A revolutionary 2018? Belarus’s government changes its face

2018 witnessed huge changes in the Belarusian government. In August, President Alexander Lukashenka dismissed the prime minister, three deputy prime ministers, three ministers and the chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. At the same time, commenting on the government reshuffle, Lukashenka said that his decision was far from spontaneous.

While criticising the previous government, the President of Belarus mostly focused on discrepancies in the course of national development, as well as on the low level of labour discipline. Addressing these issues, Lukashenka appointed a team of relatively young technocrats in order to mobilise the state apparatus and tighten his grip on power ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections due during 2019 and 2020. In addition, several experts view the government reshuffle as Lukashenka’s response to the growing pressure from Russia.

The unexpected government reshuffle

In August, Lukashenka fired the ten key figures in the Belarusian government, including the prime minister, Andrei Kabiakou. While explaining his decision on Belarusian state TV, Lukashenka maintained that Kabiakou’s government had failed to demonstrate the due level of discipline and adhered too much to various privatisation initiatives. In fact, Lukashenka blamed the government for declining living standards of Belarusian people:

How much blood was spilled (and I had to do it, personally) in order to convince the government that people should have at least one thousand rubles as average pay in the country? (Approximately $500 – ed.) The lowest paid social strata, including nurses and caretakers, and people working in the cultural sphere and social services, as well as nursery teachers, should earn more.

At the same time, Lukashenka had particular considerations for firing each top official, starting with the prime minister. According to Arsien Sivitsky from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Andrei Kabiakou acted merely as administrator without his own programme. Lukashenka, on the other hand, looked for a more pro-active approach from the Belarusian government amid growing pressures from Russia. In this way, the absence of a distinct governmental program cost Kabiakou his job.

The dismissal of deputy prime minister Vasil Zharko links to a series of corruption scandals in the health care sector he oversaw. On the other hand, the dismissal of another deputy prime minister, Uladzimir Siamashka, merely related to the state of his health. The dismissal of Vital Vouk, the Minister of Industries, turned into a farce. Though Vouk received the highest amount of criticism from the Lukashenka, the president appointed him to the post of presidential aide in the Vitebsk region; a de facto promotion.

The new team of pro-market technocrats

As a result of the government reshuffle, Lukashenka appointed Siarhei Rumas, the Chairman of the Board of the Development Bank, as the new prime minister. Rumas held the position of a deputy prime minister previously, during the economic crisis of 2011–2012. Rumas’s reputation marks him as a skilled negotiator and a consistent supporter of market reforms, capable of dealing both with his Russian counterparts and with international financial institutions. Moreover, Homiel-born Rumas is a Belarusian national by blood (unlike his predecessor Kabiakou, who is of Russian origin).

According to Rumas, the major task of his government remains “providing Belarusians with a ‘decent standard of living,’ in particular:

We are not talking about state benefits and budget support, we are talking about how to make it possible for Belarusians to earn a decent standard of living.

Shortly after his appointment, Siarhei Rumas distributed responsibilities between the new deputy prime ministers. First Deputy Prime Minister Alyaksandr Turchyn has been tasked with implementing the “progressive” measures set forth in presidential decrees on the development of entrepreneurship and ICT. Accordingly, Turchyn will closely cooperate with the Ministry of Economy (under its new head Dzmitry Krutoy) and the Ministry of Communications and Information (under its new head Kanstantsin Shulgan).

Siarhei Rumas meets Dmitry Medvedev. Source: https://www.belnovosti.by/politika/rumas-i-medvedev-ne-podpisali-soglashenie-o-vizah

Turchyn has already made several statements regarding his further steps in information and communication technologies. According to Turchyn, the Ministry of Communications, under the leadership of Shulgan, will become the supporting ministry for the implementation of the ambitious IT-country project and, probably, the basis for the creation of a Ministry of Digital Economy.

Another of the new deputy prime ministers, Uladzimir Kukharou, will supervise the problematic housing and utility sector (as well as construction, transport and the Ministry of Emergency Situations). Kukharou’s main task, given his background as the controller of Minsk’s public utilities, will include the delicate increase of the share of services paid by the population without an explosion in utility tariffs. The resolution of this issue remains among the major conditions for Belarus to receive a loan from the IMF.

Ihar Lyashenka, another appointment to deputy prime minister and former chairman of the Belneftekhim Concern, replaces Uladzimir Siamashka and will oversee both the energy complex and industry as a whole. Lyashenka’s main tasks include carrying out an intense communication with Russia and monitoring those Belarusian companies receiving large profits from the illegal oil re-export industry, operating under the guise of oil products.

Finally, new deputy prime minister Ihar Petryshenka, who replaces the scandal-clad Vasil Zharko, found himself in the most difficult situation of dealing with “social issues.” At present, the situation with Belarusian health care remains tense due to the latest corruption scandals. Moreover, Petryshenka will have to implement the latest version of the deeply unpopular presidential decree persecuting the so-called “freeloaders,” or Belarusians without an official work contract.

Will Rumas’s government bring real changes?

A noteworthy circumstance of Lukashenka’s government reshuffle lies in his constant referral to the “difficult times” facing Belarus. According to Sivitsky, “difficult times” means the growing difficulties in relations with Russia. By appointing a team of young Belarus-born technocrats, Lukashenka attempts to mobilize the state apparatus to repel any blows from the Russians if needed.

Belarusian government

Ihar Petryshenka will have to deal with the unpopular policy on “freeloaders”. Source: sputnik.by

According to Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst with the analytical centre “Strategia,” Lukashenka decided to reshuffle the government in order to punish “the old guard” who had lost their fear of the Belarusian leader. The appointment of new and relatively unknown people to the top governmental positions should strengthen first and foremost Lukashenka’s power grip.

Despite the reputation of a “free market champion”, Siarhei Rumas will most probably fail to bring any notable market changes as the President of Belarus de facto defines the government policies himself.

Stanislau Bahdankievich, the former Chair of the National Bank of Belarus, agrees with Karbalevich’s low expectations on Rumas’s government. According to Bahdankievich, Lukashenka remains unprepared for the drastic changes needed in the economy. As for Rumas, the new prime minister has so far failed to recognise publicly the biggest challenges which face the Belarusian economy: the unprofitability of state companies, large stocks of unsold products, and huge accounts payable. Therefore, as the economy will likely continue its stagnation, the living standards of ordinary Belarusians will stay the same. Consequently, in about a year, Rumas risks facing the same kind of criticism from Lukashenka that Kabiakou faced in August.

Will a downsized foreign ministry hurt Belarusian diplomacy?

In January 2018, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs completed the largest part of a major “optimization” – a euphemism for unprecedented cuts in its staff and resources. Its personnel has been cut by one third, five diplomatic missions will be soon closed, and the diplomatic service has seen its financing reduced by 15 per cent.

The ministry’s top officials try to present a brave face. However, the stressful downsizing may seriously undermine the diplomatic agency’s efforts to strengthen Belarus’s international position at a time of increased Russian assertiveness in the region and economic difficulties at home.

Major downsizing revealed

On 18 January, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei went public about the development, which had been stirring the ministry for the last six months. “The [job] cut has already taken place. The headquarters has been downsized by roughly one third, and missions abroad by 15 per cent”, Belarus’s top diplomat told the media after a working meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka.

Makei tried to sound business-like and unperturbed: “We have been told to rely on skills rather than numbers… However, this in no way allows one to say that the efficiency of our activity has decreased.”

Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Makei. Photo: president.gov.by

Meanwhile, people familiar with the inner workings of the ministry assert that Makei has been far from happy about the imposed “optimization.” A source in the Belarusian diplomatic service claimed that Lukashenka originally intended to cut between 10% and 15% of the ministry’s staff. Makei allegedly objected, but this only enraged Lukashenka who responded by increasing the target figure.

Indeed, at the beginning of his meeting with Makei, Lukashenka mentioned the foreign minister’s request to discuss the optimisation and agreed to hear about its “discrepancies” and “inconsistencies.” However, Lukashenka quickly proceeded to emphasise that he cared much more to hear about the ministry’s efforts to promote Belarus’s foreign trade.

Besides the job cuts, the foreign ministry has begun reducing Belarus’s diplomatic presence in foreign countries. In 2018, Belarus will close down its consulates-general in Odessa (Ukraine), Gdansk (Poland) and Milan (Italy). Two more diplomatic missions in unnamed countries will face the same fate; it is rumoured that one of them could be Belarus’s embassy in Australia, which only opened in 2014.

Lack of media interest and scarce information

Few public details have emerged about the foreign ministry’s optimisation. Its press service did not respond to Belarus Digest’s request for clarification beyond citing its workload as preventing it from comment.

The Belarusian media – state-run and independent alike – has shown minimal interest in this development. Their readership responded to the official announcement with mostly malevolent remarks; many view the ministry as a mere branch of Russian diplomacy or Lukashenka’s obedient servant busy with the preservation of his autocratic regime.

Foreign Ministry of Belarus. Photo by Philips Sash

Another source told Belarus Digest that about one hundred diplomats had lost their jobs during the optimisation process. The figure could be higher were it not for the fact that cuts included unfulfilled job vacancies and employees long due for retirement. The ministry’s departments charged with bilateral foreign relations have apparently suffered the most.

Numerous diplomats coming home from completed postings abroad have been put on standby without date; for many, this means an effective dismissal. The Belarusian diplomatic service has virtually stopped recruiting new staff including graduates of the country’s diplomatic school.

Singled-out for financial cuts

Certainly, the foreign ministry has been neither the first nor the only governmental agency affected by the current optimisation programme. The president demanded better efficiency with fewer officials and promised pay rises for those that remained at their desks. Belarusian diplomats received the same promise and await February’s pay day impatiently. (The pay raise will not apply to diplomats working on assignments abroad).

However, the severe cut in budgetary allocations for the foreign ministry for the 2018 financial year casts serious doubts on the size of the expected pay raise. Moreover, the overall efficient functioning of the Belarusian foreign service will be affected.

Belarus’s total budget expenditures will increase by 18% in 2018 (compared to 2017), from BYN16,739m ($8,382m) to BYN19,751m ($9,917m). Budgetary allocations to national security and law enforcement agencies will also grow in the range of 17-26%.

