Who Rules Belarus?
Last summer over half of Belarusians polled by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies said that Alyaksandr Lukashenka based his authority primarily on the police, the military and the KGB. A closer look at who actually runs the security services and other governmental agencies in Belarus reveals interesting facts and trends.
It appears that those who were born outside of Belarus and educated in Russia heavily dominate the leadership of the police, the military and the KGB, while most 'technocrats' were born and educated within Belarus. Another notable fact is that most Belarusian officials are old and age is an important indicator in predicting their views. Younger ministers tend to be more liberal and less hawkish than their older colleagues.
Mercenaries in Charge of Security Services?
Nearly all top officials of the Belarusian security services were born outside of Belarus and came to the country following their studies in Moscow. In this respect Belarus is a unique country.
Yury Zhadobin, the current Minister of Defense and a former KGB chief, was born in Ukraine. In 2004, he obtained his most recent degree at the Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. According to his official biography he has never studied in Belarus. The current KGB chief Vadim Zaitsev was also born in Ukraine. He has three degrees from various Russian military institutions and none from Belarus.
Anatol Kulyashou, the Minister of Interior who is also in charge of the police, was born in Azerbaijan. Although he has lived most of his life in Belarus, his most recent degree is also from a Moscow-based institution – the Russian Academy of the Interior. The head of the Presidential Security Service Andrei Vtiurin was born and educated in Russia and has never studied elsewhere.
Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country where Belarusians constitute over 85% of the population. An even larger majority of the current population was born in Belarus. This majority is clearly underrepresented among the leadership of the security services.
Many in the opposition call those who lead the security services in Belarus Lukashenka's mercenaries. It is not surprising – all officials mentioned above are on the EU travel ban list because of their active involvement in human rights violations and political repression.
According to a popular theory, the Russian/Belarusian security services manipulated Lukashenka and provoked the post-election crackdown on 19 December 2010. Many think that Moscow was the main beneficiary of last year's crackdown and subsequent imprisonment of hundreds, including nearly all opposition presidential candidates. As a result of the crackdown Belarus has become more internationally isolated and dependent upon Russia.
But the influence of the Moscow loyalists may soon diminish. Although Lukashenka granted additional powers to the KGB recently, he also established a new security agency – the Investigations Committee of the Republic of Belarus, which is supposed to keep an eye on all other security services. Belarusian-born and educated Valery Vakulchyk was appointed as its head last month.
Lukashenka's son Viktar was sitting next to Vakulchyk as his father announced the appointment. The influence of Viktar, who acts as Lukashenka's senior security advisor, is growing, often at the expense of other players.
Belarusian ministries not in charge of security are a mixed bag. Ministers of emergency situations, architecture, labour and information were born in Russia. Sergei Martynov – the Foreign Affairs Minister – was born in Armenia and completed his university education in Russia.
It is interesting to note that the ministries of information and foreign affairs – the most ideologically charged agencies – are under control of those who were born outside Belarus.
But the Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and sixteen other ministers were born and educated in Belarus. These include the "technocrat" ministers of economy, finance, tax and industry.
In stark contrast with the Belarusian security services and those in charge of ideology, all seven regional governors were born and educated only in Belarus. The governor of Mahiliou region also has a degree from Dresden Technical University. All regional governors except one are in their 50s and 60s.
The other notable Belarus-born and Western-educated official is the head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makey. He studied at the Diplomatic Academy of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s.
According to independent public opinion polls, older people are the main support base of Lukashenka. Not surprisingly, they are overrepresented in the country's leadership.
According to the Belarusian independent weekly Nasha Niva which suveyed the top 60 Belarusian officials, their average age is 54.4 years. Belarus can lay claim to having the oldest leadership of any country in the region. According to Nasha Niva, the average age in Russia is 45 years and in Estonia many ministers are younger than 40.
Belarus has only one minister under 40 – the Minister of Culture Pavel Latushka. He is also the only minister who uses primarily Belarusian in his official speeches. Other younger officials are concentrated in the Government – Deputy Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas and Minister of Economy Mikalai Snapkouski were born in Belarus and are in their early 40s. They all have a reputation as liberals.
At the other end of the spectrum is the head of the upper chamber of the Belarusian Parliament Anatol Rubinov. The 72 year old is known to have almost Stalinist political views.
The Bigger Picture
When earlier this month British historian Norman Davies presented his new book "Vanished Kingdoms," he used Belarus as an example of a nation without a mature elite. According to him, a fragile Belarusian state emerged after World War I, but Stalin purged nearly all its national elite in late 1930s. In his opinion this is the main reason why today Belarusians cannot govern themselves other than by a "teapot dictator" such as Lukashenka. Norman Davies added that it usually takes time to form a demos and a self-sufficient political entity.
Today the new Belarusian-born elite is almost absent in the leadership of the security services. In terms of its age, the governing elite looks more like a Soviet Politburo. But this may change soon. Despite obstacles which the Belarusian government and Western visa barriers create, many Belarusians can travel abroad and get uncensored information on the Internet. And the current level of political repression is incomparable with Stalin's purges.
It means that in the future the Belarusian authorities may not have enough properly Sovietized people to run the country. The younger Belarus-born bureaucrats tend to be more liberal and market-oriented. Some even openly speak Belarusian. They are gradually replacing the older generation who still have sentimental feelings about the Soviet past.
Those who want to see Belarus respect the rule of law and human rights need to think about how to influence and engage the new and future generations of the Belarusian elite. Sometimes Western governments and donors focus solely on how to punish or change the current political regime and forget about the bigger picture. Putting pressure on the regime is important but so is implementing concrete measures to integrate Belarusians into the rest of Europe.
