Throughout 2015, the Presidential Administration successfully blocked all attempts to carry out market or even pseudo-market reforms of the wrecked ‘unique’ Belarusian development model. The Administration sees the strengthening of control over the redistribution of diminishing resources and revision of the social contract as the only worthy strategy in the current situation. For the population, the social contract is narrowing to a minimum only sufficient to ensure the population’s survival and the absence of war. For the ruling class, this means curbing appetites of most groups inside the political establishment, the increased use of punitive measures to guarantee loyalty, and the overall tightening of control.
- Skilful balancing between interests of various groups of officials in conditions of increasing scarcity of resources;
- Rejection of real reforming of the Belarusian model, reduction in social commitments of the state, and tightening of control;
- De-professionalization of the state machinery by limiting the inflow of new, progressive minds, closer supervision and fewer perks for public offices.
Election-2015: Full marks in the examination
In 2015, the Administration basically focused on the preparation and holding of the presidential election. It was not a problem to secure the desired outcome. Those in charge have sharpened their skills to perfection. Minor considerations were only given to the question whether to showcase the record-breaking number of votes cast for the incumbent (83.49%), the highest in the history of sovereign Belarus, amid the mounting social and economic crisis, or keep it all down. The achievement of the world’s recognition of the election was the problem.
Relations with the West had improved to a certain extent, in many respects thanks to the efforts to mitigate the crisis in Ukraine, the release of political prisoners and the absence of a large-scale crackdown on the opposition as it was in 2010. Positive steps resulted in the lifting of sanctions. Although the Foreign Ministry is formally in charge of the negotiations on Ukraine and contacts with the West, the Administration and President Alexander Lukashenko personally directly supervised the process. As usual, all the credit for giving Minsk the status of a negotiation platform on Ukraine is given to the president.
The purge of the political field successfully carried out since late 2010 created most favorable conditions for the Administration during the 2014 election campaign, despite the difficult socio-economic situation. The relatively mild attitude of the authorities to the contenders for the presidency, their sanctioned media presence and the absence of mass protests helped to create the required background for the domestic legitimation of the election. On the other hand, the recognition of the predictable results by the presidential candidates (except Tatiana Karatkevich) was the minimum that allowed the EU to lift the sanctions imposed on the president and his entourage.
It should be emphasized that the domestic legitimation was primarily intended for outside observers. Since the 2011 crisis, when a sharp deterioration in the socio-economic situation in the country did not entail dangerous public unrest, the Administration has been less inclined to see efforts aimed at ensuring the population’s well-being as an essential prerequisite for stability of the political regime. The conflict in Ukraine strengthened the Belarusian government’s belief that the main threat can only come from external actors, while the domestic social contract may well be limited to “anything but war.”
A new social contract
To one extent or another, Alexander Lukashenko dedicated almost all his public speeches to the topic of the absence of war that became one of the key components of the state propaganda. The problem for the Belarusians is that it is not just about the pre-election rhetoric against the background of a dramatic drop in the living standards, but also about the content of that new social contract, which will determine the socio-economic development for at least Lukashenko’s next term in office.
The Administration is concerned about the deterioration of the socio-economic situation not only because of the possibility of a public outcry, but also the growing discontent within the political establishment due to shrinking opportunities to capture available resources. In these circumstances, the search for new resources and redistribution options in order to secure the unshakable loyalty of subordinates is one of the key tasks of the Administration. For instance, it directly lobbies and controls import restrictions in favor of major trade networks. The monitoring and reporting is entrusted to presidential chief of staff Alexander Kosinets.
The years-long debates about possible reforms should be specifically viewed in the context of the search for new schemes of distribution of diminishing resources. It is noteworthy that the debaters do not publicly determine the format of reforms. Moreover, the population learns about reforms mainly from the president, who only speaks about increasing the costs the population will have to incur. The president thus demonstrates diehard conservatism when it comes to other potential reform areas.
Lukashenko has said many times that there is no need to change the growth direction, and that the chosen model is right. He spoke about that when introducing new Premier Andrei Kobyakov to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly on January 15, 2015, in an interview to the domestic and foreign media on January 29, at a meeting with the leadership of law-enforcement agencies on March 5, in his address to the nation and the parliament on April 29, when visiting the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant on August 14, and during his inauguration on November 6, etc.
De-professionalization of management
As one would expect, in full accordance with the Belarusian political tradition, the Administration divests the president and itself of responsibility for the stagnating economic development, shifting the blame onto the government. This was formulated during the introduction of Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov to the House of Representatives on January 15. However, this stunt cannot be easily pulled off to the full extent, among other things because the presidential talent pool is almost exhausted.
Making his annual address on April 29, President Lukashenko put forth an idea to appoint executives at fault to managerial posts at troubled companies. A number of personnel appointments of 2016 showed that the Administration failed to work out a sane HR policy or enlist relevant expertise. Yet another attempt to give way to young specialists and local initiatives was predictably reduced to mere slogans. It is to be recalled that the staffing support for the head of state is among the primary objectives of the Administration.
The shortage of qualified personnel is becoming a very serious problem for the Belarusian public administration system. This is due to several factors, such as the increasing control over executives (in addition to decree No. 5 of December 15, 2014, the control over the bureaucracy was tightened in 2015 under the pretext of a corruption sweep), shrinking resource base (including the outright refusal to increase civil servants’ salaries), and increasing distrust in the available and, even more so, potential staff members on the part of the head of state.