Source: www.minfin.gov.by

The Administration of the President of Belarus has reportedly undergone an optimisation similar in scale to the one implemented in the foreign ministry. Nevertheless, in 2018, it will still receive a 5% increase in financing compared to 2017.

The opposite trend applies to the diplomatic service. In the current year, the spending on the foreign ministry will be cut by 13%, and on its missions abroad – by 15%.

Some in the ministry share the feeling that Vladimir Makei has suffered a setback in his behind-the-scenes face-off with the Belarusian siloviki. Many view the foreign minister as the leader of the “liberal” faction in the Belarusian government, and nationalist commentators and politicians in Russia routinely accuse him of steering Belarus towards the West, away from Russia.

Extreme stress or business as usual?

A senior foreign ministry official told Belarus Digest that “no disaster” has happened and that the department he heads continues its work “just as well.” Another diplomat deplored the “extremely stressful” atmosphere brought to the diplomatic service by the optimisation.

The job cuts have taken place against the background of dramatically increasing workload. The normalisation of relations with the West and unceasing efforts to boost foreign trade have multiplied meetings, visits and paperwork. The ministry may now simply lack “hands” to continue operating efficiently.

The working bureaucratic mechanism, which has been set up and tuned over the years, risks being disrupted and slowed down. The ministry needs the continuity of generations and a steady inflow of young promising staff to work in a sustainable and efficient way. Now, the middle management, facing staff shortages, will prefer to keep those they know rather than recruit new inexperienced people.

The ministry’s new institutional design has consolidated its departments. This resulted in the abolition of many divisions (the basic units within the ministry), which served as good incubators for future ambassadors and senior diplomatic staff.

While any country should contain the growth of its bureaucratic apparatus and strive to streamline operations, the radical downsizing of the foreign ministry seems unwarranted, disproportionate and harmful to the national interest. This is especially true in today’s geopolitical context, where Belarus needs to strengthen its sovereignty and seriously improve its international positions.

Lukashenka’s recent appointments strengthen Belarusian independence and identity

Over the last few months, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka has made a number of high-level appointments that indicate “Belarusianisation” of the government.

A number of new military chiefs never studied at Russian military schools in contrast to most of their peers. Certain candidates known to speak Belarusian on a daily basis also received positions, for example the rector for Mahilioŭ State University (Lukashenka’s alma mater), the Information Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister.

This policy is intended to strengthen the country’s independence and national identity. It differs from Lukashenka’s traditional approach to policy insofar that it is not purely statist and adds a cultural element to Belarusian nation-building.

Siloviki: loyal technocrats in lieu of Russian-educated

On 18 July, President Lukashenka appointed Alieh Dvihalioŭ to be the Chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. Until then he was the commander of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Armed Forces of Belarus. Like his predecessor Siarhiej Hurulioŭ and many other high-rank Belarusian siloviki, personnel who oversee state security and power ministries, he was born in Russia. But unlike most of them, he received his full military education and pursued his career in Belarus.

According to military establishment sources for Naša Niva, a Belarusian newspaper, Alieh Dvihalioŭ casts the impression of being an “intellectual,” a “patriot,” and an “expert in military equipment.” According to the Belarusian military expert Aliaksandr Aliesin, he is a competent manager and technical expert. By his appointment, the leadership is expressing their view that the military-industrial sector needs modern managers, rather than regular military men at the top.

Картинки по запросу олег двигалев

Alieh Dvihalioŭ. Photo: tomin.by

The 49-year old Ihar Holub, who is Dvihalioŭ’s former deputy, replaced Dvihalioŭ as commander of the Air Force and Air Defense. Holub, too, appears to be part of the new wave of officers. He was born in Ukraine and has also never studied in Russia. This serves as further evidence that Lukashenka is pursuing a policy of removing Russia-affiliated siloviki from high positions and replacing them with those loyal to Belarus’s independence. The Belarusian leader seems to have taken notice of Ukraine’s predicament, whereby many high-level officers turned out to be Russian agents after the ousting of Yanukovych.

Along with this trend, special and military services saw a number of shakeups after abuses were revealed to the president. On 13 October, Lukashenka removed all acting heads for the Operations and Analysis Centre—the government agency responsible for information security—until an audit of its practices had been completed. The nature of their offences has yet to be revealed.

At the same time, a number of military officers are under criminal investigation after outrageous acts of hazing led to the death of a soldier in a Minsk region military unit. New officer appointments may follow as more facts of army hazing emerge.

University rectors: ‘healthy nationalism’ instead of dissent

At the end of September, Lukashenka changed a number of rectors. Andrej Karoĺ, 44, became Rector of Belarusian State University, considered the top-ranked university in Belarus. Previously he was rector of Hrodna State University. Lukashenka, appointing him, mentioned that, “We need to establish order at BSU and… take it to a new level.”

The new rector is not respected within civil society. During his tenure, purges of dissenting academics continued unabated at Hrodna University. He came from a peripheral university, did not demonstrate any high achievements as a prominent scholar or manager. On the other hand, he does seem to have a knack for carrying out decisions issued from higher-up.

Картинки по запросу дзяніс дук

Dzianis Duk at Mahilioŭ State University. Photo: mogilev-region.gov.by

Another notable appointment came to Lukashenka’s own alma mater—Mahilioŭ State University. The position of University Rector was granted to Dzianis Duk, a 40-year-old historian and archaeologist and previous vice-rector of Polack State University.

People who know him personally call him a “serious researcher,” an “outstanding person and scholar.” Interestingly, Lukashenka highly praised a joint work written by Duk and Voĺha Liaŭko, The Origins of Belarusian Statehood: Polack and Viciebsk Lands in the 9th–18th Centuries. He characterised their approach to history as a “healthy nationalism.”

Last but not least, Duk speaks Belarusian in his daily life, which is quite rare among Belarusian officials. Lukashenka, who received his historical education at Mahilioŭ State University and always praises his teachers, may want to revitalise historical studies there—the most important part of this rejuvenation being a “healthy nationalism.”

Information and foreign affairs – growing Belarusianisation

The appointment of Aliaksandr Karliukievič as the new Information Minister on 28 September continued this trend of Belarusianisation within the establishment. Karliukievič worked as deputy information minister this past year, and before that he headed the Literature and Art state holding (2006-2011) and the newspaper and publishing house Zviazda (2011-2016). Although he has always been on the official side of the cultural community, he represents a definitively patriotic part of the establishment, which is clear from speeches he has made on TV. Last but not least, he always speaks Belarusian in the media.

This August, Andrej Dapkiunas was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Prior to that, he served as Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations, and was replaced by another Deputy Foreign Minister Valiancin Rybakoŭ. Dapkiunas has remained a little known, but interesting personality in the Belarusian government. He shares kinship with the great 20th century Belarusian poet, Janka Kupala, and his parents were high-level cultural officials in Soviet Belarus.

Картинки по запросу дапкюнас

Andrej Dapkiunas. Photo: tut.by

In 2011, Lukashenka recalled the diplomat from New York. The authorities suspected him of having links with opposition presidential candidate Andrej Sannikaŭ. Allegedly, Dapkiunas’s embassy colleagues had tipped Belarusian authorities off. He had to undergo interrogation at the KGB headquarters in Minsk, but managed to prove his innocence and returned to New York.

At his first speech before parliament this October, Dapkiunas persistently spoke Belarusian, even when deputies asked him questions in Russian. This behaviour has seldom taken place in parliament—if ever at all. However, former Belarusian diplomat Igar Gubarevich told Belarus Digest that Dapkiunas’s high professionalism might also have been a strong contributor to his appointment, while his position on Belarusian language use played a more minor role.

The above mentioned appointments in military, information, education and foreign affairs ministries indicate that Lukashenka is pursuing a firm strategy of Belarusianisation of the government. The strategy is intended to strengthen the country’s independence. What differs it from his previous policies is an emphasis not on a statist, but rather on a cultural approach to nation-building. Therefore, this could become a major shift in the shaping of Belarusian statehood.

Russia kidnaps a Ukrainian in Belarus undermining Belarus’s reputation

On 24 August 2017, Russian Federal Security Service agents kidnapped 19-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib on the territory of Belarus. He is the son of a minor Orthodox Church official and army reserve officer, Igor Grib. Ukrainian society is actively discussing the event and is trying to draw attention to the ordeal of Pavel Grib, who finally found himself in Russian prison in the Russian city of Krasnodar.

Officials in Minsk appear to be doing nothing to aid Ukraine, not even in helping to gain an explanation of Russia’s actions on Belarusian soil. The situation is beginning to diminish Belarus’s image of a “neutral state” and independent actor.

Forcing a 17-year-old girl to work a honeytrap

According to Igor Grib, his son went to the Belarusian city of Homiel on 24 August 2017. Pavel had arranged to meet a Russian girl there who he got to know on the internet. After crossing the Belarusian border and arriving in Homiel, Pavel disappeared. He didn’t return home the next day as promised.

Distressed, Igor Grib went to Belarus to look for his son. Belarusian police informed him that Pavel Grib was on the wanted list in Russia. The Russian Federal Security Services for the Krasnodar region and the city of Sochi alleged Pavel was suspected of terrorist activities.

According to Pavel’s lawyer, on 24 August 2017, two people in civilian clothing approached Pavel near the Homiel main bus station. They forced him onto a minibus which took him to a forest where he was handed off to other agents. Pavel was detained for several days in a windowless building, his lawyer says.

Then an investigation team arrived and formalised his detention in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code. At the police station, Mr. Grib learned that Pavel had been transferred to a detention facility in the Russian region of Smolensk, which borders Belarus.

After two weeks, Russian authorities finally provided information on Pavel Grib. He was being held in Krasnodar prison, located almost two-thousand kilometres from Belarus, and accused of terrorist activities. The 17-year-old girl from Sochi called Tatiana, who invited Pavel to meet her in Homiel, later said the Russian Federal Security Services had forced her to work for them. She claimed she was also under investigation in Russia on suspicion of terrorist activities. Now Pavel Grib is writing letters to Tatiana, declaring his love for her and telling her not to worry about him.

But the situation is getting worse. Pavel Grib suffers from a serious medical condition that requires regular application of special medication. So far, he has had no access to necessary medical care and his health is deteriorating. This issue has been underlined both by his father and Ukrainian officials. Even on 18 August 2017 when Ukrainian consuls were finally allowed to meet with Pavel Grib in Krasnodar prison, Ukrainian doctors were not allowed to examine him.