Belarusian “Terrorists” On Trial: Any Hope for Justice?
On November 30, a Belarusian court is likely to issue the death sentence to the alleged perpetrators of the April terrorist act in the Minsk metro. Many in Belarus remain unconvinced that the suspects, two young men from the northern province of Vitebsk, are guilty of such serious crimes.
The premature verdict could have major repercussions for the legitimacy of the Lukashenka regime. Contrary to official claims, there remains considerable uncertainty about the identity and the aims of the masterminds of the multiple bombings in Vitebsk and Minsk in 2005-2011. Admitting this uncertainty would undermine the official narrative of national security and stability that underpins the 'social contract' between the authoritarian government and the people.
Since 2005, a series of attacks has shattered confidence in public security. The 2005 Vitebsk terror attacks were downplayed by the authorities at the time as acts of hooliganism. The bombing on a national holiday in 2008, which resulted in scores of wounded casualties, already had a more detrimental impact. The attack on the central station of the Minsk subway last April, which killed 15 people and wounding 387 others, dealt a final blow to public confidence.
The public prosecution office has charged one of the defendants, Dmitry Konovalov, as the perpetrator of the Minsk bombing. He is also accused of illegally acquiring and storing explosives as well as producing at least twelve improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The prosecutors accuse the second defendant, Vladislav Kovalev, of being Konovalov's accomplice in the 2011 Minsk bombing.
“Confession of the accused is the queen of evidence”
In total, the accused face 23 charges. According to the prosecution, Konovalov and Kovalev have committed a total of ten crimes over the past decade, including four major bombings. A criminal dossier presented in the courtroom even refers to crimes committed when the suspects were just 14 years old. Many among the Belarusian public find these allegations dubious.
The popular blogger Budimir voiced the thoughts of many Belarusians when he asked how Konovalov, a silent and passive blue-collar worker, managed to lead a ten-year terror campaign and succeeded in detonating a bomb some 100 meters from the president at a 2008 public event. The defendant himself has literally cited a paragraph in the Criminal Code to define his motives: “To destabilize the situation in the Republic of Belarus.” The investigators failed to identify any affiliation of either of the suspects with a political party or ideology.
Notably, some victims of the 2011 terrorist attack testified that they did not consider the suspects proven guilty. A dissident and former investigator, Zmicier Petrushkevich, stressed that the only evidence is found in the defendants' confessions. Apparently, the Belarusian system of justice, like its Soviet predecessor, operates according to the principle of Stalin's hangman Vyshinsky: taking confessions from the accused as its best evidence. In most developed countries, the reliability of such evidence would be questionable. In fact, Konovalov claims he was tortured and endured psychological pressure.
Petrushkevich points out numerous contradictions in the prosecutor's claims. For instance, investigators have found no traces of explosives in the defendant's flat despite allegations that Konovalov had produced them at home. The bag in which the accused allegedly brought the bomb to the site has also mysteriously disappeared. Oddly, the investigators did not consider the possibility that the bomb might already have been brought to the site by someone else prior to Konovalov's arrival.
Perhaps most astounding is the fact that the bomb used in Minsk on Liberation Day in 2008 was most certainly produced under professional laboratory conditions. The cellar identified by investigators as Konovalov's 'lab' certainly does not live up to these standards. Other details are also dubious. Konovalov's attorney has stated that the videotape showing the defendant before and during the explosion was edited. But the court denied the request to use this videotape. For unexplained reasons, the court also refused to summon the police officers who had arrested the alleged terrorists.
Who trusts the Belarusian judiciary?
The court case raises the acute issue of capital punishment. President Lukashenka likes to refer his foreign critics to the 1996 referendum, in which 80.44% of Belarusians voted against abolition of the death penalty. Although the vote was denounced as fraudulent by international observers, Lukashenka stresses his respect for the will of the Belarusian people and points out that the decisions adopted by referendum are above the constitution.
This time, however, the doubts about the guilt of the accused are simply too great. This past Saturday, Lukashenka seemed to partially acknowledge this reality. Though once again demanding the harshest punishment for 'terrorists', the president suggested for the first time that capital punishment for Konovalov and Kovalev might be substituted with life imprisonment.
Lukashenka may be reacting to public discontent. In April, more than 60 percent of respondents at tut.by, the most popular Belarusian web-portal, said the explosions were organized by the government. The court proceedings only increased public skepticism about the defendants' guilt. The doubts are not so much caused by the minutiae of the investigation or the allegations of torture as by lack of public trust in the police and security agencies.
Yet Another Vitebsk Case?
This lack of trust can be led back to the many known cases of violent interrogation in Belarus. One of the most spectacular is the so-called 'Vitebsk case'. In 1971-85, 36 women in Vitebsk region were murdered, and the local courts sentenced 14 men for the crimes that, as later turned out, were committed by one man. One of the 14 suspects was executed, another became blind in prison, and the rest endured years of incarceration. Their admission of guilt was an inevitable outcome of the unfair system of justice. The analogy with today's terror case is evident.
While there is concern that innocent men may be executed, the continuing uncertainty about who actually committed the Minsk bombings has raised concerns about public safety as well. This strikes at the very heart of the legitimacy of the Lukashenka regime – security is a basic concern for every human being, and the regime knows it needs to provide this public good.
To be fair, the stories about the Russian involvement or provocation by the Belarusian security agencies seem implausible. But the public prosecutor's claim put forward in court is no more convincing. This suggests a more problematic reality: the government exerts less control over Belarus than it often claims.