Lukashenka’s New Right-Hand Man: Andrei Kabyakou
The presidential administration is the centre of the Belarusian regime. It controls all state bodies including the government and parliament. The head of the presidential administration is the right hand of the president.
On 27 August, Alexandr Lukashenka appointed Andrei Kabyakou (age 52) to that very office.
Moscow-born Russian Kabyakou has been one of the closest people to the Belarusian ruler since 1990s. Some analysts predict that his appointment means that privatisation will soon come as well as increased Russian clout. Others believe that his loyalty to Moscow is exaggerated and he will faithfully work in the interests of Belarusian authorities.
Rocket False Start
Lukashenka considers his Russian origin as no problem. Appointing Kabyakou to the position of ambassador in Moscow last December he emphasised, “Half of our officials are Russians”. Among them defence minister and head of president's security service. Foreign-born candidates are preferable also for other reason – according to the constitution they may not run for presidency. The Belarusian state has been an inclusive one in terms of ethnic diversity – it had among its ministers even a Volga Tatar and an Azerbaijani.
Kabyakou was born in 1960 in Moscow. His father was a political officer in the Soviet air force and served in Belarus. Therefore Andrei has lived in the country since he was three years old. He emphasised: «And what shall I do in Moscow? Right, I was born there, but since 1963 I lived here. I am not going to leave our country [Belarus]»
In 1983, Andrei graduated from prestigious Moscow Aviation Ordzhonikidze Institute with an engineering diploma in rocket and missile design. His dream was to build rockets yet he had to work at Diaproektor factory in the Eastern Belarusian city of Rahachou. The enterprise produced optical mechanical equipment, including those used for military purposes.
In 1988, as other people became disappointed with the Communist party and some even publicly burned their Party cards, Kabyakou went to work full-time for the party. First, he worked in the organisational department, then studied simultaneously at the High Party School and the Belarus State Economy Institute. That was false start in his carrier.
After Communist rule crumbled, he returned to the same Rahachou factory. There he became friends with the factory deputy director Vasil Dauhalyou, who would bring Kabyakou to the top of Belarus rulling elite. Dauhalyou decided to work in 1994 on presidential candidate Lukashenka.
After Lukashenka's victory, he did not forget how Dauhalyou and his people helped him. In 1995, the president made Dauhalyou chairman of the Control Service of the President (later State Control Service), dubbed the “economic security service.” Kabyakou followed him as his deputy, then switched for a while to a post in Light Industry only to become in 1998 the Chairman of State Control Service himself.
Union State as a Trap for the Russian Bear
That was the right path to the top. In 2000, Kabyakou was appointed deputy prime minister, in 2002 the minister of the Economy, and in 2003 the vice prime minister. Among his tasks were financial issues and Customs Union, which Belarus joined under Russian pressure. Yet it does not mean that his goal was to bring Belarus into Russia's orbit. Many integration initiatives pursued by Minsk were smart tricks to get badly needed Russian support for unreformed and unmodernised Belarusian economy.
In December 2011 he became ambassador to Russia. Immediately after the appointment he declared on Belarusian TV that his main priority would be establishment of the Single Economic Space. The Customs Union has created some serious problems for the Belarusian government as Russia has increasingly gained control over Belarusian reexports of reprocessed Russian oil – one of the vital sources of income for Belarus. The single Economic Space could restore Belarusian government this lucrative oil business.
In this context Kabyakou's words about the Single Economic Space sound ambiguous:
That is a higher stage of integration within the Customs Union. That is a stage where our fundamental problematic issues shall be solved, the issues which existed in our trade and economic relations. It concerns equal prices for gas, equal conditions in oil and oil products trade, etc.
Even more ambiguous were Kabyakou's statements in a December 2011 interview for Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He pathetically elaborated on advantages and achievements of “Union State of Belarus and Russia,” yet the double-dip character of this dubious political project is common knowledge.
The Union was launched in 1997 and allowed Russian elites to satisfy their emotional sentiments for the lost Soviet empire. Belarusian leadership used it pragmatically to extract from Kremlin exorbitant subsidies. Minsk managed to give nothing essential in return to Russia. Belarus spoke with brash slogans and resorted to unrealistic demands anytime Moscow tried to commit it to something. Thus, Lukashenka agreed to introduce a single currency if he was given opportunity to print money as well.
As ambassador, Kabyakou not only proclaimed himself an “apologist of the Union State” playing on sentiments of Russian nationalists. He directly participated in very important negotiations for the Belarusian economy, among them those tied to oil export duties. Lukashenka was satisfied with his performance there.
Not only the Belarusian leader has noticed Kabyakou's defence of Belarusian interests. When Russian President Putin was visiting Belarus in May and saw Kabyakou at negotiations he made the following remark: "He has sucked so much blood out of me this past year – and now they sent him to us to Moscow to suck the rest out of me…"
Kabyakou is definitely not a grey official simply executing orders. In November 2007, as vice prime minister for economic issues, he made it to the headlines after shouting at Lukashenka. After the Belarusian ruler once again put forth a very questionable economic agenda, Kabyakou openly and very emotionally explained him that although Lukashenka could set “crazy tasks”, it would end in catastrophe. In a Belarusian context, this requires a lot of courage.
Is He Working for Moscow?
What motivates the Moscow-born and educated Kabyakou to work for the Belarusian state? Shortly after being appointed ambassador in Moscow he said that he “returned home.” But Kabyakou's Russian identity and loyalty is probably not particularly strong. There are Russians who underwent even more radical transformation and undersigned the Belarusian national project. Among them – one of the leaders of national democrats in early 1990s and today's chairman of the Belarusian Language Society Aleh Trusau.