Brazen Russian provocation against its closest ally

This series of events is troubling not only for Minsk, but for all post-Soviet states. It may be the first incident in history where, on the territory of one post-Soviet state, another post-Soviet state kidnaps a citizen of a third. The Belarusian regime is shocked by Russia’s provocative behaviour. So far, Minsk appears to have no clear reaction strategy. While Minsk kept silent, Ukraine issued its first official complaint on 31 August. Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Yelena Zerkal stated that Belarus was being uncooperative with Kyiv over the issue of Pavel Grib.

Dzmitry Mironchik, Belarusian Foreign Ministry media officer. Source: sputnik.by

The only statement on the issue released by Belarus’s Foreign Ministry (given by media officer Dzmitry Mironchik, a minor official) appears both misguided and vague. It sounds as if Ukraine is to blame for the current situation:

People, unfortunately, disappear for various reasons—either by their own will or stupidity, or as a result of the malicious actions of a third party. If the 19-year-old young man was not followed by his parents and the authorities of his own country, there is no reason to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Blaming a country that was chosen as the place for a romantic date or a secret meeting, merely a day after an official request [for information about Pavel Grib from Ukraine to Belarus] is certainly not the behaviour of a partner [country].

This kidnapping is pure provocation from Russia for two reasons. First, Pavel Grib represents no interest for Russia. He has neither access to sensitive information nor is it likely he committed any serious crime. Second, he entered Belarus without issue at the state border. It only became know after his kidnapping that he was on a Russian wanted list for unspecified “terrorist activities” in Russia’s Krasnodar region. The result is negative effects for both Belarus’s international image and Belarus–Ukraine relations.

It is necessary to emphasize that Pavel Grib has neither served in the Ukrainian military nor has he visited an Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (for example in Ukraine’s Donbas region). More to the point, Pavel’s incarceration in Krasnodar prison servers as his very first trip to Russia. Pavel Grib could not have physically been involved in any illegal, terrorist activities on Russian territory. This also suggests that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were not aware of the Russian operation, because according to international agreements, Belarus and Russia share the same database for criminal investigations.

“Moscow has full control over Belarus”

The events surrounding the case of Pavel Grib have resulted harsh rhetoric from Ukraine towards Minsk. On 14 September 2017, lieutenant general Vasyl Bogdan, a former serviceman for Ukrainian military intelligence, declared that Moscow is in full control of Belarus and its authorities. A day earlier Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin stated, that “Russian special services are also operating on the territory of Belarus,” and Ukrainian citizens should understand that going to Belarus can be dangerous for them.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin. Source: 112.ua

According to Ukrainian experts, at present the Belarusian government is unable to find an adequate response to the case of Pavel Grib. Instead of helping Ukrainian officials, for example communicating with Russian law enforcement agencies on behalf of Ukraine, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry does nothing besides issuing troll-like statements. Indeed, some experts from Ukraine now say they are choosing not to visit Belarus, because there is no guarantee of security.

Pavel Grib’s kidnapping and Belarusian inactivity go hand-in-hand to support the suspicions of Western observers that Belarus lacks independence and control over its own territory in the face of Russian provocation. This weakens Belarus’s role as a negotiator and diminishes its image as a neutral state or “donor of stability,” apparently so cherished by officials in Minsk.

Russia’s behaviour suggests Belarus is no longer perceived as a strategic partner. What it means to be a close Russian ally is up for question. Russia carries out aggressive activities, like kidnapping a third country’s citizens, on a close partner’s territory. This undermines the image of Belarus on the international stage and harms cooperation between neighbouring states. This does not bode well for the future of Belarus–Russia relations.

Who Blocks Economic Reforms in Belarus

No economic reforms will be carried out in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka announced in his 26 January address to the government.

This was the fourth time since the October 2015 presidential election that the President confirm his desire to keep the existing state-dominated economic system.

Lukashenka's statements suggest an ongoing struggle within the political elite over the country's economic future. The anti-reform coalition includes heads of state-owned enterprises, officials who work in the ministries and concerns tasked with coordinating the state sector, and supervisory agencies that benefit from arcane rules and regulations. So far, the President has sided with the old guard on the desirability of economic reforms.

Who Advocates for Reforms

Economic reforms such as reducing subsides to state enterprises and allowing private business more freedom have been on the government's agenda for a long time. Lukashenka frequently references to the reforms them when accusing his government of seeking to "inhibit the development of Belarus's political system."

According to Lukashenka’s economic adviser Kiryl Rudy, "since 2013 all leaders of the Government and the National Bank … have generated structural reform programmes." And these programmes are becoming more comprehensive because of the government's growing awareness about the need for reforms.

The advocates of reforms include First Deputy Prime Minister Vasil Maciusheuski, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Mikalai Snapkou, Lukashenka’s economic adviser Kiryl Rudy, Chairman of the National Bank Pavel Kalavur and others. All of them attended the meeting on on economic development held on 26 January and headed Lukashenka's announcement.

On average, members of the pro-reform coalition hold higher positions in the government than its opponents do. They have built ties with independent economists and international organisations. They are not only more pro-Western, but also more knowledgeable about the economy than an average Belarusian bureaucrat. These people support the reforms because they see no other option for generating economic growth.

And yet the pro-reform group is currently losing ground to the opponents of economic changes.

Who Wants Business as Usual

In December 2015, daily “Belarus Segodnya” (Belarus Today) published two lengthy articles by Siarhei Tkachou, Lukashenka's former economic adviser. In the articles, Tkachou criticises free market principles, praises Belarus's current economic model, and warns about the dangers of embarking on "radical reforms."

Tkachou's uncompromising position suggests that he may stand at the forefront of the old guard that opposes the economic reforms. The fact that his ideas were printed in the largest and most read Belarusian newspaper suggests that they reflect an influential strand of thinking among the country's political and economic elite.

Trakchou's views are certainly shared by heads of state-owned enterprises who view the reforms as a danger to their comfortable existence. According to Belstat, the national statistics office of Belarus, every fifth state-owned company remains unprofitable. Without government subsidies and protectionist policies, most of these entities will go out of business. Their directors will lose jobs.

The officials who work in the ministries and concerns tasked with coordinating the state sector will also suffer from economic restructuring. Many of these entities, such as the Ministry of Industry or the State Concern for the Production and Sale of Light Industrial Products, continue to advocate increasing governmental subsidies.

The third group of potential "losers" comprises various supervisory and law-enforcement agencies. In 2014, the Ministry of Taxes and Fees uncovered violations in the documentation of 99% of private entrepreneurs it inspected. In 2015, 99 out of 100 customs inspections revealed violations according to the representatives of the State Customs Committee. Such high rates of violations might be due to arcane rules and regulations, on the one hand, and to corruption within the law enforcement and supervisory agencies, on the other hand.

The anti-reform camp lacks clear leaders, but is held together by the broad consensus among the middle and low-level Belarusian officials

Many state agencies do not play a productive economic role. Instead, they serve primarily the material interests of their employees. Simplifying Belarus's economic legislation and limiting powers of supervisory agencies will deprive their personnel of abundant opportunities for rent-seeking.

The economic reforms will also deprive the soil under the feet of many advocates of the previous economic policy which lead to the current sorry state of the Belarusian economy. Consciously or not, these people misstate the facts to avoid reforms.

For example, Leader of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus Uladzimir Husakau recently said that the growth of the Belarusian economy in 2016 could reach 8-8.5% of GDP. This is a striking and unrealistic prognosis at the time when everyone in the government, international organisations and independent think tanks expects further recession.

The anti-reform camp lacks clear leaders, but is held together by the broad consensus among the middle and low-level Belarusian officials. These people believe that the current economic crisis will hardly destroy Belarus's political system, while system reforms might.

Which camp Lukashenka belongs to

Many key figures in Belarusian politics, including the President’s son Viktar Lukashenka and Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei, have remained silent on the subject of economic reforms. It is these people who will determine which side the president chooses in the reform debate.

The Belarusian leader may prefer the ideas of the lower levels of the bureaucracy for two reasons. First, Lukashenka and the anti-reform coalition share the fear that the reforms will take away their privileges and their ability to control the economy. They also worry that political liberalisation will follow economic changes in Belarus.

Second, Lukashenka does not see the benefits of structural reforms. According to him, there is no reason to "break something in vain while overly straining the people." By “the people” the President means not only the ordinary citizens, but also the entire ruling class.

Yet this does not mean that the President is firmly wedding to the anti-reform coalition. After all, it was Lukashenka who appointed some of the prominent advocates of reforms to senior positions in the Government, the Presidential Administration, and the National Bank.

It is notable that Lukashenka allows both sides to conduct a fairly sharp – by Belarusian standards – debate about the costs and benefits of economic changes. After that, he will make up his mind.

Who Will Get Positions in the New Government: Conservatives or Reformists?

On 20 September, Alexander Lukashenka stated that he knew who was going to enter the new government. The previous government resigned, under Belarusian legislation, after Lukashenka's victory in the October presidential elections.

The new composition of the government will expose the state ruler's agenda and on whom he relies. On the one hand, a new elite has appeared that resembles those in Belarus' European counterparts. On the other hand, the older nomenklatura still has great influence.

A few ministries and government officials want change, at least in order to perform their job effectively. Others remain interested in business as usual.

European-Style Nomenklatura vs Soviet-Style Nomenklatura?

Over the past few years, new people have received top positions within the regime. This part of the Belarusian nomenklatura resembles European elites. It has more connections to the West, as these people previously studied or had job experience there. Many of them have a liberal economic stance, remain more open to independent media and are sympathetic to assertions of national identity. Two examples roughly reflect the new class.

Kiryl Rudy was appointed economic adviser to Alexander Lukashenka in 2013. Before that he was a Fulbright Scholar in the United States, and worked as a lecturer and an economic counsel​lor in the Belarusian Embassy in China. This year, he gained a media profile with an article which called for structural reforms in the Belarusian economy. What’s more, his articles always quote Western mainstream economists.


