Who is Mr Kosinets? The Rise of the Second Most Powerful Man in Belarus
On 27 December, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka appointed Alyaksandr Kosinets as the head of the Presidential Administration.
In less than a decade, Kosinets rose from the position of dean of a provincial university to one of the top offices in the country, effectively becoming the second most powerful man in Belarus.
Kosinets has become known not only for his exotic initiatives like painting every type of public transportation into a specific colour, but also for his statements and actions in support of Belarusian sovereignty.
While working outise Minsk, although undoubtedly with central government's consent, he punished displays of Russian nationalism among Belarusian public servants, and erected the first ever monument to a mediaeval Belarusian ruler. Furthermore, Kosinets has not hesitated to argue with Lukashenka.
Choosing such a person to serve as his right-hand man, the Belarusian president is demonstrating his proclivity to look for people which have proven their support of Belarus as an independent state. Interestingly enough, these were not the kind of people he appointed at the beginning of his presidency. This appointment happened at the same time as the Kremlin is once more raising the issue of the legitimacy of post-Soviet borders and statehoods, first of all in Ukraine.
Alyaksandr Kosinets was born in 1959 in a village near the city of Orsha in Northeastern Belarus. He made a brilliant carrier in medicine becoming an accomplished surgeon and scholar. At 37 years old he became Professor, a higher distinction than a PhD in the former USSR and quite an achievement in medicine. His list of publications include numerous articles and monographs on surgery and oncology, with his last book – written together with his son – being published just three years ago.
In 1997-2005, Kosinets worked as the rector of Vitsebsk State Medical University. Then came the great climb upwards as, in 2005, Kosinets became a Vice Prime Minister. He served in this office until 2008, when he returned to Vitsebsk as the chairman of the Vitsebsk Province Executive Committee, i.e., the governor of one of the six provinces of Belarus.
Kosinets has become known for his very original proposals concerning state social policies. Thus, he made a point of personally participating in the struggle against alcoholism. As the Vitsebsk governor he went to houses of alcoholics to rebuke them. Another time he proposed to impose fines against people who refused to care about their health.
Yet the new head of Presidential Administration is not a man with a stern personality. Working in Vitsebsk, Kosinets demanded that nice cafes were opened there and worked hard to elevate the annual singing contest at Slavianski Bazar. He spent time trying to promote the idea of building a Disneyland in Vitsebsk.
Firing Russian Nationalists and Honouring Mediaeval Belarusian Rulers
In 2011, an official from the Vitsebsk city administration, Andrei Herashchanka gave an interview to the Russian media outlet Materik and discussed the “artificiality” of the Belarusian language and denied the existence of a Belarusian nation. Vitsebsk authorities tried to avoid publicising the issue and got rid of Herashchanka without scandal. Still, the case attracted much attention among Russian chauvinist circles as the Vitsebsk authorities – undoubtedly with the involvement of Kosinets – fired the scandalous Russian nationalist at the first opportunity.
Speaking on Belarus' Independence Day in 2011, Kosinets said, “Independence, freedom and sovereignty are for us not just symbols, they are our history, our future,” and described the Belarusian state as heir to Soviet Belarusian republic but also to Polatsk principality of the early Middle Ages. The following year, he went further, proclaiming that “freedom and independence have always been part of, and are the main priority of, the Belarusian people.”
In June 2014, Kosinets opened a monument to the Grand Lithuanian Duke Alhierd in Vitsebsk. Alhierd ruled in the XIV century and inter alia was known for conquering Moscow. In his address inaugurating the monument Kosinets said:
This man is a great politician and statesman. He played an important role in the development of Belarusian statehood, the development of Vitsebsk itself. […] In those times, Belarusians were called Lithuanians. He did a lot to defeat the [Mongol] Horde and liberate Kievan Rus'
Some activists from the so-called Cossacks' with Russian chauvinistic views and Russian nationalists protested against the Alhierd monument and claimed that the monument would have an anti-Russian character. To their dismay, the authorities proceeded with their plans. They were supported by their loyal allies – the Belarusian Communist Party (KPB).
