Public Administration in Belarus: A Story of Dysfunction
On 29 March, President Alexander Lukashenka held a meeting dedicated to the accession of Belarus to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Belarus has enjoyed observer status in the organisation since 1993, and every few years proclaims it will speed up the accession process.
However, as Belarus’s economic reforms falter, a final deal remains elusive. The March meeting was intended to expedite accession, but it also served as a solemn reminder that Belarus may never join the WTO at all.
WTO accession is just one of many issues that Belarusian authorities have wrestled with for decades, without any clear outcome.
Certainly, Belarus as a country has made some progress. When visiting Minsk today many foreigners discover that the Belarusian capital is not that different from other Eastern European capitals. One can dine at a good restaurant, visit an art gallery, and call an Uber to return to a comfortable hotel.
The city is suited for a middle-income economy, authoritarianism notwithstanding. Comparisons to increasingly dysfunctional post-Soviet neighbours Russia and Ukraine make Belarus seem like a part of Europe.
And yet when it comes to public administration, Belarus remains in many respects just as dysfunctional. According to the 2014 Indicator of Quality of Governance, public governance in Belarus ranks lower than in Ukraine and only slightly better than in Russia.
Of zombie enterprises and abandoned school reforms
Belarusian authorities have sustained a litany of unprofitable enterprises when it would be more economical to simply halt their activity. For instance, the state budget has financed JSC Kamvol, a loss-making synthetic fibre producer, for more than 15 years, when the cheaper option would be to shut it down and issue a 10-year salary to its employees.
Process often takes precedence over outcome. If a loss-making company continues to operate, officials can continue drawing funds from the budget.
In another example, the state invested over $1 billion into “modernising” cement and woodworking industries, but these businesses continue to generate losses. Recently, a flax factory in the small town of Liakhavichy used public funds to purchase new equipment, only to discover that it did not fit into the factory building.
Many officials refuse to accept the reality that state programmes fail no matter how much public largesse is poured into them. According to Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, in 2005-2010 alone, Belarus spent $42 billion on the revival of Belarusian villages, with little to show for it. Research by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that more than two-thirds of the rural population do not want their children to live in a village.
In Belarus’s chaotic system of public administration, it is never entirely clear who makes decisions or how those decisions are implemented. For example, in the area of education reform, the number of school years was briefly raised from 11 to 12 years, but within just one generation was reverted to 11 years.
At the beginning of 2015, the Minister of Education recommended that Belarusian history be taught in the Belarusian language because “talking about our own history in another language is wrong.” And yet, his proposal was never implemented, possibly because the idea caused a nervous reaction in the Russian-speaking media.
Who is to blame for dysfunctionality?
During the 2000s, immense Russian energy subsidies helped smooth over Belarus’s structural flaws. That is not the case anymore – last year Belarus’s GDP contracted by 4%, and the slide has continued into 2016. Now it is becoming clear that few steps were taken in relatively good times to lay a foundation for the future.
As Lukashenka’s economic advisor Kiryl Rudy puts it, “there is always some wishful thinking embedded in the economic plans. An unexpected rise in oil prices or a sudden strengthening of the Russian rouble.” Current government programmes that are supposed to deal with the crisis are just iterations of previously ineffectual programmes. And despite the inordinate power concentrated in Lukashenka’s hands, the authorities remain inert even in times of crisis.
Indeed, in the absence of free elections, there are few newcomers to the ruling class and unelected officials can afford to make unrealistic promises. The head of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Uladzimir Husakou, recently suggested that the Belarusian economy will expand by 8-8.5% this year, although the general consensus is that the recession will continue unabated. The poor quality of government elites is a key reason why Belarus in its current state stands little chance of a brighter future.
Where will the current system lead?
Due to the government’s paralysis, its response to the recession has been slow and inadequate. There is a widening gap between Minsk, the relatively prosperous capital, and the rest of the country.
Some manufacturing enterprises, such as television monitor production plants, recently disappeared after years of wasted government funding, while many of the industries that remain, such as machine building, are unprofitable.
Trust in the government is also low. According to a recent poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, only 20.6% of respondents said they prefer to deposit their savings in Belarusian roubles, and a majority said they mistrusted the main state institutions.
Without reform, Belarus risks wasting its economic potential as the young generation grows older. It will become a country of despair, where low-paid people do not see any future and emigrate. In fact, that process is already underway.
What Dangers Do The Clashes In Nagorno-Karabakh Bring For Belarus?
Saturday 2 April witnessed intensive clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The same day Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka ordered the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Relations to start consultations with their Armenian and Azerbaijan colleagues.
Moreover, the Belarusian leader held telephone conversations with Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan. In spite of Belarus’ membership of the OSCE Minsk group, which has been the only more or less active platform for negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1992, this reaction of the Belarusian authorities demonstrates their deeper interests and concerns about the situation.
Lukashenka’s interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Some experts consider Belarusian activities in the current conflict as a continuation of Lukashenka’s policy to transform Belarus into a kind of regional Switzerland that provides a reliable platform for solving regional and even global issues.
However, the Ukrainian case remains the only example of relative active Belarusian participation in the process of conflict resolution. Other recent initiatives, including statements to promote Minsk as a place to resolve the Middle Eastern conflict, look extremely odd and ambitious for a country such as Belarus.