Vasil Maciusheuski previously led BPS-Sberbank, one of the largest private banks in Belarus, and studied at the London Business School. In 2014 he became the first deputy prime minister. According to the traditional state hierarchy, Maciusheuski comes in as the fourth most important person in the country. In his student years Maciusheuski wore clothes with a Pahonia coat-of-arms, the national symbol often associated with the Belarusian democratic movement.

This class of people differs from the traditional nomenklatura, as they lack prejudices about the West and are quite young. Rudy is 37 years old and Maciusheuski 46. Both received top jobs in the elite largely due to Lukashenka's disappointment with the older nomenklatura, which appeared unable to rule the country in a crisis situation when financial resources were limited.

Despite the popularity of a new class of nomenklatura in the media, most officials have more similarities with Alexander Lukashenka. They remain inconspicuous, but in practice they form the backbone of the Belarusian nomenklatura and appear in the media only in the context of scandals surrounding the president's work. The old nomenklatura elite are rarely engaged in creative work, and instead repress citizens and public institutions.

Mariana Shchotkina, Minister of Labour and Social Protection, moved to Belarus only after finishing her studies in St. Petersburg. She headed the campaign headquarters of Alexander Lukashenka during the recent presidential election. She differs from the usual people engaged in social protection: she does not defend ordinary people, but attacks them. She advises the retired not to complain about low pensions, regrets that 93% of Belarusians have only one job, considers $10 unemployment benefits as normal and strongly defends the law on "social parasitism", according to which unemployed people should pay tax for being unemployed.

When Lukashenka dismissed Leanid Huliaka from the post of Minister of Culture, he promised to find him a job where he would fulfil his potential better. In 2005, Leanid Huliaka, now 66, who graduated from the Party School of the CPSU in Soviet times, became a Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities. In this post he has tried to prove that Poles experience no problems in Belarus, and that the Independent Union of Poles does not exist. Huliaka also has a tense relationship with the Catholic Church and accuses foreign clergy of being politically active.

How Reforms Divide the Nomenklatura

As Alexander Lukashenka stated on 20 October, "now it seems impossible to carry on in the old way". So that creates a demand for new faces. On the one hand, the structures that are most in favour of change already look more Westernised. These are the National Bank and parts of the government, which essentially counts the money, such as the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which understands global trends better due to its work, also seems more pro-reform.

On the other hand, a few officials want business to stay as usual. The state concerns and several ministries as the Ministry of Commerce, remain best placed for those who want to increase government spending and have more competencies in the own hands. For example, the Ministry of Commerce usually uses licencing as a tool of repression and closed down several shops in 2015.

There’s an inert part of the regime that, basically, does not oppose changes but does not promote them either. These are ministries and local government officials who want, for example, foreign investment, but seem reluctant to attract these investments on their own.

Who Will Get Jobs in the Government?

Lukashenka faces a dilemma in choosing people for the new government. On the one hand, he has to thank his conservative loyalists for the support during the presidential campaign. That explains why such persons as Mariana Shchotkina may receive high positions – if not in the government, maybe in the Presidential Administration.

On the other hand, Lukashenka understands that his loyalists may further damage the Belarusian economy, which remains in desperate need of reform. So, reformists like Vasil Maciusheuski may save their positions. If Lukashenka wants reform, he will also give more portfolios to the European-style nomenklatura — if not to reform, then at least to charm the International Monetary Fund or the European Union.

Taking this dilemma into account, Lukashenka may create a mix of conservatives and reformists. Currently he needs both to preserve his position.

Belarus Tightens Media Control to Prepare for Election

Last month Belarusian authorities continued their offensive against independent media. An amendment to the media law, in force since 1 January, tightened the state's control over the Internet.

Eight days later, the state ordered the confiscation of profits from an independent publisher (Lohvinau). On 19 January the Ministry of Information used the tragic shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo to warn its domestic media of the risks of free speech. And on 26 January the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya against the Ministry of Information’s warning.

Information control has long been Minsk’s preferred approach to coping with economic problems and swaying public opinion ahead of elections. While independent newspapers can be easily purchased in the street and all websites are accessible from home computers most of the time, the state frequently harasses media outlets so they know “who the boss is." This time, however, its heavy-handed approach may inadvertently strengthen the influence of Russian media in Belarus.

Tightening Grip over the Internet

As a growing number of Belarusians seek information online, the Belarusian state has sought to limit dissent in the Internet. The amendments to the 2008 law on the Media that came into force on 1 January seeks to regulate the distribution of media products online.

They also expand the state's power to block Internet resources. While previously only the propaganda of war, violence, cruelty, or extremism could be blocked, now any information that can harm Belarus’s "national interests" may trigger the shutting down of a website.

Materials published as far back as three months can serve as grounds for blocking. As Andrei Bastunets, Deputy Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, notes in a 23 January article in Foreign Affairs, a broad interpretation of the law would put even foreign websites within the reach of state censors. Additionally, web hosts can now be held accountable for all comments posted on their websites.

The changes were adopted without public discussion and supplement the legislation that has already left little space for freedom of speech. Starting in 2010, customers at Internet cafes were required to present passports and register. In turn, Internet providers had to collect customer information and install search and surveillance systems. Websites catering to Belarusians had to be hosted exclusively on domestic servers.

While seeking to rein in independent media, the state is stepping up its own online presence. Minsk is about to launch an online media portal aggregating information from all governmental media on the Internet.

The portal is supposed to serve as a “source for all professional information” about Belarus, according to Deputy Information Minister Vladimir Martusevich. Unsurprisingly, independent media outlets were not invited to join.

Stifling Print Media: Narodnaya Volya vs the Information Ministry

The new focus on Internet censorship is not distracting the Belarusian authorities from their harassment of print media.

On 23 January, Belarus’s Supreme Court ended the proceedings in the case of Narodnaya Volya against the Ministry of Information. Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper with a circulation of 55,000, lost its appeal against the Ministry’s warning that it was spreading false information.

On 3 October 2014, Narodnaya Volya received a warning for the column “Chained,” written by senior editor Svetlana Kalinkina. Kalinkina wrote that Belarus would be unable to leave the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) upon ratifying the agreement, citing Article 13 of the Union Treaty that stipulates that withdrawal decisions are made by "consensus minus the vote of the Member State" seeking to leave.

“Once you sign up – it's forever,” she concluded, thus drawing the ire of the Ministry of Information. The Ministry pointed to conflicting article 118 of the ratification agreement.

As this was already Narodnaya Volya's second warning, the Ministry of Information can exercise its “legal” right to shut down the paper.

At President Aleksandr Lukashenka's 29 January meeting with the press, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Iosif Seredich, complained directly to the President about the harassment his newspaper had suffered at the hands of the Ministry of Information. Lukashenka said he would look into the matter and went as far as to promise to meet with Seredich personally.

Exploiting the Charlie Hebdo Tragedy to Taunt Domestic Media

In its attempt to control information, Belarus did not hesitate to exploit the shooting at Charlie Hebdo on 7 January. Although the Ministry of Information did not explicitly prohibit reprinting the caricatures, it later threatened to “analyse” the domestic media’s “reaction” to the events in Paris. On 19 January, Minister of Information Lidia Ananich said at an online conference that outlets reprinting the cartoons would be “publicly reprimanded.”

Were the “public reprimand” to take place, it would affect kuku.org, which reprinted some of the most controversial images, and Vitebskiy Kurier, which published some of Charlie Hebdo’s earlier caricatures.

What is more, three participants of the solidarity action with Charlie Hebdo in front of the French embassy in Minsk on 11 January were charged with participating in an “unsanctioned mass action.” Interestingly, when asked about the charges by BBC journalist Tatsiana Melnichyk at the 29 January press conference, Lukashenka said he did not consider a four-people action problematic and promised to look into the matter.

Three days later, the court proceedings for the former editor of the satirical newspaper Novinki Pavel Konovalchik, the leader of the United Civic Party Anatoly Lebedko, and the deputy of the Green party Dmitry Kuchuk were cancelled.

Such an unexpected denouement suggests that the president has decided to play good cop, leaving the bad cop role to the Ministry of Information. Lukashenka's ostensible concern about Narodnaya Volya at the same press conference confirms this impression.

Media outlets that reprint controversial images in Belarus have been prosecuted before. In 2006, the independent newspaper Zgoda published Jullands Posten’s cartoons of Muhammed. One of its editors, Alexander Zdzvizhkou, was sentenced to three years in prison "for “inciting racial, national or religious hatred" but released after a month.

Undermining a Potential Ally?

The intensification of media control can be seen as Belarus's preparation for the presidential election on 15 November. A contributing factor is the poor state of the Belarusian economy, which may follow that of Russia into a recession in 2015. Real wages are declining and the ruble has plummeted.

As soon as the government slapped a 30% tax on foreign currency purchases in December, several non-governmental informational resources were blocked. It is precisely such ad hoc solutions to economic turbulence that the amendments to the media law facilitate.

Yet today it is Russian state media, which propagates the idea of Belarus's belonging in the Russian world, that presents a more immediate challenge to Lukashenka's rule. Restricting Belarusian independent media in the current geopolitical circumstances may thus inadvertently strengthen the increasingly aggressive Russian influence.

What to Expect from the 2015 Presidential Elections in Belarus?

The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.

Perceived Weaknesses of Lukashenka

Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.

First, as the president indicated in his meeting with journalists on 29 January, he is growing old—in fact he seems to have aged much faster physically than his equally seasoned counterparts such as Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civic Party or the still jailed Mikalai Statkevich of the Social Democrats. That fact seems to lead the president to talk about the possibility of retiring from office.

the usual escape route of foreign loans from Russia, or aid from the International Monetary Fund is no longer available

Second, the country appears somewhat directionless. The president has no plan for the future, no clearly laid out scheme for economic reforms, or vision of where his state lies in the European and Eurasian geostrategic picture. The question would seem critically important in view of the events taking place in neighbouring Ukraine, which have polarised much of the continent.

Third and related to the above is the increasingly gloomy economic picture brought about in part by the sharp decline of the currency and falling world oil prices. Though the president has not devalued the ruble officially, it has reached unprecedentedly low levels against the dollar and Euro. He has suggested refinancing the country’s growing debt. But the usual escape route of foreign loans from Russia, or aid from the International Monetary Fund is no longer available, forcing the president to seek new partners who are unlikely to offer very favourable terms. China at the head.

