Local Authorities: The year of vertical unity

Dmitry Kukhlei


The year 2021 was marked by massive purges and ideological events aimed at consolidating local authorities around Alexander Lukashenko. The top leadership was strengthening control over the regional administrations, placing high-ranking law enforcement officers in senior positions in the regional executive committees as some sort of supervisors. Local authorities are forced to terminate mutually beneficial relationships with civil society organizations and lose foreign funding under the pressure from the central government. The political schedule has changed since the local and parliament elections. The local elections campaign initially scheduled for 2021 was postponed. The government decided not to take a risk by combining the local elections and the referendum on amendments to the Constitution, considering, among other things, that the approval rating of the local administrations remained low, although it went up a bit over the year, most likely thanks to the outreach measures aimed at building direct communication and receiving a feedback from the population.


Local councils: two more years of peace before the elections

The local elections were supposed to be held in late 2021 or early 2022, but were postponed. The parliament expanded powers of local councils of the 28th convocation in May, and, in October, amended the Constitution and set the single voting day.1

The local vertical gets some extra time for ideological filtering and selection of candidates for the councils. This is especially important in a situation of the crisis of loyalty to the Lukashenko Administration, even among officials and employees of public sector and state-owned companies, who constitute a significant part of the parliament.

The ratings of the local authorities fluctuated insignificantly during the year and remained low. According to a Chatham House poll, they were trusted by 17 to 22% of respondents.2 However, the measures taken by local officials and council members to interact with the population yielded fruit, as the percentage of distrust decreased from 62% in January to 50% in November. The shrinking of Lukashenko’s electoral base is a long-term phenomenon and, consequently, it causes staffing problems in the regions, including with the selection of loyal candidates for local councils, given that some council members condemned the brutal crackdown on the 2020 protests and even sided with the protesters.

The top leadership was worried about a possible new outbreak of protests, which was the main reason for the postponement of the local elections. By postponing the local elections and combining them with the parliamentary elections, the Belarusian leadership sought to extend the electoral cycle and reduce the periods of politicization of society in the context of low ratings of trust in state institutions, including local administrations.

Political housecleaning and manual control of local administrations

During the 2020 protests, the head of state justly complained of shaky local governance, saying that there were many of those hungry for change among local officials.

An opposite trend was observed in 2021, which the Belarusian leadership declared the Year of National Unity. A targeted ideological campaign was initiated to restore the partially collapsed vertical. In response to the growing number of advocates of change in the state apparatus, the central authorities reduced even the minimal independence and autonomy of local administrations in decision-making and interaction with independent civil society institutions and foreign foundations.

Alexander Lukashenko held meetings with local officials in an attempt to strengthen vertical ties and regain trust, personally conveying the main theses and positions on the current agenda. Such large-scale meetings with local executives are planned to be held on a regular basis. The local authorities comb out those suspected of being reluctant in supporting government policies. The regional administrations are expected to be totally submissive and obedient. They mobilize public sector employees in support of the state ideology, which should testify to the unity of the people and the authorities. State-controlled trade unions protested against Western sanctions, which was also part of the public sector consolidation efforts.

As a result of ideological initiatives and pressure from the central government, the local administrations that show any signs of independence are swept away. A number of local officials were even fired for refusing to sign a trade unions’ letter of protest against the sanctions.3

Personnel policy: reinforcement with security officials and homefront buildup

‘Patriotism,’ i. e. total loyalty to Lukashenko, is the main criterion for selecting members of the local executive branch. In turn, the distrust of the top leadership towards local elites is manifested in strengthened control over them. Law enforcement officers are being appointed to the regional administrations across the country. At the same time, officials from the agrarian sector make up a significant proportion of the regional and district leadership.

In 2021, Lukashenko replaced four out of seven governors in the eastern and southern regions: Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Gomel. In the last three regions, the leadership was replaced in December 2021, i. e. before the Belarusian-Russian military exercise of February 2022.

The regional leadership was further reinforced in December by officers from the security bloc. KGB General Alexander Terekhov was appointed to the Minsk Regional and Minsk City Executive Committee. Police Colonel Alexander Shastailo entered the Gomel Regional Executive Committee. A week prior to that, head of the Brest Regional Office of the KGB Maxim Radkov took a seat in the local executive committee, and head of the Mogilev Regional Office of the KGB Igor Pavlushchenko was appointed to the Mogilev Regional Executive Committee.

The intensity of personnel rotation at the local level remained virtually the same as in the election year 2020. In 2021, Lukashenko replaced 23 heads of district and city executive committees (18%), appointed 17 new high-ranking officials to the regional executive committees, and six to the administrations of the capital and other major cities. Officials continue to be moved to equivalent positions between districts, or promoted within the same region. The government is also tasked to renew and rejuvenate local staffs.

