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Mortal Combat: Lukashenka v Bureaucracy

Belarus is on the verge of an unprecedented process: a massive layoff of government employees. At least, President Lukashenka has ordered it. According to him, because of the budget constraints the state apparatus will be trimmed by 25-30%. Several...


Belarus is on the verge of an unprecedented process: a massive layoff of government employees. At least, President Lukashenka has ordered it. According to him, because of the budget constraints the state apparatus will be trimmed by 25-30%. Several weeks ago he established a special state commission to prepare a package of proposals for an overhaul of the existing administrative system.

No doubt, the large public sector in Belarus needs reform. But most likely the commission will only tackle the reductions while it will fail to address the core problem – the overblown functions of the government.

And even to cut the large number of civil servants will become a real challenge for Lukashenka. Previous historical attempts to tame bureaucracy without changing the political system proved fruitless. Moreover, they usually brought about the fall of those rulers who initiated such reforms.

Bureaucrats on the Run

The reason why Alexander Lukashenka has become concerned about the excessive number of employees in the public sector is simple. State bureaucrats have always had modest salaries compared to the private sector. But after last year’s devaluation their earnings dropped by more than 2 times (when calculated in US dollars).

This year the salaries grew but they still appear to be rather small. Low-ranking government officials earn around $250-350 USD a month. Their middle-ranking colleagues get about USD 600-700. Those in managing positions, like the heads of ministry departments, can earn up to  $1000 USD. Compared with, for example, Russia, Belarusian civil servants look significantly worse off.  The average salary of their Russian counterparts reaches $1800-1900 USD.  

And the workload is rather large. In some ministries people have to come to the office even on weekends in order to keep track of enormous amount of paperwork.

Of course, there are not so many enthusiasts among the state officials who want to work for peanuts. Therefore, more and more of them are leaving their government posts for better positions elsewhere. And the influx of newcomers is not enough to replace all of them. As a result, the number of vacancies in state institutions is growing. And those who stay are increasingly less stimulated to perform their duties properly.

This is an unacceptable situation for Alexander Lukashenka. The state bureaucracy serves as one of the major pillars of his unlimited powers. If this drain of professionals continues he will soon have no one to carry out his orders. So now his idea foresees the firing of 25-30% of government employees and use these funds to raise salaries for the remaining officials.

Thus, Lukashenka’s real concern comes not from the excessive size of the public sector as such but rather from the serious difficulties with recruiting people to fill all the government positions. If it were not for the financial difficulties he would be happy to keep the state apparatus as it is.

How Big is the State Machinery?

The Belarusian state controls much of what remained of the Soviet state-run economy. Roughly 80% of all the assets in the country are owned and run by the government. It is no wonder that to manage this amount of state property and assets, the authorities need a sizeable bureaucratic apparatus.

Belarus has 24 ministries. To compare: Russia and Poland have 18 ministries each, Ukraine – 16, Lithuania – 14 and Latvia – 13. Read more

Today, Belarus has 24 ministries. It is the biggest number in the whole region. To compare: Russia and Poland have 18 ministries each, Ukraine – 16, Lithuania – 14 and Latvia – 13. Besides the ministries, the government system includes several state committees and consortiums.

Overall, more than 165,000 people work in the public sector. According to the Belarusian Statistics Agency, roughly 60,000 of them belong to civil servants and the remaining 100,000 or so can be called “men in uniform”.

Who exactly this latter category includes seems impossible to find out. The information is classified. But, clearly, the absolute majority of the “men in uniform” represent the Ministry of the Interior. Hence, the number of policemen in Belarus significantly exceeds the numbers in other European countries of a similar size or population. For example, Sweden has fewer than 20,000 policemen, Austria has 27,000 and Bulgaria’s police force account for 30,000 of the public sector. This is significantly less than the 100,000 Belarus has. 

This statistics points to two major problems with the Belarusian system of public administration. The first one is the big number of ministries and other state bodies, which means that the Belarusian government has too many functions to perform. The second has to do with the overblown size of the police. Therefore, any reform of the state apparatus should primarily tackle these two problems.

Low Expectations

The special state commission that has to draft a concept for reforming the public sector seems unlikely to solve these two problems. At best, it will only handle the 25-30% reductions among the civil servants and not the excessive state functions.

The individual composition of the commission is evidence of these low expectations. All of its members are experienced state bureaucrats from different government bodies. Some of them are younger and more progressive in their views then the others. For example, the economy minister Mikalai Snapkou and the finance minister Andrey Kharkavets. Perhaps, even Natalia Petkevich, an aide to Lukashenka, who serves as deputy chairperson of the commission.

But none of these people look like real reformers who can think outside of the box and bring in innovative ideas. They all represent the system and will hardly come up with any drastically new proposals. Natalia Petkevich, for example, already announced at a closed meeting of the commission that they would not deal with the police issue – clearly it is too politically sensitive. Meaning that Lukashenka is afraid of any moves that can harm the police apparatus and, therefore,  better not to touch the problem at all.   

Another reason to be sceptical of this commission is historical. The world has seen many examples of non-democratic regimes trying to tame their overblown bureaucracies. And there are virtually no success stories to be found. Usually rulers, who suddenly turn reformist because of their financial difficulties, lose battles against their endemic bureaucracies. Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika can serve as a good example.

Mortal Combat

Like Gorbachev, Lukashenka can also fall victim of his involuntary reform attempts. Even being a more decisive and brutal politician, he is too dependent on the bureaucratic machine he personally created.

The risks get even higher as Lukashenka loses popular support. And the latest public opinion surveys show that this has been the case for the last several months. His personal approval rating froze at around 30%, even though the government raised the average salary by roughly 15% this year.

When the majority of the population no longer favour the incumbent, the bureaucracy can be the main source of his power. Fighting bureaucracy in this situation can turn out to be politically lethal. But Lukashenka does not really have much choice. The foundations of his legitimacy look shaky and the economic prospects are not very promising. 

Time will show who will prevail in this mortal combat between Lukashenka and Belarusian bureaucracy.  

Yauheni Preiherman
Yauheni Preiherman
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.
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