Fourth, the opposition has had opportunities to learn from past mistakes. In 2001 campaigns to come up with a unified candidate took place too late to have a major impact (2001). In 2006, they were diluted by divisions that resulted in two competing candidates (Alekssandr Kazulin and Aleksandr Milinkevich in 2000). And, if one wishes to go back further, this also happened in 1994. In the 2010 campaign the plethora of candidates stymied any real possibilities of convincing the electorate that valid alternatives existed.

today the rift between President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka seems even wider

Fifth, in 2010 at least three of the candidates made direct overtures for Russian support for their campaigns, and attained some success until a rapprochement between Lukashenka and President Dmitry Medvedev a little over a week before the vote tool place in Belarus ended these hopes. Such moves presupposed that Russia was getting weary of Lukashenka. And today the rift between President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka seems even wider. Some Russian leaders have expressed open frustration with the apparent lack of support from Minsk for Russia’s response to Ukraine’s Euromaidan.

Despite these obstacles, which might daunt a president in a more democratic environment, Lukashenka is actually more popular today than he was in 2010. The ostensible dilemmas for the incumbent president are actually beneficial in terms of his reelection—admittedly, one is not speaking here of an open election on an equal platform. At the same time they weaken his rivals, who have struggled to find viable policies on which to mount a concerted and united campaign.

Lukashenka’s Advantages

Let us take the five above “problems” in turn.

First, Lukashenka’s age and time in office is translated in official parlance into valuable experience. Who else, he asks, could be entrusted with office at such a critical time in the state’s short history? Of course, he might step aside, but only if he is critically ill or suffering from dementia? Besides, he adds, it is even necessary to raise the pensionable age because of the fall in numbers of the working age population. Moreover, to resign at a difficult time would lead, he states, to accusations of cowardice. Therefore Lukashenka must stay and fight on. What else could be expected?

Second, the directionlessness is actually advantageous. What could be more dangerous at the current time than a radical reform platform that would likely entail wage cuts, closure of unprofitable factories, and opening national industries to foreign control? Why must Belarus commit itself to the Eurasian Economic Union or European Union when it can remain on decent terms with both entities, its membership of the former merely token compliance to the wishes of Putin? Hasn’t the policy of vacillation and flip-flops worked so far? Who can tell where Lukashenka will move next?

Lukashenka even suggests that Belarusians themselves are to blame for the crisis 

Third, the country’s economic plight can be blamed on world events and problems. It is simple to argue that they are external to Belarus. Though to some extent this attitude is partially offset by the recent firing of Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and other officials, it remains in place. Lukashenka evades responsibility. He even suggests that Belarusians themselves are to blame for the crisis by abandoning their own currency and attempting to purchase dollars, a cowardly action deserving of scorn and condemnation.

Fourth, the opposition is neither united nor rejuvenated, despite repeated attempts to come up with a formula for unity. One reason for this is the thoroughness with which the state repressed opposition leaders—less directly after the 2010 presidential elections, which solicited international attention, than in 2011 and 2012 when it took extreme steps to ensure the eradication of its “enemies,” particularly among the young.

Fifth, there is no Russian route available today for the opposition, a time when a state-fostered national sentiment has come to the fore. Belarusians are unclear whether in the Donbas conflict they support the Ukrainian side or the Russian, but they are much more certain when it comes to the survival of their own country. The 23 years of the Republic of Belarus have come to mean something, however national identity might be defined. And like Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk in 1991, to some extent, the president has purloined the opposition’s insistence on the national integrity of Belarus, albeit alongside nebulous statements about the “sacredness” of the Russian people and their “oneness” with Belarusians.

Another Five Years?

The claim that under Lukashenka, Belarus has attained a form of national integrity is false, but it has had some impact. At its height it has persuaded even some western observers to identify the nation directly with Lukashenka. It is a tunnel vision that overlooks his failings and ignores other aspects of Belarusian political and cultural life. It also conveys the image that he alone is standing, defiant, against imperialist and predatory Russia while the EU dithers.

The people see what they are meant to see, however narrow and distorted that vision may be. And it is why we have not seen the last of Alexander​ Lukashenka.

David Marples, special to Belarus Digest

David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.

How the Belarusian Political System Works

Last year the Ostrogorski Centre launched its Belarus Profile web site. Since then the database of the most influential Belarusians has become an increasingly popular source of biographical information.

However, not many people in the West know what the Belarusian political system looks like under the Constitution. This article intends to fill that gap.

State of the Super President

Alexander Lukashenka was not joking in 1995, when during an interview to Handlesblatt magazine he praised the concentrated official powers of Hitler. One year later, a rigged referendum made him something akin to a super President.

At the time, many people compared the competencies of the President of Belarus with those of the President of France, although Lukashenka was authorised to do much more.

The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament

Since 2004, the President has had the right to run for office an unlimited number of times. The term of office is 5 years. According to the Constitution, the President of Belarus not only has very broad executive powers, but legislative ones as well.

Lukashenka has the right to issue decrees that automatically assume the power of being law and override existing laws. Contrary to the Constitution, the President has significant competencies in the judicial field: he has the power to exempt individuals from criminal culpability for some crimes and can even pardon people for economic crimes.

The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament, with considerably more power. The Presidential Administration's 'legislators' effectively make the nations laws. Some departments of the Administration duplicate the work of the ministries. They make any number of key decisions that determine the policy of the state.

The President also chairs the Security Council, which is probably the most important institution in the Belarusian political system. This body brings together the country’s top leaders and the main security agencies. Lukashenka keeps security officials in very close, as he does not trust them.

The top security staff basically unchanged over the past 19 years, with Lukashenka occasionally shuffling the same deck of cards in the nation's law enforcement agencies. It should also be noted that his oldest son – Viktar Lukashenka – is a member of the Council.

Puppet Government

Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Rouda describes the value in terms of the government being an economic and administrative agency that subordinate to the Head of State.

The President appoints and dismisses the prime minister and all other ministers. He also often leads the Council of Ministers' meetings which usually devolve into public humiliation sessions – or "a beating of the boys" – i.e. the ministers.

The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations

The government itself remains little more than a functionary, destined to execute the decisions of the President and his administration. Ministers in Belarus are not prone to quick turn over, yet despite the apparent job security afforded them, as a former employee of the Lukashenka`s team Siarhei Chaly said, "no one wants to be a minister."

The Council of Ministers has 24 ministries and seven committees, such as the Committee for State Security. The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations, such as the Belarusian State Concern for Oil and Chemistry. This concern includes the largest enterprises in Belarus, such as "Belaruskali" and oil processing plants.

Pocket Parliament

Belarusian parliament has two chambers: the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Council of the Republic (higher chamber).

the Parliament has independently drafted only one law

110 deputies elected in direct elections constitute the House of Representatives. 64 deputies constitute the Council of the Republic. Members of local councils from each region and Minsk elect eight members. Lukashenka appoints another eight personally.

The Parliament plays a very insignificant role. It has no real executive functions and the main task of the Parliament is basically rubber stamping laws whose content has already been drafted and finalised before it reaches them. According to Andrej Jahorau, over the course of its last four-year term, the Parliament has independently drafted only one law.

The House of Representatives or Council of the Republic do not hold any debates and MPs often just pass a given law unanimously. The Chamber Speakers or Chairmen of the parliamentary committees play a marginal role in Belarusian politics. Even Parliament property is managed by the Office of Presidential Affairs.

Dependent Judicial System

The judicial branch, as well as the legislative, remains almost entirely dependent. The executive branch organises the courts, appoints its judges and even determines the size of the bonuses that Court officials receive. The Constitutional Court is composed of 12 members, the President and the Council of the Republic appoint six judges each.

Since 1996, the Constitutional Court has not considered or renounced any legal act passed by Lukashenka to be unconstitutional. Moreover, the Constitutional Court is not able to start a case by their own, but instead must seek approval from the head of state.

No Local Self-Government

Although Belarusian traditions of local self-government have roots stretching back to the 14th century, these days Belarusians do not even have the possiblity of electing their own mayors. The President himself appoints the heads of local executive bodies, so they remain primarily loyal to him, and not to its local citizens.

A few members from opposition political parties were elected at the local elections in 2010

Belarusians call this system the "executive vertical". The President can dismiss ordinary officials of the local executive committees and even revoke their decisions.

The local councils are made up of 21,288 deputies, but their official competencies remain pitifully narrow. Only a few members from opposition political parties made it through the sieve of fraud at the local elections in 2010. In 2014 Belarus will hold new elections to its local councils with what would appear to be rather predictable results.

The Final Count

Belarus remains a country with super-presidential system. Lukashenka controls the executive and legislative branches of government. The President also significantly influences the judicial branch, despite the fact that this is a clear violation of the fundamental Law of the country.

The Council of Ministers is doing little else but working to make sure Lukashenka`s policy objectives are met. Parliament is a body is a rubber stamp institution that is charged with approving legislation created by the Presidential Administration. Local executive bodies, as well as the Council of Ministers, implement Lukashenka`s policies, but only at the lowest level.

It is inconceivable that the judicial system will confront the President, as it remains almost entirely dependent on him.

The rigged referendums in 1995, 1996 and 2004 brought great changes to the Constitution and gave the President unlimited powers. Thus, Lukashenka's dictatorship has roots not only in his political practises, but also in the fundamental laws of Belarus.

Lukashenka Looking for a New Prime Minister?

On 23 March, Alexander Lukashenka asked journalists to send him their suggestions for a candidate for a new prime minister of Belarus.

For a long time the leader of the Belarusian has been intensifying his rhetoric about his dissatisfaction with the economic results of the government and replacing Mikhail Myasnikovich. Still, his resignation may happen only next year.  

The Head of the Presidential Administration Andrei Kabiakou, chairman of the Development Bank Siarhei Rumas or the Speaker of the House of Representatives Uladzimir Andreichanka seem to be the most likely candidates for the premiership. Lukashenka has limited choices and no candidate will make a real difference.

The prime minister in the Belarusian system is but a mere puppet of Lukashenka, unable to conduct deep economic reforms in the country.

Leisurely Premier's Retirement

On 23 March, Alexander Lukashenka confirmed that he is still considering removing the current government and is search of an official who could replace Mikhail Miasnikovich as a prime minister. The Belarusian head of state is looking for a new prime minister in the upper echelons of the state apparatus. According to him, there are about 35-40 people there under consideration.

