the way the official sources provided information on 19 December, when society wanted to know what was going on while the authorities pretended that nothing happened.
The Belarusian journalists association released a statement where it called the blockage “a legal outrage”. It also said that “now the 2015 presidential elections campaign make no sense because de-facto the authorities have introduced informational state of emergency in Belarus”.
A Brief History of Internet Censorship in Belarus
The Belarusian authorities made their first moves to censor the Internet during the 2001 presidential campaign, when the Belarusian Internet still had very few users. The Security Council ordered that independent web sites block access to anyone independently monitoring the electoral process.
In late 2000s, when Internet usage became widespread in Belarus, the regime started to feel an acute need to restrict access to undesirable information. In 2010 Lukashenka ordered Internet providers to require the identity of users, and created a compulsory registration procedure for Belarusian Internet resources.
On 19 December 2010, the day of presidential elections, the authorities blocked both the belaruspartisan.org and charter97.org web sites. Since April 2011 access to these two sites has been permanently blocked in state institutions and educational establishments. Later, as the financial crisis unfolded, the authorities added to their black list the prokopovi.ch site, which became a source of unofficial person to person currency exchange and financial information.
In 2012, the famous petition site change.org was blocked, after it published a petition calling for the release of Anton Surapin and Siarhej Bašarymaŭ, who were arrested during the Teddy-bear bombing investigation. The same year, during parliamentary elections, the regime blocked the web sites of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party and the independent electoral observation campaign For Fair Elections.
As the Internet's role in political life grows in Belarus, the regime continues to come up with new ideas how to control the vast informational open space which accompanies it. The recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media are looking like a new powerful tool in the hands of government censors.
The 2014 Amendments Will Further Restrict Internet Freedom
Simultaneously alongside the country's growing financial troubles and the Internet information blackout, on 21 December Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed amendments to the Law on Mass Media. The puppet parliament adopted the amendments secretly so that journalists would not be able to discover its content ahead of its adoption.
The amendments essentially place Internet media on equal footing with print media Read more
The amendments essentially place Internet media on equal footing with print media, which means a web site can be closed after two perceived 'violations'. As far as what constitutes a violation, this is entirely up to the authorities to define as the law bans the “spread of information which could be harmful to the national interests of Belarus”. This vague language means that virtually anything the regime considers dangerous to its own existence could be targeted.
However, as Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski, a political commentator for Naviny.by claims, the Belarusian authorities will be unable to shut off Internet media completely. “The journalists will not agree to quote state agencies and write material [convenient to the authorities]. They will simply go underground and their content will become more radical”, the expert noted.
So far the Belarusian authorities have used drastic censorship measures only during major political campaigns. But as the economic crisis grows less and less manageable, coupled with the geopolitical tensions in the region, such measures may become a more frequent response to growing political and economic threats that the regime will have to face.
As the 2015 presidential elections are quickly approaching, the regime will seek to demonstrate its full control over the situation, no matter how tough the measures they need to enact may be.