Local administrations and civil society: cooperation in the opposite direction

Activities of the local administrations become less transparent and more closed to feedback from civil society. The space for cooperation between state bodies and society is narrowing mainly due to the increased pressure from the top leadership. Nevertheless, cooperation and trust between the administrations and the public sector gradually expanded in the regions, among other things, thanks to financial assistance coming from foreign partners. At the same time, the local authorities perceive civil society organizations as sources of additional grants for social projects.

The country’s leadership thus sees a threat in the horizontal ties and social contacts between the local authorities and civil society organizations. During one of his meetings with local activists, Lukashenko spoke about the curtailment of cooperation between the local authorities and the third sector and liquidation of non-profit organizations formed by uncontrolled activists.

Local self-government bodies are forced to terminate relations with public associations, with which they had been cooperating for years, and established trust-based relationships. Officials have to liquidate local NGOs that used to help them perform their social functions.

The official registration of the Lev Sapega Foundation, one of the oldest NGOs that promoted local self-governance, was revoked. The Foundation had enjoyed public trust for decades, having established fruitful cooperation with the regional authorities, implemented dozens of projects with them, and supported local initiatives.

As a result, many projects with independent NGOs, which had been backstopped by the European Union, were suspended, and this must annoy the local government stakeholders. However, no public statements were made to oppose the severance of long-established ties and interaction with civil society under the central government’s pressure.

International projects enabled the local authorities to update their approaches to regional governance in accordance with international practices. For example, the Mogilev Region adopted a concept of sustainable development for the period to 2035. It involved more than 200 experts and was supported by the UNDP. Today, the local authorities are reconsidering their policies towards choosing grassroots initiatives through international programs of cooperation between local administrations and civil society.

Officials and council members resume direct communication with the population through group meetings, telephone hotlines, community outreach measures, etc. In 2020, many local councils suspended communication with those who wanted them to state their position on the presidential election and police brutality as a matter of public trust.

The Belarusian leadership sees the representative vertical as an additional channel of communication with the population to convey official policies and mold public opinion. Alexander Lukashenko constantly emphasizes the importance of contacts between the councils and local communities aimed at building awareness of the current agenda and initiatives of the higher authorities. In a situation of budget cuts, the local administrations try to reach resourceful activists, who may help improve the quality of life and promote community commitments, considering this to be part of territorial self-governance, which, however, is basically limited to raising extra funds and attracting manpower for minor events, such as outdoor cleaning or landscaping.

There are associations of local councils in the Grodno, Mogilev, and Vitebsk Regions, and one is underway in the Gomel Region. In recent years, they have held contests to stimulate public activity and interaction between grass-roots projects and local administrations for tackling local issues. They expand public engagement and households’ co-financing to improve the quality of life in residential areas. Territorial self-governance events aim at encouraging local communities to contribute to landscaping and public amenities.

Local self-government reform (mainly of rural and township councils) is on the agenda of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, state media, and meetings between senators, local council members and voters. Reforms at the lowest local self-government level are being addressed at MPs’ meetings with Lukashenko, who thus keeps advocating the principle of “noting old to drop, nothing new to introduce”. As a result, the discussions about reforms in the local governance system do not lead to any generally expected changes.

Local budgets: saving money, looking for additional sources

The authorities take measures to increase incomes of local budgets. Councils have been given additional powers to raise taxes and fees, and grand tax reliefs. However, over the first nine months of 2021, the share of households’ incomes in local budgets dropped to the past few years’ lowest of 74.6% (Table 1).

  2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Share of household incomes in local budgets, % 79.6 79.0 77.8 75.7 74.6

Table 1. Household incomes in the composition of local budgets, 2017–2021

Local councils raise the property tax rates to cover budget losses. In the border areas, a fee is levied from vehicles at border crossing points. The councils may thus grant reliefs on all taxes and fees, not just those paid in full to the local budgets.4

The local administrations also take measures to save funds and recharge budgets at the expense of households, as well as through the updated procedure for selling unused state property, which particularly concerns vacant houses in rural areas. Among other things, the objective is to encourage people to buy real estate in rural areas and invest in construction there.

Budget cuts force the local authorities to seek communities’ co-financing and labor inputs for development of infrastructure or raising the living standards, even if these efforts are not enshrined in the current legislation. The administrations lobby amendments to the regulations in force, for example, to update the legislation on public-private partnership.5


The regional authorities are likely to continue using their powers to raise taxes and fees in order to compensate for the decline in budget revenues. The local councils and executive committees will strengthen support for local state-run enterprises, providing benefits and, possibly, limiting competition not only with imported products, but also with goods from other regions of Belarus.

The “optimization” of the administrative-territorial division will most likely continue towards a merger of rural councils, as the rural population decreases. The number of members of local councils will also decrease, while officials will tighten ideological requirements when selecting candidates to representative bodies.

Security officials and farmers will retain or even increase their influence on local government agencies. Appointments of security officials to regional executive committees with a view to ensure ideological discipline and loyalty of the local authorities will continue.