Alexander Lukashenka is considering the resignation of the government due to the economic problems facing the country. In particular, the Belarusian leader is troubled by the warehouses filled with Belarusian products that nobody wants to buy. Simultaneously, Lukashenka reasonably states that this is partly due to the fact that the West and the East today lack a favourable economic common ground.

There is a real possibility that the current government will soon be sent packing. Its dismissal will likely take place in the coming months. The most likely scenario will have Lukashenka dismissing Miasnikovich ahead of the presidential election, pegging him with all the economic problems Belarus has faced the past few years.

The Belarusian economy, meanwhile, continues to deteriorate. This year Belarus is trapped in a recession, and inflation continues to rise, despite the fact that in neighbouring countries, it is almost nonexistent. The prime minister does indeed appear to be unable to fix the economy.

Candidates for the Prime Minister's Chair

Although Lukashenka said that he would choose the future prime minister from a pool of 35-40 people, the media and experts have independently determined most likely successors to Myasnikovich. The leading candidates are:

Andrei Kabiakou, Head of the Presidential Administration, has a good personal relationship with the Belarusian head of state. He has served as vice-Prime Minister for 10 years and was the ambassador of Belarus to Russia. Although born in Moscow, he received credibility among managerial elites for his toughness in his negotiations with the Kremlin.  


Siarhei Rumas, Head of the Development Bank, has long been considered as one of the supporters of liberal reforms in the Myasnikovich government. He is known as a man who can make things happen. He speaks several foreign languages ​​and knows how to work with international institutions. At the age of 44, he remains one of the youngest officials in Belarus.


Uladzimir​ Andreichanka, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has been in power for a long time and has led the Vitebsk Regional Executive Committee for 14 years. He has led the House of Parliament since 2008. In a Belarusian context, this means that that he has been doing next to nothing. Lukashenka recently returned a few deputies to positions of real power, and Andreychenko may be the next in line.


Uladzimir Makei, Minister of Foreign Affairs, has become known as the architect of the previous dialogue between Belarus and the EU. Previously, he was a member of the state security services, worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and headed the presidential administration. Consequently, he lacks a deep understanding of economic matters, so his appointment as prime minister would come as a surprise.


Siamion Shapira, head of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee, has long been considered as a liberal amongst the ruling elites, although lately he personally gave the order to fire scholar Andrei Charniakievich from his university position for a book about the history of Hrodna. Lukashenka invited Shapira to the government before, but he asked to stay on as governor.


While this list defines the potential candidates for the post of prime minister, Lukashenka may choose another person on purpose, one who is not particularly popular today.

Will There be Policy Change After a Change of Government?

The Belarusian political system is built in a way that it is of no consequence who occupies the post of prime minister. The government remains but an executioner of the president's will. It lacks any real authority and sometimes even acts as Lukashenka's whipping boy. During meetings with Lukashenka, Belarusian senior officials tend to look at the floor rather than directly in his eyes.

The fact, that Lukashenka remains reluctant to speed up the process of finding a replacement for the premiership after speaking about it for a few months, confirms he has other designs. The appointment of a liberal in the government does not mean that the government’s policy will be liberal as the PM that "runs" it. Rather, it will continue to follow the the direct orders of its populist master.

Belarus' problems are related not only to the worsening economic situation, but also to the structural deficiencies of the economy. However, the current authorities appear reluctant to liberalise the economy and privatise enterprises, so the long-term improvement of the Belarusian economy remains unrealistic. Last month, the Minister of Agriculture and Food presented a recovery plan for Belarusian villages. However, the plan lacks even basic private property rights.

In general, the head of the Belarusian state has a short list to choose from. Most capable managers left the ruling elite back in the 90s, and talented young people are not eager to join up. Although the authorities continue to declare their desire to bring back successful Belarusians from abroad, these statements fall on deaf ears. A personnel shortages remain one of the greatest problems for Belarus.

The search for a new prime minister appears to be little more than shuffling of an old deck of cards. Whatever card Lukashenka pulls, the result is already clear. Belarus needs someone truly new.

Belarus Profile Maps Influential People of Belarus

The Centre for Transition Studies kicks off Belarus Profile – a searchable online database that contains the biographic information of over 200 people influential​ in Belarus.

Belarus Profile differs from other who is who projects not only in its scope but also because it is available in three languages: English, Russian and Belarusian. The project has an advanced search option on personal information, details on individuals' education and career that help to detect patterns in the Belarusian political system.

The results of a search of over 200 influential Belarusians reveals that Belarusian officials usually were born in villages and small towns. Civil society activists come primarily from major cities.

A search can also yield other interesting results such as many retirees remain active in Belarusian politics and hold senior state positions or point out that the Belarusian Agricultural Academy is a popular university among Belarusian officials.

Analysing Belarusian Establishment

The Centre for Transition Studies plans to expand the biographies and the whole directory of influential people in Belarus, though will keep its focus only on leaders. The Centre already has expertise in Belarusian elite and plans to continue its research along these lines.

Earlier this year Siarhei Bohdan, analyst of the Centre, published an analytical paper on the Belarusian political and economic establishment. Belarus Digest also frequently features articles on changes within the Belarusian government and civil society. 

Belarus Profile will help people outside the system to better understand how Belarusian state and society functions. Belarus Profile aims to de-mystify and deepen the public's knowledge about key decision makers in the country. It is also designed to help determine who the most influential people in Belarus are, where they come from, what their age is, as background on their education and careers.

Belarus Profile strives to cover all Belarusian leaders: politicians, opposition activists, civil servants, and notable figures from academia, business, civil society, and other areas. Sections with biographies of state officials and civil society activists are the largest sections to be found in the directory.

Where Belarusian Influential People Come From

Belarusian officials usually come from villages and small towns, while civil society leaders and business people typically come from major cities. In Belarus, influential people present all six regions more or less evenly. Although most influential people originally come from Belarus, a significant minority of them have their roots in other countries.

Many influential Belarusians were born in Russia and play important roles in state institutions such as Andrei Kabiakou, the current Head of the Presidential Administration. Other notable figures include Kiryl Vakhrameeu, Filaret and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, Aliaksandr Bialiatski, human rights defender and political prisoner, Anatol Mikhailau, who runs the European Humanities University.

Some prominent Belarusians have roots in Ukraine. Individuals like famous writer Sviatlana Aleksievich, Iuryi Zhadobin who is in charge of the Ministry of Defence and Uladzimir Peftsieu, the richest businessman in Belarus, were all born there. 

It is very popular myth in Belarus that people who were born in Mahiliou region are elevated to high positions in governmental institutions, but as the database shows, this is not entirely true. Many people influential people were not born in that region, but rather worked there for a long time, a fact that holds true for individuals like Aliaksandr Radzkou, Chairman of the Public Association Belaja Rus or even Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself.

A Country of Experienced Officials

The Belarusian political elite lacks middle aged people. Most of them are part of an older generation, some even retirees. Mikhail Miasnikovich, Prime Minister of Belarus, was born in 1950. Anatol Rubinau, Chairman of the Council of the Republic,  remains Belarus' oldest top official having been born in 1939. As Zmicier Pankaviec of the Nasha Niva newspaper noted two years ago, of the 60 main leadership persons 11 were retirees. Today retirees hold 21 high level positions.

Viktar Lukashenka, Assistant to the President on National Security Matters, was born in 1975 and can be considered the most influential young civil servant, though in his particular case age does not really matter. Andrei Shorats, Minister of Housing and Communal Services, who was born in 1973, and Aleh Slizheuski, who born in 1972, remain the youngest ministers in Belarus.

The Business elite is younger than governmental elite. Many entrepreneurs were born in the 60s. Most of them, such as perhaps the most well-known Belarusian business man Iuryi Chyzh, made their fortunes after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The opposition elite's average age falls somewhere between the authorities and business. People who were born in the 40s like Uladzimir Niakliaeu, Aliaksandr Milinkevich, Zianon Pazniak still play a significant role in opposition politics.

However, a new generation of politicians has emerged. Pavel Seviarynets of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, Aliaksandr Lahvinets and Iury Hubarevich of the Movement for Freedom, Volha Karach of the association Nash Dom and Aliaksei Ianukevich of the Belarusian Popular Front Party all appear ready to step up and play a significant role in Belarusian politics in the future.

Alma Maters of Belarus' Leaders

Belarusian State University remains the main incubator for influential people in Belarus. This follows from the fact that BSU is the most authoritative university in the country and holds highest position in international rankings. Many representatives from the economic, social and political elite have studied there, including the ruler`s children – Viktar and Dzmitry Lukashenka.

Belarusian State Economic University and Belarusian National Technical University are second and the third Belarusian universities with regards to their respective influence. Also, a significant segment of officials graduated from the Academy of Public Administration under the aegis of the President of the Republic of Belarus. Usually, officials receive a second postgraduate higher education here in order to advance their careers. 

The Belarusian Agricultural Academy remains very popular among the government's elite. Aliaksandr Lukashenka and other government employees, like deputies of the Prime Minister Anatol Kalinin and Mikhail Rusy, have all studied there.

Few Women

Few women in Belarus can be considered very influential. Among them Mariana Shchotkina, Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Nadzeia Ermakova, who is in charge of the National Bank and Lidziia Iarmoshyna, Chairperson of the Central Election Commission. Alena Kudravec of the Belarusian Potash Company appears to be the only woman who has climbed to the top of the Belarusian business world.

Volha Karach of the association Nash Dom, journalist Iryna Khalip, Ivonka Survilla of the Council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic and Agnieszka Romaszewska, who runs Belsat TV, all remain active in the public life of Belarus. However, Survilla and Romaszewska respectively hold citizenship from Canada and Poland. It is easy to deduce, then, that Belarusian political life remains dominated by men. 

The Centre for Transition Studies,  will continue its research on the Belarusian establishment. According to its director, Yarik Kryvoi, Belarus Profile will also regularly prepare infographics on how politics in Belarus works and will publish a guide which will help Western readers to better understand Belarus' political system.

Belarusian Government: Getting Older and Less Capable of a Reform

Belarus has one of the oldest governments among all of the post-Soviet nations. The average age of the high level state officials has reached 56 years. The average age of the Council of Minister’s members alone equals 55 years.

