Will Lukashenka Shoot Himself in the Foot by Reducing Bureaucracy?
On 11-12 August the Belarusian authorities announced three upcoming legislative initiatives – all intended to complicate the life of state officials.
They include a new anti-corruption law, an abrupt reduction in the number of civil servants and a presidential decree, limiting career prospects for state managers who fail to comply with the government's economic plans.
These three measures appear to be setting a new trend: Aliaksandr Lukashenka, disappointed with his administrative vertical power structure, decided not to punish his subordinates, but instead to shake up the ranks. He also needs popular anti-bureaucracy reforms to raise support before the 2015 presidential campaign season begins.
But it is precisely because of these upcoming elections that the Belarusian ruler will stray from becoming too radical in putting pressure on officials. He needs them to retain his post.
Full-Scale Pressure on State Apparatus
The first reform, announced on 11 August, suggests that there will be job cuts among Belarusian bureaucrats. Lukashenka said he wanted to curtail the unnecessary functions of the officials and thus dismiss half (!) of them and raise salaries for those remaining. Such an ambitious plan looks particularly odd if one recalls that in 2013 a quarter of civil servants were cut under a reform with an identical goal.
The following day a draft anti-corruption law was published for public debate – an extremely rare practise in Belarus. In July 2014 Lukashenka himself requested this bill introduction after a number of high-ranking officials came under fire from corruption charges.
Among them – the heads of state holdings "Belnaftahim" and "Bellkaapsaiuz" Ihar Zhilin and Siarhei Sidzko, deputy prosecutor-general Alyaksandr Arkhipau, ex-mayor of Homiel, Belarus' second largest city, Viktar Pilipets and several others.
Lukashenka even convened two unscheduled sessions of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, the Council of the Republic, to deprive its members – Hanna Shareika and Vitali Kastagorau – of their immunity, when courts needed to arrest them, allegedly, for charges of corruption.
The draft law introduces certain additional restrictions for civil servants, such as making it illegal to possess shares in a company. Corrupt officials will permanently lose the right to hold public office and the state will deprive them of receiving a higher-tier pension. Additionally, all bureaucrats and their family members will have to declare their incomes and cost of assets.
The very same day Lukashenka announced his third, closely related, novel legislative initiative in his battle with Belarus' bureaucracy. He ordered his administration to draft a presidential decree to ban any bureaucrat or senior-level manager of state enterprises who had failed to fulfil their pre-established targets, outlined in the government's economic plan, from holding any managerial position both in state-owned and in private companies.
This latter norm seem to contradict the Constitution of Belarus (private firms are supposed to be free to hire whom they please), though this has rarely prevented Alexander Lukashenka from adopting new, less than legal, regulations whenever the need arised.
All three measures, announced almost simultaneously, mean that the Belarusian ruler has once more decided, as he called it in 1990s, "to shake up the bureaucracy".
Another Doomed Reform?
In fact, all the three of the aforementioned upcoming "reforms" appear to be a response to the their predecessors' failures.
In 1994 Lukashenka came to power by exploiting an image of himself as being a relentless fighter against corruption. As an MP he headed the anti-corruption commission in parliament and he became extremely popular by exposing bribery in the Belarusian government's ranks.
But Lukashenka has never generally succeeded in carrying out a real anti-corruption campaign. In 2013 Transparency International ranked Belarus 123rd in its annual Corruption Perception Index alongside the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Togo. This latest series of high-profile corruption scandals only further supports their findings. Corruption remains a serious issue in Belarus.
As for the sheer number of civil servants employed by the state, the Minsk-based think-tank "Liberal club", in a review of the outcomes of the previous culling of the bureaucracy in 2013, concluded that the reforms also failed to bring about any real change.
Authorities often simply just voided new vacancies instead of firing members of their staff. This phenomenon has led to many local administrations not having the requisite specialists in many areas and an overall decline in the quality of governmental agencies' work.