Throughout the year, Lukashenko repeatedly spoke about the need to optimize (i.e. reduce) the state machinery by another 10% and give more powers to officials. However, the state machinery in Belarus has been ‘optimized’ so much that it can hardly be reduced again. Most likely, the financing of the lower and middle echelons will be cut, including that through minimizing the already few benefits.
Despite the increasing legislative pressure and continuous tightening of control within the vertical of the executive power, the president constantly accuses officials of failing to carry out many of his directives. This not always pursues propaganda purposes. Quite often, this reflects real problems of the underdeveloped institutional management, which is substituted by manual control, or concerns the intermediary role of the president and his Administration in the complex clan system of state administration in Belarus. Following Kosinets’ visit to China on April 8–11, Lukashenko emphasized the necessity to enhance monitoring of the implementation of previous decisions made within the scope of Belarusian-Chinese cooperation. The head of state had to admit that many of those decisions were either put on ice or implemented in an unusual way.
Directive No. 5 ‘On the development of bilateral relations between the Republic of Belarus and the People’s Republic of China’ issued August 31, 2015 can be regarded as a peak of the most detailed regulation of all domains by the Administration. Despite the fact that the directive was issued shortly before Lukashenko’s visit to China, and that Belarusian-Chinese relations entered a challenging period, its narrowness and the circumstances of its issue, it stands in stark contrast to the previous four directives. In essence, it is about a significant devaluation of the institution of presidential directives and the need for more and more careful and detailed monitoring and intervention on the part of the Administration. Inevitably, the directive was not implemented, among other things regarding a number of formal matters.
... and boundless control
At a meeting on the fulfillment of assignments on the development of Minsk held April 28, Alexander Lukashenko spoke about the poor discipline in the executive branch and strongly criticized (not for the first time) Minsk Mayor Andrei Shorets’ performance. Many in the Belarusian establishment firmly believed that Shorets would be removed from office shortly after the presidential election. However, supported by House Speaker Vladimir Andreichenko, who lobbied Shorets’ assignment to the Mayor’s Office, the latter was granted some sort of indulgence. This also demonstrated what complicated maneuvering the Administration has to do to prevent a clash of interests of different clans in the state machinery.
In 2015, the Administration was highly active tightening control over officials and the country in general. Alongside a series of measures aimed at strengthening security services, presidential decree No. 3 ‘On the prevention of social parasitism’ better known as the “decree on spongers” dated April 2. The decree was so unreasonable from a socio-economic viewpoint that even the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection resisted its development for a while, cautiously calling its feasibility into question.1
However, the main purpose of the decree was not to recharge the budget by levying the tax, but to tighten control over the population in view of the looming massive decline in living standards. The document is meant to prevent an outflow of manpower when wages are dropping, because in addition to the payment of the tax, the ‘parasites’ will obviously have to explain the origin of funds for its payment. The decree can be considered as yet another confirmation of the Administration’s policy towards the actual termination of the social contract and minimum obligations of the state. A manual adjustment of the decree, if necessary, is assigned to the Administration.
In the crisis situation, the Administration chose the policy of tightening the screws typical of authoritarian regimes, thus making no steps to address the fundamental causes of the crisis. Obviously, the Administration will keep moving down this road.
After over a three-month break in April, the vacancy of first deputy presidential chief of staff was finally filled by Constantine Martynetsky, former Council of Ministers chief of staff (from 2007 to December 2014). This appointment was quite a surprise for the Belarusian establishment, because first deputy presidential chief of staff is one of the few political posts (of course, as far as one can speak about political positions in the Belarusian political system).
Traditionally, the first deputy serves as a kind of counterbalance to the Administration, and supervises the ideology sector. Martynetsky is obviously unable to perform either of these functions, so he mainly focuses on organizational and economic matters in the Administration. His appointment confirms the course for greater control, tightening of the screws and absolutization of manual control methods shaped as far back as December 2014 when Alexander Kosinets took the office of presidential chief of staff.
Kosinets actively interferes in the work of the ideological vertical, thus curbing the growing power of ideology chief, presidential aide Vsevolod Yanchevsky. In December 2014, the latter pushed two close associates of his – Igor Buzovsky and Nikolai Snopkov – to the positions of deputy chiefs of staff. Kosinets’ authoritarian management style even forced Alexander Lukashenko to act defensive when explaining the choice of this candidate in an interview to the Belarusian and foreign media on January 29.
The large-scale replacement of regional leadership started in 2013 continued last year. Reshuffles took place in the Minsk and Grodno regions in 2013 and in the Mogilev, Brest and Vitebsk regions and Minsk city in 2014.2 Along with the replacement of the governors, there was a rotation of presidential aides, chief regional inspectors. In June 2015, the Gomel and Grodno regions received new curators from the Administration: Alexander Turchin (previously deputy chairman of the Minsk regional executive committee) and Sergei Rovneyko (previously ranking officer at the State Control Committee), respectively. Frequent rotations in district executive committees have long been a routine in Belarus. So, over two and a half years, the Administration significantly limited the opportunities for strengthening the regional elites.
The current major economic and social crisis in Belarus is a consequence of the collapse of the chosen model of development. Nevertheless, the Administration remains the most consistent opponent of any reform and only sees a way out in an adjustment of the social contract for both the population and the bureaucracy. The growing discontent is being suppressed through control and repressive measures. Apparently, in 2015, the Administration did not exhaust the available tools to toughen these measures and control over the situation in the country.