This is 6-8 years higher than in Russia and Ukraine and about 20 years higher than in some advanced post-Soviet reformist governments. The average age of the most senior officials in Belarus also becomes higher than in the neighbouring states.

As the majority of the high-ranking officials, who have been in top positions for the last 10-15 years get older the average age grows. With some exceptions, instances of young officials joining the top governing elite remain rare. This raises serious concerns about how Belarus could go through the challenges of the declared economic modernisation.

How Old Are Belarusian Top Level Officials?

This table prepared by Belarus Digest shows the years of birth and current age of the high-ranking Belarusian officials. The table does not rank the officials in accordance with their formal or informal roles in the political process. Their placement in the table is quite random but it makes the age point quite clearly.

The average high-ranking Belarusian official was born in 1956 and his/her age today reaches 56 years. This nearly equals Alexander Lukashenka’s age. And the average member of the government (the Council of Ministers) is just one year younger – 55.

The oldest persons in the Belarusian political hierarchy remain the Speaker of the parliament’s upper house Anatol Rubinau, Chairman of the Supreme Court Valyancin Sukala and Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prakapovich. They have reached the age of 70. The youngest one, Andrei Shorets (40 years old), heads the Ministry of Housing and Utilities.

Among Oldest in the Post-Soviet Space

Comparisons with other former Soviet states reveal that the Belarusian governing elite becomes more senior than the region’s average.

For example, the average age of the members of the Russian government stays at 49 years. However, if we add the other top-ranking officials (to make it comparable with the entire Belarusian list) then the average age of the Russian leadership goes up to 56 years, which looks the same as in Belarus.

The average age of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers (as of December 2012) equals 47 years. The government of Kyrgyzstan – 53 and the government of Kazakhstan – 49.

Comparing the age of the most senior state officials in Belarus and the neighbouring countries also shows that Belarusian top officials are rather old.

Gerontocratic Rulers Incapable of Reform?

Can we call the present-day Belarusian government and ruing elite in general a gerontocracy?

Perhaps, not yet. This despite the fact that the average age of the top-ranking officials significantly exceeds the average age of the Belarusian population. According to the 2009 census, the latter equals 39.5 years old.

While the top Belarusian officials get older the majority of the public servants stay in their 30s and 40s. According to the Belarusian statistics agency, as of the beginning of 2013, 53,7% of all state officials were born between 1963 and 1983. And only 11.2% of them have already reached the pension age.

However, the latter have far better positions in the decision-making system. And here one more aspect seems crucial to this discussion: intuitively, the age of the high-ranking officials has to impact their ability to think and act innovatively. In particular, the ability to design and carry out effective systemic and sectoral reforms that Belarus definitely needs. This seems particularly topical in the framework of the declared modernisation plans.

The examples of such reformers as Estonia in the 1990s or Georgia in the 2000s suggest that the younger the government the more likely it is to achieve groundbreaking results in modernising a country.

The average age of the Estonian post-Soviet government that Prime Minister Mart Laar formed in September 1992 was slightly above 30. And the premier himself only celebrated his 32nd birthday. Mart Laar names the young age of his government as one of the factors of the successful reforms: “we did not know what was real and what was not and thanks to that managed to accomplish unreal results”.

On the contrary, when the 71-year old Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Piotr Prakapovich becomes responsible for the program of economic modernisation we can hardly have high hopes in him. Especially after his time as Chairperson of the National Bank and the financial turmoil of 2011 that followed Prakapovich’s term at the National Bank.

Slow Generation Change

Overall, younger officials find it difficult to enter the highest echelons of power. Several factors could explain it. 

First, the Belarusian bureaucratic machine follows rather specific selection rules. Connections seem to be a core criterion. The interviews with public servants that the Liberal Club conducts within its studyon the public administration reform clearly confirm this.

And the higher an official climbs the career ladder the more his/her age becomes important. The corporate logic does not normally welcome “wunderkinds”: one has to earn the right to get high.

Second, top officials in Belarus are appointed by the authoritarian president rather than elected by a popular democratic vote. Regular elections only have to legitimise the leader’s decision in the eyes of Belarusians and foreigners. And in this situation a long record of good and loyal service becomes more important than talent and competence.

In addition, Lukashenka might find more psychological comfort working with the old cadres he knows well. As the saying goes, no one prefers to change horses in midstream. 

However, exceptions happen from time to time. The latest examples include the minister of utilities and housing Andei Shorets (40 years old) and the president’s economic affairs aide Kiryl Rudy (35 years old). Each such case becomes resonating news within the state apparatus and society at large.

Moreover, there has been a lasting story of the so called “young wolves” in the government led by the president’s oldest son Viktar Lukashenka. But no one knows when and if these “young wolves” manage to gain full control and whether they will still be young by that time.

In the meantime, the old generation continue to rule the way they deem proper. They would love to preserve the political and socioeconomic status quo in the country and for that try to prevent any serious reform as long as they can. And even if the situation forces them to go for reforms one can hardly expect any innovative thinking there.

How Decisions are Made in Belarus

In less than two weeks, the Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau has to submit his proposal on the optimisation of the law enforcement agencies ("siloviki") This follows the Presidential Decree No. 168 aimed at reforming the public administration in Belarus. 

This will again raise questions about the role of the “siloviki” and, ultimately, about how the country is governed and who makes the decisions. The obvious easy answer goes that, of course, Alexander Luakshenka does. In the personalistic authoritarianism he indeed makes all important decisions himself. However, it would be an extreme oversimplification to see only Lukashenka behind any single decision or piece of legislation.

The bureaucratic machine undoubtedly plays a decisive role in shaping policy alternatives that Lukashenka considers. It governs Belarus as much as its highest official does. Therefore, understanding the mechanics of this machine is crucial. A recent study of Minsk-based Liberal Club helps shade some light on it. 

It shows that the state decision-making process looks like a cycle with four different stages. It is strictly top-down and, therefore, highly reactive. The study also reveals poor communication between different ministries and other governmental bodies.

The public administration system in Belarus, in a way, resembles a Papal conclave: the outcomes of its work immediately become public and there are always rumours about, but generally the decision-making process remains non-transparent to outsiders.

Off-record interviews with state officials present the only opportunity to get an overall picture of the world inside the Belarusian state apparatus. The Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club has conducted a series of such interviews as part of its study on the reform of Belarus' public administration system. This article is based on their findings.

20 semi-structured interviews were conducted in April-May 2013. The interviewees represent the Presidential Administration, Council of Ministers, 5 ministries, 2 state concerns, 2 Voblast Executive Committees and 3 City Executive Committees.

Four Stages of State Decision-Making

The recent interviews reveal that the established decision-making process has four major stages and no single legal enactment which regulates it. Of course, the four stages do not apply to extraordinary cases where Lukashenka decides on the spot – like, for example, the cases of the confectionery factories Kommunarka and Spartak or the recent case of the private medical centre Ecomedservice.

At the first stage officials identify problems that need addressing. This normally results from various forms of monitoring the socioeconomic and political situation in the country: opinion polls, household surveys, analysis of citizens’ complaints, inspections, etc.

Initiatives to address a problem are the responsibility of either the relevant government bodies (ministries or state concerns) or supreme governmental bodies (the Council of Ministers and the Presidential Administration). These bodies produce all sorts of annual legislative plans and state programmes that prioritise issues for the state.

At the second stage, once the priorities are set, thematic government bodies are assigned the task of drafting decrees or other legislative acts. According to the majority of the interviewees, ministries and those whom are assigned the tasks have enough competence to develop decent quality drafts.

However, the quality often suffers at the third stage, when drafts are circulated for discussion among all interested bodies. Among other things, each institution involved pursues its own corporate goals. The resulting balance of interests may significantly undermine the ideas of the original drafters.

Finally, at the fourth stage it will end up in the Presidential Administration. There they go through another round of balance-of-interests discussions. Influential officials have every chance to amend drafts the way they want (if high-ranking officials themselves do not clash over certain issues). Importantly, the Presidential Administration’s governing principle is political expediency. As a result, here the contents of some drafts become further modified and streamlined in comparison with their technocratic original drafts.

Only after these four stages Alexandr Lukashenka reviews the drafts (if they need his signature) and makes his own decision. No doubt, his opinion is heavily affected by the previous stages of decision-making and also by the people who present the drafts to him.


Socioeconomic plans serve as typical examples of this four-stage process. At a government meeting last year Lukashenka famously exclaimed: “Why do you submit these plans to me to sign and then fail to fulfil them?”

The answer is easy: because in the existing decision-making short-term political goals and populism often prevail over any reasonable analysis and long-term planning.

Another important implication of the findings is that state decision-making remains highly reactive. The majority of problems fall in the government’s focus only after they become very serious. This results from the top-down hierarchical approach to identifying problems and making decisions.

This partially explains why Lukashenka has to interfere personally in all sorts of problems: the system of governance often remains inactive without an impulse from him. Of course, it was precisely Lukashenka’s own political style that resulted in the consolidation of this very system. It is still important to remark that Lukashenka's personal involvement in every matter is often the only way to get things done by the bureaucratic machine.

Poor InterInstitutional Communication

Finally, the interviews reveal another problem: the lack of proper communication among separate governmental bodies. If one ministry needs some data from another one, there is every chance that it will not get it. Or will not get it on time.

This strange situation primarily results from competition of powerful officials and state agencies. Sometimes they would rather be happy to learn of the bad performance of their colleagues than the country’s progress. The crisis-hit year of 2011, when certain cracks inside the government became obvious, serves as a good example of their disjointed relations.

In addition, Belarusian bureaucrats like to classify everything. Even harmless decrees can bear the “for internal use only” label. More sensitive documents get higher protection, which complicates the transfer of information even within the state machine.

Simply put, the state decision-making process in Belarus looks like a closed cycle broken into four main stages. The initial impulse comes from the supreme governmental bodies or even Lukashenka himself. Then it transforms into a draft that returns to the supreme level in a form suitable for the balance of interests and political expediency.

The natural drawbacks of this super-centralized system are poor inter-institutional communication and reactive actions instead of proactive strategic thinking.

Belarusian Authorities Need English Lessons

In early September, the first ever signs in English appeared in the Minsk metro. In June, first bilingual street signs appeared in the centre of the capital.

