Pavel Latushka: The Liberal Face of the Belarusian Regime
Earlier this month Belarusian ambassador to Paris Pavel Latushka harshly criticised Belarusian producers for their alleged low reliability and problems with selling their goods abroad on a state TV channel. Latushka with his sophisticated background and behaviour always remained flamboyant and never quit fit into the standard image of a Belarusian official.
He has been steadily rising in the state hierarchy and represents a new generation of Belarusian higher officials. Whether his ascendancy results from support at the very top or is a matter of luck does not really matter. Latushka can become the new face of the current regime.
He can also be the regime insider who ultimately negotiates with the opposition on political transition. Lukashenka's opponents cautiously welcomed his rise, yet the man has so far demonstrated unquestionable loyalty to the Belarusian leadership.
No Soviet Background
Pavel Latushka belongs to the younger cohort of Belarusian higher officials whose adolescent life was spent in an independent Belarus. He was born in 1973 in Minsk and, as he himself admits, his father influenced him in his commitment to the Belarusian language. That means more in Belarus than elsewhere, since Belarusian nationalism is extremely language-focused.
He started his studies at the most “nationalist” history department in the country at Belarus State University (BSU) at the time of Belarus' national revival in the early 1990s. However, he then switched to the BSU Law Department, a move that can be seen as less romantic yet more promising for his career, finally graduating in 1995. The following year, he also got a degree from Minsk State Linguistic University and is known to have a good command of both English and Polish.
In 1995, Latushka immediately started to work at the Foreign Ministry of the newly independent nation. The ministry then needed qualified people with foreign language skills.
Coal Deals and Landlords
In 1996-2000, he worked at the Belarusian consulate in Polish Białystok, then as a Foreign Ministry's press secretary, and later in 2002-2008 he became the Belarusian ambassador to Warsaw. Those were not easy years, as Minsk and Warsaw clashed regularly on their own and as part of bigger disputes between Belarus and the EU. Latushka was time and again recalled to Minsk for consultations with the leadership.
Still, he managed to build up a broad and diverse array contacts in Warsaw. According to some rumours, Latushka strongly supported the investment plans of Jan Kulczyk, who is also known as Poland's richest man. Kulczyk reportedly wanted to construct coal-consuming power stations in Belarus, supply them with Polish coal and export power back into Poland. The gist of the plan was to structure the whole operation to avoid of the EU's strict environmental regulations on carbon dioxide.
Among the other contacts of Latushka were Radziwiłł family – the former major magnate family of Belarus, whose property was expropriated after the reunification of Belarus within a socialist republic in 1939. In his 2009 interview to Zviazda daily, Latushka discussed the necessity to establish or activate – in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry – contacts with other magnate families whose “roots are linked to Belarus.”
Latushka became a major figure in Belarusian relations with Poland. Furthermore, he took a friendly line with Warsaw, a kind of diplomacy that sometimes bordered on outright lobbying. Later on, he demonstrated his friendly stance on the Polish vision of such important issues to Warsaw as the Katyn massacre. As Culture Minister he attended in June 2010 an official ceremony dedicated to Katyn in Minsk.
After viewing Andrzej Wajda's famous film on these historical events at the ceremony, Latushka commented to Radio Libery: “I could not sit in a car, I needed to walk and breathe fresh air. Indeed, those were huge – impossible to overestimate – emotional impressions. I never have been to Katyn, yet I have understood the pain.”
In 2009-2012, Latushka became the youngest member of the cabinet as Minister of Culture. Liberal Nationalist weekly Nasha Niva welcomed Latushka as “the first Belarusian-speaking minister”. He actively attended all possible cultural events, going as far as to attend the crypto-nationalist Belarusian Poetry Festival in a village near Maladzechna, and reciting Belarusian classics at public events.
This all stands out as quite a new approach for a higher official in Belarus. Of course, his work has caused a number controversies as well. As a new minister, he boasted to launch a new and more comprehensive reconstruction program for old churches and castles, yet some experts like Anatol' Astapovich expressed criticism concerning the quality of the programme. The ministry – honourably – publicly admitted some faults.