The Alhierd monument became the most publicised example of the rather Belarus-centric views of Vitsebsk governor Kosinets, but it was not the only one. In 2010, following his proposal, Lenin Park in Vitsebsk was renamed Shmyrou Park honouring the famous local Belarusian Soviet guerrilla leader Minay Shmyrou who fought the Nazis in WWII.
Standing Up to Lukashenka
There is, however, one more important aspect of Kosinets' personality – his willingness to defend his own opinion. In encounters with Lukashenka most Belarusian officials back down if criticised by the Belarusian ruler. Yet being the Vitsebsk governor in September 2010, Kosinets openly opposed Lukashenka. Between the two the following exchange took place (abridged below)*:
Lukashenka: Tell me about gains, profitability, money.
Kosinets: In agriculture, we have a profitability of 7.6%. With state subsidies. Without subsidies it would be -7.6%.
Lukashenka: In brief, you are working with losses in agriculture and if it would not be for the state…
Kosinets: Of course…
Lukashenka: You would have gone bankrupt. Do I understand you correctly? So you are a sponger!
Kosinets: The whole country is in the same position!
Since the late 1990s, hardly anybody from among the Belarusian top officials has publicly argued with the president like that. Later on, Kosinets even got officially reprimanded for the poor implementation of some projects in the Vitsebsk Province. Still he demonstrated remarkable resilience and managed not only to stay in office yet also rise to the very top of Belarusian government.
Kosinets, however, has over time articulated some rather unconventional ideas. Like when he called for a 30-percent reduction of the size of control agencies in the Belarusian government. After his appointment as the head of the Presidential Administration he demanded “total debureaucratisation.”
Another time as the Vitsebsk governor, Kosinets ordered a list of citizens which have no job to be drawn up, to investigate why they are not working, and if was necessary to make them work. On the other hand, he warned against “revolutionary measures” in solving this problem, as well as demanded more transparency in the public utilities sector, calling for concrete measures to that effect.
Every Belarusian senior official – irrespective of his will and personal views – remains to a large extent restrained by the framework of the existing government. Alyaksandr Kosinets is no exception. Yet this framework itself changes over time. And the rapid rise of this man to the highest of heights of the Belarusian state demonstrate an important transformation in the government which is evolving towards a consolidation of its independence.
At the same time, the top tier of the Belarusian ruling establishment in this case – as in the case of the new mayor of Minsk – demonstrates some flexibility regarding the admission of new members and even new ideas. Something almost altogether unthinkable at the beginning of Lukashernka's time has become an evident reality nowadays – and without any revolutions.
Lukashenka Hammers Drug Dealers and Users with a Tough Decree
Starting 1 January 2015, Belarusians can no longer use e-money services with operations based inside the country. A presidential decree signed on 28 December requires all domestic e-money service account holders to provide authentic identification information.
Controlling e-commerce is Minsk's first major move in the war on drugs. Electronic accounts were popular among drug dealers who received transactions anonymously.
The presidential decree also strengthened punishment for drug trafficking, with sentences ranging of up to 25 years, and introduced measures sanctioning intoxication. The new law targets a synthetic drug called 'spice', which has had disastrous consequences in Belarus in recent years.
A more comprehensive approach to the problem is needed, however. Promoting youth development and education should be a part of any long-term response to drug addition. Additionally, the lack of public debate on drugs contributes to a distorted public perception of the scale of the problem.
A Major Step in the War on Drugs
According to the 14 January statement by the Head of the Department on Drug Trafficking, since 2014 Belarusian hospitals have accepted 1,351 people with overdoses, 32 of whom subsequently died. More than a thousand of these people consumed spice. In 2013 alone 800 such patients appeared in the hospitals, suggesting a striking increase in 2014. These statistics motivated the adoption of the anti-drug decree, said one official.
In January 2014, after a poppy seed ban came into effect, police reported a considerable reduction in the consumption of opiates. However, the problem of synthetic drugs, locally known as "spice", remained at critically high levels. Spice has overtaken the market share of opiates, easily spreading among the youth.
The police could do little to counter the problem due to the lack of necessary laws and equipment. Some police departments had no Internet access and thus were unable to monitor online drug trade.
