Lukashenka’s recent appointments: in search of efficacy
On 5 March 2018, Siarhei Kavalchuk, a little known employee of the Presidential Security Service, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. This and other appointments have virtually transformed key elements of the Belarusian state apparatus over recent months.
The personnel rotated include heads of major TV channels, a major publishing house, a government-controlled public association, two ministries and two special services. Although the reasons for each appointment were multiple and often unique, one can see well-recognisable patterns in play.
Expansion of the “president’s bodyguards”
First, the expansion of the president’s “bodyguards” – the Presidential Security Service – fits into a pattern.
In late 2017, the head of the service Andrei Paŭliučenka became head of the Operation-Analytical Centre (OAC). A special service set up in 2008, the OAC performs protection measures with regard to the state secrets and other classified information. Moreover, this agency bears responsibility for monitoring internet communications and has become an active player in the government’s policy for regulating the internet. Direct evidence indicates that OAC coordinates the work of all special services and possibly monitors the activities of higher level officials.
Until the end of 2017, Siarhei Shpiahun, a person close to Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s elder son working as his aide for national security, headed the OAC. However, the president severely criticised the agency’s leadership in the middle of November 2017 for poor performance and collusion in corruption. After this, a team from the Presidential Security Service replaced the incumbent managers. The Presidential Security Service came under the control of Paŭliučenka’s former deputy, Dzmitry Shakhrayeu.
Alexander Lukashenka appointed another veteran of the service, Mikalai Latyshonak, as his aide for general issues in February 2018. This seemingly unimpressive position actually makes Latyshonak the head of the president’s secretariat. He will perform as a major “filter” of information flows destined for Lukashenka and “the gatekeeper” for high-level officials seeking a personal meeting with the president.
Yet another of the “president’s bodyguards”, Siarhei Kavalchuk, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. His predecessor, Aliaksandr Shamko, was fired after “failing to take effective measures to counter corruption” in the area of his competence.
Renovation of media management
Media management rotation stands out as another prominent features of the recent reshuffle. This included the retirement of Paviel Jakubovič, the iconic editor-in-chief of the major state newspaper SB-Belarus Segodnia and the head of the media holding comprising a number of other state outlets (including newspapers and magazines) and a radio station. Jakubovič bore the unofficial title of the most influential intellectual in the establishment, often performing as the president’s personal advisor and speech-writer.
Dzmitry Zhuk, the long-time head of the state information agency BelTA replaced Jakubovič as head of SB-Belarus Segodnia. His appointment clearly shows the priorities of the authorities. They want to use the potential of the state printed media in order to balance information flows on the web where the state still remains on the defensive.
Another ex-BelTA manager and specialist in internet communications, Ihar Lutski, left the Ministry of Information where he had been working as the deputy minister, to take up the leadership of the STV TV channel. The latter has underperformed recently. The new director, who replaces an old-style and Russia-leaning Jury Kazijatka, will struggle to deliver results both as a TV and internet communications manager.
A further important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company (NTVRC, the state’s biggest media holding), Ivan Eismant, to that organisation’s leadership position. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who moved to head the public association Belaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GONGO.
Eismant’s appointment marks an important trend in the Belarusian media-sphere: the expanding influence of the president’s spokesperson, Natallia Eismant (Kirsanava), a former employee of the NTVRC and wife of Ivan Eismant, the new head of NTVRC. Rumours suggest other recent appointees are close to her: namely, the head of the National Press Centre Volha Shpileuskaya, the head of the president’s Protocol Service Darja Šmanaj, and the new leadership of the ONT TV channel.
It is also worth noting that in the framework of the reform of the Presidential Administration in early 2017, the spokesperson received considerable new powers including oversight over all state media.
Lukashenka’s own checks and balances
An obvious dimension to the named appointments stands out: the rise in influence of the Presidential Security Service and the president’s spokesperson (see the charts).
Another, no less obvious dimension, can be discerned: the newcomers are often younger and always more technocratic and performance oriented. They have been appointed on merit, and not because of historical contexts or personal relationships (even in the case of Ivan Ejsmant). Accordingly, they will be at a greater distance from Lukashenka personally than their predecessors, who might have tended to perceive him as “an equal” of sorts.
A less obvious dimension of the recent rotation is the shift of identities. At least some of the retired officials (Jury Kazijatka, Hienadź Davydźka, Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ who used to be the head of Belaja Ruś before Davydźka, former ONT head Ryhor Kisiel, and the former Minister of Information Lilija Ananič) seemed to be somewhat Russia-leaning in one or the other way. The newcomers, in contrast, attach themselves much more to Lukashenka’s Belarus than to the international context.
However, the most important dimension of the reshuffling proves less ostensible. Lukashenka tries to install a new system of checks and balances. While the Presidential Security Service expanded its influence, the country’s most powerful special agency – the State Security Committee (KGB) – underwent a substantial optimisation process. The agency downsized and its capacities somewhat reduced. Meanwhile, the budget spending for the OAC in 2018 increased by 42%.
Thus, the independent positions of the Presidential Security Service and OAC now balance the previously unrivalled domination of the KGB. On the other hand, the management rotation and introduction of an independent oversight function performed by the president’s spokesperson both curb the overarching influence that the KGB exerted over the state media was also curbed both by
As the Kremlin becomes increasingly aggressive and Belarus-Russia relations find themselves at a new low, Lukashenka seems eager to have a more balanced and professional state apparatus in the wake of 2019–2020 political campaigns. Will this strategy entail higher efficacy and help him to avoid a new political crisis? The answer will probably be clear by the end of 2018.