Latushka even challenged what is considered perhaps the most hard line element of the Belarusian regime – its one time chief ideologist Colonel Uladzimir Zamiatalin – over the failure of the film “The Dniapro Line” produced under Zamiatalin's supervision and presented as a patriotic movie. European Radio for Belarus suggested that it was Latushka who ousted Zamiatalin from his last major position – the chief of national Cinema Studio “Belarusfilm”.
The new culture minister displayed a liberal approach on several other occasions as well. After the introduction of ban on public performance by some bands, the minister successfully defended in October 2012 one of them, the well-known group “Palac”. The concert was dedicated to the band's 20th anniversary in Minsk was able to take place after the removal of the initial ban on the event.
All in all, Latushka is known for his consequent support of the Belarusian language – an extremely politicised and sensitive issue. He has publicly spoken in his native tongue for years, and even joined the Belarusian Language Society. On the other hand, Latushka rejects strong state-sponsored measures to return Belarusian to public and state usage. “When we start to greet one another in Belarusian, when we start speaking to friends in Belarusian, then the use of Belarusian in society will increase.”
Latushka as Symbol
In November 2012, Latushka became the Belarusian ambassador to France. Lukashenka apparently made a gesture with this appointment. The sophisticated Latushka succeeded an ambassador who was formerly a tank driver, General Lieutnant Alyaksandr Paulouski. The contrast could not be greater. The new ambassador in his intellectual outlook resembles Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey. Latushka has admitted to loving Vienna and French novels, he reads Schiller, Vasil Bykau and goes to the theatre regularly.
Latushka symbolises the new face of the Belarusian regime which is willing to deal with partners in the EU and avoid unnecessary tensions if no vital interests of the regime are concerned. His statements and actions are illustrious evidence that the “Soviet heritage” and Russian cultural heritage are increasingly less visible and apparent in Belarusian state policies.
At the same time, the capability of current ruling elites to rejuvenate their strength remains uncertain. The regime has gotten rid of any truly strict ideology and thinks mainly about its own survival. Therefore such hard liners as Zamyatalin, Kryshtapovich, Yancheuski have become marginalised. But young cadres remain scarce at the higher levels of state hierarchy. Thus, only two ministers and one deputy minister are younger than 45. The age of the other two ministers and a deputy minister is between 45 and 50.
The current leadership relies on grey mass of ordinary bureaucrats who smoothly function under normal conditions yet who can have problems with reforms or any potential political or economic crisis. It is only in these conditions, it seems, that other people will come on stage to replace them. Among them, without a doubt, will be Latushka. There are only doubts on whose side he will then be.
The West Blamed for Unrest in Ukraine, An Ideal Local Election Candidate – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarusian state-run Channel 1 regularly covered the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Journalists have often referred to the participants of protests and the opposition as radicals and extremists.
Reporters blamed Western politicians for the situation in Maidan. “Maidan” appeared also in the context of state officials-small businessmen talks with the Head of State. Lukashenka warned the Belarusian business from getting involved into some counter-activities.
Belarusian ONT TV channel organised a discussion about the forthcoming elections to local authorities. The programme featured representatives from state and opposition politicians.
Situation in Ukraine is getting worse. The Ukrainian authorities agreed on amnesty for the participants of the protests, but only if the opposition would leave the government buildings they had seized. However, the city is getting ready for a new wave of unrest. A journalist from the Ukrainian newspaper “Vesti” was shot on the street by a group of unknown people. “Last night (18 February – BD) became the most bloody in the history of independent Ukraine”, the newscast pointed out. As a result, 26 people died, and at least 10 of them were policemen.
The opposition is clearly not ready for talks, Belarus state TV journalist stated. The European politicians ignored the outrageous actions of extremists and blamed only Yanukovich for all that was happening, he continued. “Although any hope that under the red and black black flags of ‘banderovcy’ democracy will come to Ukraine, is, in the least, a silly idea”, the state journalist commented based on the opinion of unnamed experts.
Kiev: the political crisis affects the economy. The opposition fraction of the Ukrainian Parliament cannot agree on key questions of the Constitution reform. The international agency Fitch downgraded the credit rating of Ukraine.