Nevertheless, Lukashenka’s interest to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is much older than the Ukrainian war. In November 2009 the Belarusian president rather unexpectedly made several statements on this issue, emphasising Belarusian interests in engaging to resolve other conflicts in the post-Soviet space.
According to some sources the main reason for Lukashenka’s peace initiatives was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US president Barack Obama in October 2009 Read more
There are permanent rumours within the Belarusian establishment that the main reason for Lukashenka’s peace initiatives was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US president Barack Obama in October 2009. Lukashenka is rumoured to have given orders to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “win” the Nobel Peace Prize for him.
However, the apparent lack of Belarusian capacity to influence the process, deteriorating relations with the West after the presidential elections in December 2010, the economic crisis of 2011 and Lukashenka's receipt of the parody Ig Peace Nobel Prize in 2013 definitely cooled the president's ambitions.
One might claim that Belarus' more or less successful experience in conflict resolution in the case of Ukraine and recent improvements in relations between Belarus and the West give Lukashenka a new chance to pursue his “peacekeeper” position in the region, regardless of the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the year 2016 differs from the year 2009.
Belarus’ interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
In January 2015 Armenia officially jointed the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) free trade bloc. The absence of a common border between Armenia and the other EEU member states seems non-conducive for economic integration and has caused numerous concerns in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has expressed these concerns clearly, pointing out the unclear status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the EEU. Belarus refrained from making direct statements on this issue, but the Belarusian authorities have joined their colleagues from Kazakhstan in discussing this issue at a number of working meetings.
The governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan believe that Armenia will play the role of 100% Russian ally in the EEU management and policy-making, and will promote the idea of transforming the EEU from an economic union into a politically and militarily integrated entity.
Armenia considers Nagorno-Karabakh a key issue for its own national survival. No Armenian politician admits even the theoretical possibility of returning Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Armenian officials, as well as society in general, completely understand the growing gap between the military capacities of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s economic vulnerability compared to Azerbaijan, its full dependence on arms supplies from Russia and Russia’s key influence on the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
the military budget of Azerbaijan exceeds Armenia’s military budget eight to nine times Read more
According to some estimates, the military budget of Azerbaijan exceeds Armenia’s military budget eight to nine times. Russia has supplied weapons to Azerbaijan worth a total of about $5bn, while to Armenia supplies totaled only about $400m (however, such a comparison should take into consideration lower prices for Armenia).
In this context, official Yerevan is seeking ways to secure sustainable and incontrovertible Russia’s support for the Armenian position in the conflict. Russia’s intentions to promote deeper integration, including furthering political and military rapprochement, match Armenia’s goals. Since Armenia joined the EEU, Russia has strengthened its forces at the Erebuni military airbase and has intensified the integration of the Armenian air defence forces into the Russian air defense system.
Unfortunately, these intentions contradict the interests of Belarus and Kazakhstan, who would like to preserve the purely economic character of the EEU. Both governments understand that Russia and Armenia could use the current clashes as a precedent to strengthen the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and / or further deeper integration within the framework of the EEU.
The current Nagorno-Karabakh clashes in the context of Belarusian foreign policy
Belarus’ positions on the current clashes appears to be one of the most critical towards Armenia. While Kazakhstan has called for an immediate ceasefire and a solely peaceful solution of the conflict, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for strengthening the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
Baku’s financial support for Belarus during the gas conflict with Russia in 2010, as well as close personal relations between Lukashenka and Aliyev, are no secret Read more
This fact demonstrates Belarus’ deep concerns about the “politisation” of the current clashes. The issue of the Russian airbase in Belarus, which has still not been officially removed from agenda, sparks these concerns. Even Kazakhstan, which has directly supported the position of Azerbaijan in recent years, has not risked mentioning the principle of territorial integrity.
Until April 2016, Belarus maintained close political and economic cooperation with both main parties of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as a balance between respecting the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku’s financial support for Belarus during the gas conflict with Russia in 2010, as well as close personal relations between Lukashenka and Aliyev, are no secret.
Despite Azerbaijan’s more significant economic importance for Belarus (both in terms of goods turnover and trade balance), the Belarusian authorities have managed to maintain close relations with a part of the Armenian political and economic elite, in particular with businessman and politician Gagik Tsarukyan.
Armenia is deeply bewildered because of Belarus’ position Read more
The Armenian authorities reacted immediately. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded on 3 April explanations from the Belarus Ambassador to Armenia, emphasising its deep bewilderment because of Belarus’ position.
Whether Armenia will forget Belarus' calls for “territorial integrity” and be satisfied with the Belarusian ambassador’s explanations remain under question.
Risking relations with Armenia
Neither party in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict expected Belarus’ support in the current clashes, nor do they need it. However, Belarus understands that these clashes have a far less local character than they would have several years ago.
Belarus’ direct engagement in deeper military and political integration with Russia has become increasingly unavoidable, while it completely contradicts the authorities’ intentions. Only an immediate ceasefire and return of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a “frozen” one can prevent Belarus from a clear withdrawal from further Russian initiatives such as the long-planned airbase in Belarus.
It seems that Belarus is more ready to risk its relations with Armenia than to support de-facto strengthening of Russia’s role in the region.
PhD in Political Studies, Dean of the Faculty of Extended Education at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts; Expert of NGO "Liberal Club"