With regards to the potential ban on hiring delinquent state managers to public or private managerial posts, this seems to be a response to the government's failed attempt at modernising Belarusian industry, a fact that became all too apparent in 2013.
In fact Lukashenka's strategy of clamping down on officials by itself cannot resolve any of these problems.
Having too many civil servants, who appear to fail to comply with official governmental plans, owes much to the absence of an established market economy in Belarus. Overregulation by scores of poorly qualified bureaucrats cannot even theoretically be more effective than private management.
To combat corruption, the government has also to lessen its role in the economy. Currently state-owned enterprises produce about 70% of Belarus' GDP (according to IMF reports) and the regulatory bodies control the rest of privately owned business.
This naturally creates numerous incentives for officials to use their vast powers improperly. A thorough anti-corruption policy should include strengthening democratic institutions and public oversight over the government. Such a policy would include bolstering several important pillars of a democratic society: a free media, independent courts, influential political opposition.
None of the above, however, are acceptable components of society to the Belarusian authoritarian regime because its political future depends on maintaining complete control over the nation's politics and economy.
Pre-Election Image Making
Many Belarusian analysts tend to explain Lukashenka's efforts to shake up his state apparatus not only by its failures, but also in terms of the upcoming presidential elections in 2015.
In previous election years (2001, 2006 and 2010) the Belarusian head of state has managed to guarantee the majority with an appreciable, stable growth in their personal incomes in the months leading up to the elections.
These days, however, the situation has changed. The GDP grew less than 1% in 2013, the same is being forecasted for 2014 by the IMF and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Contrary to Lukashenka's promises (dating back to 2010) to raise the nation's average salary to $1,000 by 2015, it has just reached $600 as of August 2014. The National Bank predicts Inflation remains in the double-digit and will be about 16-17% by the end of the year.
In the absence of economic resources to fuel public support Aliaksandr Lukashenka has deferred to other available ideological levers of gaining the public's backing.
For one, he has focused on the peace and stability existing today in Belarus, as compared to the post-revolution chaos and war seen in Ukraine. Independent polls showed it has worked: Lukashenka's level of support has grown throughout the Ukrainian conflict. But the instability in Ukraine will someday subside and, at the same time, Belarusians are slowly becoming accustomed to the conflict south of their borders.
Now, then, is the time for a whole new energising campaign. A serious fight against corruption and the bureaucracy in general has always been, and will always be, popular among voters. Thus, a ruler can redirect people's dissatisfaction with the nation's economic failures that have been aimed at him personally to his subordinates and regain public support through this misdirection.
However, Lukashenka depends on a loyal bureaucracy to retain his position. It is ironic, but the very event that caused this latest anti-bureaucracy push – the 2015 presidential elections – is the best guarantee that any reform in this direction will be neither intense nor radical.
Lukashenka’s Climbing Ratings, Coding Wunderkind, and Blue Potatoes – Western Press Digest
Lukashenka's popularity rises as the conflict in east Ukraine shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Belarus may stand to benefit from Russia's sanctions against EU agricultural goods, though the Belarusian government has agreed not to re-sell sanctioned EU goods to Russia.
Belarusian scientists have bred a blue potato, with plans for pink and purple potatoes to follow in the near future. An 18 year old Belarusian took first place at an annual coding competition at Google, defeating an international group of competitors.
Activists are gaining notoriety for a new petition aimed at stopping the opening of a new Russian-funded nuclear power plant in Belarus which they say could be the next Chernobyl. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Politics and Economics
Lukashenka’s Ratings Climb as Crisis Continues in Ukraine – The Guardian reports that the Belarusian head of state, who has ruled the former soviet republic for 20 years now, has seen his approval rating climb as weary Belarusians watch the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
The role of Russian media, a mainstay in most Belarusian households, has had a great deal of influence on the Belarusian public’s opinion about the EuroMaidan protests. According to a survey done by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, 63.2% of Belarusians do not support the movement and over half believe that the new government in Kyiv is a fascist regime.