These are important developments. Belarusian officials have talked about attracting foreign investors and tourists for many years.  But until recently virtually all Belarus street signs were only in Cyrillic script. Moreover, the knowledge of English among Belarusians remains low.

A few years ago Aleksandr Lukashenka criticised this situation. He joked that Belarusian secretaries hang up on callers upon hearing English. In government agencies and state-owned industries, few people speak English. However, new prime minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and his deputy Syamashka both claim English proficiency. But Belarus has a long way to go to become a foreigners-friendly country.

English As a New Foreign Language

English as a foreign language is relatively new for Belarusians. Thirty years ago, speaking a foreign language meant speaking German. The German connexion is still strong today. German civil society organisations and political foundations work with Belarusians despite all political tensions. The Goethe institute maintains German libraries even in provincial centres. The only British Council office in Belarus – in Minsk – was closed in 2000.

Lack of proficiency in English in the governmental institutions is a good illustration of linguistic barriers Belarusians face on the path to international integration. The presidential website is the only governmental website with an up-to-date English version. Belarus Foreign Ministry demonstrates extremely poor English. For example, the mission statement of the ministry reads: “Our foreign policy is multi-directed seeking to build partnerships all across the globe.”

If this is the language Belarusian diplomats use professionally, no wonder the results of Belarusian diplomacy are so pitiful. To be sure, Belarusian representatives abroad lack more than knowledge of English. Recently, Belarus trade adviser in Tehran was caught on the video sleeping at the summit of Non-Alignment Movement.

PR-Disgrace of the Belarusian State

The web presence of all Belarusian governmental organisations suggests that Belarus has little interest in foreigners. For example, the latest piece of news translated into English on the web site of the Belarusian government at the moment this text is being written, dates back to 9 July.

The English version of the web site of the Belarusian Ministry of Agriculture has not been updated since June 2010. It contains nothing but a few telephone numbers. Clicking on the English icon of the web site of the Belarusian National Agency for Investment leads one to a page with announcement “the site has been closed for technical reasons.”

The very first page of Belarusian Ministry of Trade contains a series of news titles in Russian, each followed by the English remark “The resource is available only in the Russian version of the site.” English pages of other governmental agencies and organisations look similarly, revealing negligence and poor qualification of responsible officials.

But the most illustrative is the English-language web site of the leading governmental think-tank with a long name Informational Analytical Center Under the Administration of President of the Republic of Belarus. It should per definition  have had higher intellectual potential, linguistic and PR skills than the ministries which might be too preoccupied with everyday business. However, its site displays only the center’s name and logo. Our sources say, just a couple of low-level analysts on the centre’s staff speak English, though the director speaks excellent German.

Language problems are no less dire in the business sector. In 2009, a journalist of the Belorusskaya Gazeta weekly called biggest Belarusian firms asking about investment portfolios and seeking creating a joint-venture. He spoke in English and only one enterprise, furniture producer Pinskdreu, was able to communicate.

Nobody Understands Belarusians

Belarusian government, business and all kinds of organisations and institutions lack even the basic facilities and policies to inform its foreign partners about their ideas and what they have to offer. They cannot make their case even in the most favourable condition in the West and even less – manage crises which regularly happen in Belarus' foreign relations.

Apparently, a big share of problems in relations with Western nations stems from mutual misunderstandings and PR-mismanagement. And some of them begin with language. The government has such difficulties in contacts not only with the West. Iranian ambassador also complained about lack of English command in Belarus as a major reason for failure of Iranian projects in the country.

The government is aware of language problem and two years ago started to increase amount of hours for foreign language instruction in schools. In 2013, it adds foreign language examination to the list of obligatory exams taken upon finishing the secondary school. Ideologically, the opportunistic Belarusian regime has no problem with more English, if it brings money and does not threaten its survival. Lukashenka has declared at the very beginning of his rule in 1994, "There are only two great languages in the world: Russian and English."

For now, however, the Belarusian officials speak only Russian and keep looking towards Moscow. Only after Belarusian bureaucrats and businessmen will learn how to communicate with Europe, they will be able to adopt new practises.

They have no aversion to the West and can review own beliefs if given an impulse. Even the most conservative part of Belarusian state apparatus – the army – implemented new organisational models after General Malcau learned them in Germany in 2000s. Belarusian officials and society shall have an opportunity to have a different experience of Europe.

The Role of Security Services in Belarus Politics

To understand the balance of power in Belarus it is important to understand the role of the siloviki (the security services). Although they affect political decision-making and the degree of violence in domestic politics they are not a predominant group within the ruling elite. 

Modern History of Belarus Security Services

In 1999 – 2003, heads of security (KGB, Internal Ministry) and controlling (Committee of the State Control, Prosecutor's Office) bodies headed by Viktar Sheiman an old ally and friend of Lukashenka had significant influence on the foreign and domestic policy of Belarusian authorities.

Sheiman served as Prosecutor General and State Secretary of the Security Council. Regardless of what position Sheiman held, he chaired extended meetings of the heads of security and controlling bodies. 

The controlling and repressive mechanisms, led by Sheiman, were directed against the opposition campaign to hold an alternative presidential election in 1999. In the same year, under Sheiman's leadership, opposition leaders, who could become dangerous rivals to Lukashenka in the presidential election of 2001, were eliminated: former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar. Unknown persons inflicted fatal injuries to Hienadz Karpienka.

In 2001 – 2002, under the leadership of the second-ranked person in the State, Sheiman, independent trade unions were persecuted and the directorate of enterprises were cleansed of likely opponents of Lukashenka.

After January 2004, when Russia set a course for reducing subsidies to Lukashenka's regime, Sheiman began losing his positions within the main bodies of power.  On 24 January 2004, Russia fully suspended deliveries of gas to Belarus. Lukashenka faced the following demands: to sell the controlling stake in Beltransgaz for $800m or to face an increase in gas prices to the market level.  Survival of Lukashenka's regime was now dependent on the efficiency of the economy.

In 2007 – 2008, the group of siloviki disintegrated. On 7 July 2008, Lukashenka removed Sheiman from the position of the State Secretary of the Security Council. The significance of this position in the hierarchy declined. Lukashenka's eldest son Viktar, who is now Assistant to the President for National Security Matters, became the  unofficial curator of security and controlling bodies.

In 2008 – 2011, Viktar Lukashenka replaced Sheiman's appointees amongst the leadership of the security bodies with his own trusted men. However, one can speak only figuratively about the existence of a group of siloviki under Viktar Lukashenka's leadership. Viktar Lukashenka's group includes many civilians, young businessmen and officials, with whom he studied at the Foreign Relations Department of the Belarusian State University. It is known that one of the reasons for Viktar Lukashenka's personal animosity towards Viktar Sheiman was that the latter was interfering with the development of private business.

After 19 December 2010 

After the events of 19 December 2010 many experts were saying that the siloviki once again became a predominant group. Heads of security agencies involved in repression push Lukashenka towards further deterioration of relations with the West, because political liberalisation in Belarus and rapprochement with the West means a threat of prosecution to them.

There has been a certain movement towards economic liberalisation and privatisation. It means a lesser role for the controlling and law enforcement agencies in the political system in Belarus.

The siloviki do not exert pressure on the decision-making process in the Council of Ministers. The government works in a quiet mode. The discussion is not around who should be punished (as it happened frequently while Sheiman was in power), but what should be done.

Since 19 December, there were no cases of criminal prosecution of top managers of major industrial enterprises and big private businesses. The arrest of General Director of Belvneshstroj Viktar Shautsou in October 2011 is quite in line with the pattern of controlled corruption which exists in Belarus. He appropriated about $10m which was more than what is allowed.

At the same time, criminal proceedings were initiated against Deputy Interior Minister Jauhien Paludzien and General Ihar Azaronak. Personnel changes took place in the top management of the Interior Ministry.

There have been no instances of struggle between law enforcement bodies for control over state-owned companies or instances of takeovers of private businesses by the siloviki. During the existence of Sheiman's group such cases were quite frequent. For instance, top managers of the KGB and the Interior Ministry fought over top managing positions in the Zhlobin Steel Plant for their men.

Currently people from security and controlling agencies tare not frequently to positions in the Presidential Administration. In 2001, former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou (Sheiman's man) was appointed Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration on Personnel Matters. He was responsible for supervising the personnel management in the executive vertical. Now, the Presidential Administration is rather a civilian body. And this is the most important body in the political system of Belarus.

The siloviki have not received the carte blanche for widespread repression in Belarus after 19 December. After 19 December 2010 repression is much more prevalent than ever before. However, repression is directed against those opposition groups which, in the authorities' opinion, were involved in the attempts to storm the House of the Government. Repression against other opposition groups and NGOs is localised and pin-point in its nature.

After 19 December, there has been no significant expansion in the staff of security and other controlling bodies. The establishment of a new agency – the Investigation Committee – has been done by recruiting employees of the existing agencies.

Who is Pushing the Repressions?

Finally, one cannot reaffirm that these were the siloviki who pushed Lukashenka into unleashing repression on 19 December. There were background factors indicating that under certain changes in the situation, on 19 December, the authorities would stop following the scenario of liberalisation and would act according to a different scenario, a scenario of repression.

In 2009, Lukashenka said that the establishment of a public consultative council at the Presidential Administration was an initiative of Uladzimir Makiei, which he took rather negatively. In 2010, he said that he saw no sense in letting thirty opposition activists to get into the parliament, as "the West will be happy at first, but then it will ask for more anyway".

Lukashenka received many arguments to conclude that the independence of Belarus is what matters most for the West. From the context of his statements that followed, in his opinion, the West can close their eyes on many things that were happening in Belarus for the sake of its independence from Russia.

Repression of 19 December and in the following period should not be explained solely by emotions and Lukashenka's fear of revolution. Lukashenka acts and speaks in the framework of a certain contract with the nomenklatura. What Lukashenka says about opposition reflects to some extent the nomenklatura's attitude towards the opposition. A fragmented opposition represented by conflicting groups, with no leader and no program, is not only unable to speak to the majority of voters, but also to the nomenklatura and the directorate.

The West and democrats in Belarus have to deal with a nomenklatura frightened by an attempt at revolution. The Belarusian officials sometimes have irrational motives, fears and emotions. But their calculations and rational choices, including in relations with the West, play a much greater role.