In December 2014 Lukashenka called a meeting on combating illicit drug trafficking. He made some far-reaching propositions, going as far as to say, “We should create unbearable conditions for [drug traffickers] in prisons. Let us create for them a regime where they would, I'll say it plainly, beg for death”.
Lukashenka also suggested establishing LTPs (sanatorium labour centres) for drug addicts. “We should not treat in hospitals, where normal people are being treated, but in institutions where they [drug addicts] have time only to sleep and work,” he said.
The final text of the law did not contain any of Lukashenka's proposed measures, suggesting that they were meant primarily for public ears. However, punishment for drug-related crimes have indeed become more severe. The decree also included measures to tackle the online channels of drug trafficking.
Harsh Punishments for Drug Dealers
The decree raised the maximum sentence for various kinds of drug trafficking crimes to up to 25 years. It also lowered the age of criminal liability in drug cases to 14 years.
Taking into account the scale of synthetic drug usage in Belarus, many experts approve of tougher punishments for dealers. The human rights centre “Platform” stated that “as the problem of drug use in Belarus has become so critical, our centre supports all of the initiatives for stricter punishment for dealers”.
A Minsk lawyer Hanna Dakućka said that she usually opposes tougher punishment, but since drugs are becoming a national catastrophe, she agrees with increasing prison terms for the drug trade.
So far, the government has focused on deterring trafficking, which is only one side of the problem. No preventive measures were taken. In particular, the authorities are unable to provide proper leisure infrastructure and education that could prevent youngsters from taking drugs. This problem hardly ever appears in government debates. The reason for this is that Belarus lacks youth policy.
To be sure, the possibility of spending two decades in jail may make a seasoned criminal think twice about engaging in drug trade. Young people, however, tend to realise their mistakes only after they have wound up behind bars. And it is precisely the youth who represent the majority of offenders, not the seasoned criminals.
The decree made appearing in public place in a state of intoxication a misdemeanour; a repeat offence is now considered a felony. The degree also established fines for the owners of nightclubs and casinos who turn a blind eye to drug use or trade inside their businesses.
Liudmila Truchan, a representative of the civil association Positive Movement, which helps HIV-positive people and injecting drug users, opposes this aspect of the decree. “They are people with an illness and they will not cease to be them if they receive fines for their drug use”, she said.
The head of the civil association Mothers Against Drugs Iryna Lukjanovič disagrees. In her opinion, the possibility of finding oneself in jail may push an addict towards rehabilitation, which they have so far sought to avoid.
The law also introduced a series of thorough controls on the online drug trade. Police now can shut down any web site suspected of promoting drugs. The Ministry of Internal Affairs created a cyber intelligence unit which will combat online drug crime. The law imposed additional responsibilities on the owners of the Internet resources. Now providers will have to monitor all of their content in order to prevent the spread of drug trafficking and to inform the police whenever a potential case arises.
The decree also requires obligatory identification for all e-money accounts that have payment systems and work within Belarus. This measure has already led to some results within the first days of decree's coming into force.
Web Sites and E-money Accounts Closed
Most electronic payment systems have halted their operations because of the decree. Payment terminals have also stopped using electronic account services such as Belqi, EasyPay, and WMB. The systems are apparently undergoing restructuring, which will include the necessary identification verification procedures as required by the law.
The decree also affected gift card services previously offered by three Belarusian banks. In the past, anyone could buy a gift card with a particular sum of money and give it as a present to friends or family. This card, unlike a regular credit or debit card, did not identify its holder by name.
Now anyone who has received a gift card needs to verify their identity. The banks are complaining that under the new law gift cards are no longer profitable and the service has to be halted.
Requiring identification for every e-transaction can certainly hamper drug dealers' business, but it will by no means stop them. People can rely on e-services based outside of Belarus, such as PayPal. What the law might do instead is increase the amount of cash used in drug business, with smaller transactions bundled into larger ones. One way or another, dealers will find ways to bypass these obstacles.
The coming months will show whether drug dealers with a good grasp of modern technology can outwit the authorities and continue on with lucrative trade. What is certain, however, is that the decree will destroy many young lives by putting the youth experimenting with drugs into prison for decades.