The absence of any independent media in Belarus limits Belarusians’ access to critical sources. Many Belarusians believe that Russian programming is superior to local Belarusian programming. As a result, public opinion, more oft than not, comes out in favour of the official Kremlin line.
Lukashenka’s role as a stabilising force in Belarus lifted his personal approval rating up to 39.9%. At the same time, more and more Belarusians (54%) oppose forming a union with Russia, whereas a decade prior, a majority had favoured a union.
Russia’s Ban on EU Goods and Belarus’ Role – Belarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to Russia’s demands that neither country will purchase and re-sell banned EU goods to Russia while the sanctions are in place. Belarus sees a silver lining in the newly applied sanctions and believes it stands to significantly increase its exports to Russia for a host of goods that will be subject to the sanctions.
One Belarusian entrepreneur went on record saying that while a formal agreement was signed off on between the three governments, local traders will have little trouble getting goods of EU origin into Russia. One of the easiest ways to fool customs officials is to just change the goods’ paperwork so that it appears that Belarus is its country of origin. The success of these and other schemes will depend on, according to the entrepreneur, how interested Russia really is in keeping the goods from coming in.
Pollute in Belarus, Lose Your Car and Other Oddities Under Lukashenka – Arbitrary rulings and laws are by no means a new development in Belarus, but a recent proclamation by the nation’s head of state has the West looking more than a little puzzled.
In a recent blog on the Washington Post web site, Rick Noack takes a look at a few of the stranger ideas to be put forth by the Belarusian leader. Individuals who are found guilty of polluting the environment, according to the blog and the state-run BelTA news agency, may see punishments as harsh as having their personal vehicles confiscated for dumping trash in undesignated places.
The author of the blog also references the infamous Swedish activist-fronted teddy bear drop and the oft-cited ban on clapping as evidence of the nature of the regime. While the teddy bear drop did humiliate Belarus’ air defence forces, the author implies that Lukashenka had a ban placed on teddy bears in the country as a result of the incident (editorial note: no such ban was ever put in place).
Activists Fighting the Opening of the “Next Chernobyl” – Belarusian activists have gained the world’s attention recently with their petition against the opening of a nuclear power plant in Belarus. Activists have several grievances about the opening of the new power plant, stating that it has not received proper inspection and that the official assessments of the plant fall far short of international standards.
Activist Tatyana Novikova not only opposed the opening of the plant, but to the use of nuclear energy in general, especially in Belarus, who suffered the most from the Chernobyl catastrophe. As a result of her outspoken views against the plant’s construction, her and her family has been subject to harassment. The plant, officially funded by Russia, would be a major source of energy for Belarus.
The Belarus Free Theatre Still Making Waves in America – The activist theatre troupe, banned from performing in Belarus, has continued to gather the attention of critics and activists alike in the United States.
Following a recent viewing of the documentary film Dangerous Acts, artist and author Marcia G. Yerman discusses the hardships the troupe has faced since the 2010 December election crackdowns. In her article, the author focuses on opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov and how his travails are symbolic for the larger repressive trends that have become commonplace against opposition figures and groups in Lukashenka’s Belarus.
Odds and Ends
18-year old Belarusian Wins Google Coding Contest – 26 competitors from all over the world came to Google’s LAX office to compete in the annual challenge, but a young Belarusian, Gennady Korotkevich, dashed the other programmers dreams of winning the competition. This was not the wunderkind’s first run in the competition which has approximately 20,000 programmers vying for the $15,000 prize. As a 17-year old, Korotkevich made it to the finals, but was not eligible to compete because he was under age.
Belarusian Scientists Create Blue, Pink, and Purple Potatoes – A nine-year long potato cultivation project has finally come to an end in Belarus, and the results have been eye-opening. As one of the staples of Belarusian traditional cuisine, the new coloured potatoes are looking to boost potato consumption and be used in traditional potato dishes and snack foods.