Yury Tsaryk is a Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES
One Hundred Years of Belarus Independence Proclamation: Uniting the Nation or Dividing the Opposition?
On 1 March 2018, Minsk municipal authorities granted a permission to install a memorial plaque on the historical building, where on 25 March 1918 Belarusian independence was proclaimed. On the following day, Belarusians crowdfunded the project, promptly collecting € 2500 in just 3 hours.
Out of those states that gained their independence after the fall of the Russian Empire, Belarus remains the only one that does not officially celebrate this date. In the modern Belarusian history, the Belarusian Democratic Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika or BNR) anniversaries antagonised society – while the opposition made a specific point on public celebrations, the authorities usually marked 25 March with violent crackdowns.
This year, as the centennial of the Belarusian statehood approaches, authorities and opposition seem to agree on the importance of the date, in a stark contrast to the previous years.
What happened on 25 March 1918?
As Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty without Belarusian participation, Belarusian national elites finally realised the need to take responsibility for their homeland. After the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic on 9 March 1918, the declaration of independence followed on 25 March 1918.
In reality, the BNR lacked many formal attributes of a state and heavily depended on German toleration. Yet, more importantly, it created an important historical precedent. Ten months later, the Bolsheviks appropriated the idea of Belarusian state and (mis)used it for their own political ends, but the BNR established a continuous statehood tradition. It survived throughout the 20th century, serving as a basis for the creation of the independent Belarusian state in 1991.
The BNR did not disappear with the arrival of the Bolsheviks and continued to exist within the Belarusian diaspora abroad. Its government – the BNR Rada – derives its legitimacy from the democratically elected All-Belarusian Congress and is famous for being the oldest government in exile. The BNR Rada considers the current political regime in Belarus undemocratic and refuses to hand over its mandate.
Freedom Day in Lukashenka’s Belarus
Celebrations of 25 March, also known as Freedom Day, resumed in 1989, yet it did not become a public holiday. Instead, the authorities opted for 3 July as the official independence day, marking the date of the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis in 1944. This date does not bear connections to the re-establishment of the statehood or its independence whatsoever.
Under the current political regime, 25 March usually antagonises official authorities, ending in violent clashes and arrests. The Freedom Day represents the very opposite of the regime’s Soviet-based sentiments. In 1996, it coincided with a political crisis, threatening the annexation of Belarus by Russia and bringing 30.000 people to the streets. In 2000, authorities used military equipment and riot police units against the peaceful demonstration.
In 2017, the same trend was still in place: the authorities brutally detained over 700 persons out of a few thousand, who dared to gather in the centre of Minsk for the demonstration. Mass protests over the infamous ‘social parasites‘ decree last spring fuelled the authorities’ repressive reaction.
However, with the exception when Freedom Day celebrations were reinforced with similar political or social crises, the usual scenarios stabilised at two-three thousand participants. Often without a clear plan of action, opposition kept struggling to revive the Freedom Day, while the authorities effectively prevented it from becoming a unifying date.
The BNR centennial and the regime: the limits of passive toleration
By contrast, this year might offer something fresh, as the Minsk municipal authorities permitted a rally and a concert on 25 March in a downtown location, near the Opera Theatre. Moreover, they also promised that the unregistered national white-red-white flags and ‘Pahonia’ coat of arms could be used without restrictions.
Few other concessions include several BNR-themed exhibitions at major Minsk museums and marking BNR-related spots in the urban space. On 13 March, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Janka Kupala Park, memorialising the brothers Ivan and Anton Luckievič, the leading ideologists of the Belarusian national movement. Another plaque should appear on the building at Valadarskaha Str. 9, where the BNR proclaimed its independence.
In regard to the soft Belarusisation trends, the centennial of the BNR might present the regime with an opportunity to abandon the dominant Soviet version of Belarusian history. Yet, according to the political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Belarusian authorities face two major obstacles – giving up their Soviet-defined identities and a fear that public celebrations might turn unpredictable.
In this context, Belarusian authorities want to appear benevolent on the issue of the BNR centennial, yet distanced themselves from celebrations on the official level.
Divide and rule: the opposition and its dilemmas
Civil society and opposition took over the planning of the BNR anniversary, launching a crowdfunding initiative to fund the concert and coordinating volunteers for the information campaign. However, the authorised concert and small concessions from the regime immediately revealed that there is no common ground within their ranks as to the format of the Freedom Day.
The organisational committee split between those who prefer festive celebrations to the more traditional political protest. United Civic Party, movement For Freedom and Belarusian Popular Front along with civil society activists, including Pavel Bielavus and blogger Eduard Palčys, opted for the concert. They argue that the BNR centennial should become an occasion for a national holiday with the appropriate festivities.
Their adversaries, Mikalaj Statkievič, Viačaslau Siučyk, and Uladzimir Niakliaeu support a traditional demonstration through the streets of Minsk. Statkevič pointed out that festivities might discredit the authority of the opposition, achieved during the social protests last year.
“We face a number of social and political issues […] People always come out to these events with their problems and needs. A demonstration gives them an opportunity to express these, while the guarded concert does not,” commented the uncompromising Statkevič.
Thus, the roads of the opposition activists might part on 25 March 2018, allowing the regime to keep the face with the concert and prosecuting the participants of the unauthorised march.
The opposition’s lack of unity reminds of the similar divisions that tormented national elites in 1918, when they debated independence of the BNR in the early hours of 25 March one hundred years ago.
The centennial of the BNR coincides with a period when Belarusian regime shows interest in a stronger national identity. It also does not mind to compromise with the opposition, albeit on specific terms. A sizable part of the opposition, in turn, appears eager to use the warmer attitude of the authorities.