Personal ambition to get to the top might be also a crucial factor. Kabyakou has managed to do that in Lukashenka's Belarus and he is going to continue serving it. Furthermore, he might defend Belarus's interests even more relentlessly, just to prove that his loyalty lies with the government in Minsk rather than his native Moscow.
To dismiss Kabyakou as Moscow's man is to disregard evidence that proves the opposite. Of course, the murky waters of Belarusian establishment politics make it difficult to analyse. The opposition, however, shall look for possible allies in the future transformation of the country everywhere. This also means among the ruling elite without prejudices to someone's origin or rhetoric.
Internet Activism Under Siege in Belarus
Until recently, Internet has been the only oasis of freedom in Belarus' political sphere.
But as Belarusian authorities realise that Internet is a powerful means of communication and mobilisation, more and more effort is being put into suppressing online opposition activities. The events related to the upcoming parliamentary elections prove this trend.
On the 30 August, several moderators of Internet community Nadoyel nam etot Lukashenka (We are sick of Lukashenka) were detained. The community exists in the largestRussian-speaking social network Vkontakte and has around 37,000 members. The aim of the Belarusian security services was to get access to the community's administrators and delete its content as well as intimidate activists.
Two of the group's administrators, Paval Yeutsikhiyeu and Andrey Tkachou, were sentenced to seven and five days in jail for a misdemeanor charge of hooliganism, which is a typical way to isolate activists in Belarus. Another activist, Raman Pratasevich, was shortly released as a juvenile, but reports of him being physically abused while interrogated have surfaced. Meanwhile, Siarhej Biaspaly and Aleh Shramuk fled abroad. Eventually, KGB got access to community's administrative controls and deleted its members and content.
Persecution of Internet activists garnered a negative reaction within the Belarusian sector of the web and were condemned by the international community. On 4 September the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed her deep concern with the detentions and arrests of administrators of political social media groups in Belarus, which she described as a crackdown on online dissent.
Preventive Actions on Parliamentary Elections’ Eve
A new crackdown on Internet activists looks like a response to pre-election Internet activity, and more precisely to calls to boycott the coming parliamentary elections, which are traditionally regarded as sham in authoritarian Belarus. Internet communities decided to join boycott campaign, started by other political opponents of the regime, and launched it on the web. A closer look at the current foreign policy of Belarus as well as domestic political situation suggests that a mass boycott is not the best scenario for Lukashenka.
The last two years saw a sharp decline in Belarus' relations with western democracies. This caused an imbalance, where Russia became by far the most important and influential partner. Despite numerous public claims of strategic partnership between the two countries, a fear of being seized by Russia is widespread among the Belarusian elite. This makes a need to normalise relations with the West an important foreign policy objective, though not openly proclaimed.
However, if we set aside the foreign agenda and turn to domestic affairs, a boycott is the least desirабле outcome for the regime too. In Belarus' case, where no party politics exists and the parliament has lost its political power long ago, many view elections more as a sign of support to the personalist regime. A mass boycott would openly indicate a lack of trust in authorities and their social contract with Belarusians, which has been eroding due to global crisis and economic model effects. To put in a nutshell, public support is badly needed for both internal and external reasons, and anti-electoral propaganda is clearly a challenge to the regime of Lukashenka.
The Echo of “Silent Protests”
As former administrator of the community Maxim Charniauski says, the prosecution of Internet activists began last year during famous “silent protests”. His online community was one of the online platforms which supported the protests. Such communities sprung up on the Belarusian Internet and were inspired by the Arab Spring. The initiative was named “Revolution through Social Networks” and occurred in a form of weekly peaceful street actions. Social networks, such as Vkontakte, Twitter and Facebook, played a major role in mobilisation of protests.
Although they failed to gain true mass support, the protests brought a lot of disturbance to the regime. They also revealed its repressive nature to citizens not actively engaged in opposition activity. During these events, community administrators were summoned and interrogated by KGB officers, who wanted to know passwords, logins and other relevant information. However, their efforts were not successful. Maxim himself managed to escape and currently lives in Poland.
This time the KGB had more success, but fortunately for the community, the Vkontakte social network is a Russian legal entity. This means that Belarusian authorities can hardly exert administrative pressure on its owners and managers. As a result, the community was fully restored on the 3 September at the request of administrators. The supervisory administrative rights were, as an exception, transferred to a person who did not create the community and who lives abroad.
Social Networks: a New Target for Lukashenka Regime
Until recently, the Internet was believed to be the only space for political oppositional activity and media freedom, not controlled by the Belarusian government. In fact, most of activity on the part of regime’s opponents has occurred online. The Belarusian government did not take any serious steps against such online activity, for it apparently did not perceive it as a threat to regime's stability. However, in recent years some trends have made Lukashenka regime take the Internet more seriously.
The number of Internet users reached roughly half of the population in 2012, and without a doubt the younger and more active half portion of the population. Recent studies on Internet usage in Belarus shows that it is poorly integrated into the global network and remains oriented towards regional Russian-speaking .ru and .by domains. Hence, Vkontakte is the most popular social network, while such services as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are still underrepresented in Belarus. It is no wonder Vkontakte has the biggest politically engaged communities, and becomes the primary object of pressure on the part of the regime.
Furthermore, the Belarusian authorities seem to be very “impressed” by events of the Arab Spring, where online media played a significant role. Subsequent “silent protests” only proved these fears. The regime started to introduce some regulative measures towards the Internet before the mentioned events, but after them it seems to pay even more attention to its Internet security. As a result, a policy trend of restrictive regulation of the Internet as well as pressure on active users has taken shape, especially social network activists. The last haven of political freedom is under siege.