Moscow: the West is guilty of the Ukrainian crisis. Journalist noted that the leaders of the opposition went to Berlin. They asked the European Union to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian authorities and the German chancellor for financial support. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia called the disorder in Kiev a result of politics of the West,” journalist concluded.
The Western democracies violate human rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus published its annual document on 23 countries that violated the human rights in 2013. State TV commented that it described predominantly the cases of racial hostility and discrimination in the countries of the European Union.
“A real wave of Nazism has swept over Europe. Manifestations of xenophobia are practically in all countries, even in the places that suffered from the red plague: Lithuania, Poland, Greece, France and Germany”.
The publication of the Belarusian MFA referred to the countries which supported sanctions against Belarus due to the alleged human rights’ violations.
“The staff of the MFA stresses that there are no perfect countries. Problems should be discussed rather than become a tool for pressure.” The unique feature of this Belarusian report is that it does not contain any conclusions, but presents only facts, the state TV reporter concluded.
Lukashenka: the industrial park is drowning in bureaucracy. Alexander Lukashenka chaired a meeting on the construction of the Belarusian-Chinese technology park in Belarus. The Head of State harshly criticised the officials for delays in its realisation.
Lukashenka said, “There is everything necessary in place to have such a plant in Belarus. There is stability in the state, which is absent in other countries.” Kiril Rudny, Lukashenka’s advisor, also raised some financial controversies around the project, such as the interest-rate of a loan from Beijing.
Throughout the state TV coverage, Lukashenka shouted at different officials for the slow pace of construction and demanded explanations from them. One reporter pointed out that according to experts, in a long-term perspective, the project could bring billions dollars in the form of investment to the country.
Lukashenka: no “Maidan” in small business. Lukashenka chaired a meeting with officials and businessmen. They discussed the proposal by the government introduction of the obligatory certificates on the quality of goods. “This is a right thing to do. But not everybody is ready to reject their own shady schemes,” the state TV journalist notes.
The Head of State referred to criticism on changes from the Belarusian business community. “It is pointless to threaten me. We will not allow a “Maidan” to happen in our country. Everything will unfold in a civilised manner.” In response, he warned against businessmen getting involved in any reactionary measures against the planned policy's implementation.
Trying to convince the business community of the necessity of these changes, he said: “If you want to live like they do in the West, we are offering you those very conditions. If you want to live like on Maidan, well, then, this is not going to happen in Belarus.”
The elections to local authorities
An ideal candidate for the local authorities: According to state TV, gender does not matter, the most popular candidates are doctors, teachers and social workers, ideally between the age of 45-55 years.
Income plays an important role as well. Unemployed candidates do not have a very good chances, and those with a higher income also arouse suspicion. “If you are successful in business why are you trying to gain political power?”, the state TV journalist asked rhetorically.
Belarusian voters pay attention to the experience where their candidates work, but also the biography of their candidates. “People do not vote for strangers and do not trust populists,” the reporter comments.
In its coverage, state TV presents the profiles of two members of Bielaja Rus, a government organised non-governmental organisation.
According to the report, both the ruling and opposition political parties are not very involved in local elections. This is the the result of their being a small number of activists engaged in raising the profile of elections. The reporter also noted another reason – “political tourism in Ukraine is flourishing.”
Debate on the local elections. Recently state-run ONT TV site covered of the local elections scheduled to take place in March.
The show gathered both representatives from the authorities, but also a few opposition figures. It demonstrated that the Belarusian opposition had access to state media and can freely promote itself.
The head of the Central Election Committee Lidzija Jarmoshyna noted that “some political forces abuse the system by using their right to boycott.” According to Valery Uchnaliou from the party “Spraviedlivi Mir” citizens should not boycott, but rather exercise their electoral rights. If they do not like the candidates, they should vote against all of them.
Uchnaliou argued that the amended electoral law still has not addressed all the standing issues, including the apparent pluralism of the members of the electoral committee, but also securing a transparent and open vote-counting process. Jarmoshyna explained that diverse social forces would be represented in the electoral commissions, including civil society, state officials and citizens.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.