THE FIRST BELARUSIAN CIRCLE
Presidential acolytes understand loyalty. But not much else.
Unlike in Russia, where Vladimir Putin chooses between various factions, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s highly personalized regime is the sole power center in Belarus. After winning the presidency in 1994, Lukashenka swiftly stalled privatization, preventing the emergence of alternative concentrations of economic power. A class of Belarusian oligarchs has developed under his patronage, but their wealth is dependent on access to state-owned resources. Lukashenka has also squeezed the legislature and the judiciary, establishing a sprawling “power vertical” (a term coined by the Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in 1993). He frequently reshuffles the chief organs of the state to prevent new power centers from forming.
Nominal titles count for less than ties to the man at the top. Among a handful of tested and trustful associates is his eldest son Viktar, presidential national security assistant since 2005. Viktar Lukashenka (all names in this article use Belarusian rather than Russian spelling) controls the security services, the interior troops, and the army, ensuring loyalty by shifting personnel and ordering them to investigate each other. His role in other policy-making is limited.
Another is Viktar Sheyman. A veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Sheyman has been Lukashenka’s eminence grise since they both served in the 1990 Soviet-era Supreme Soviet (elected in what, ironically, proved to be one of the most democratic elections in Belarusian history). He has been head of the presidential administration and the secretary of the security council, as well as prosecutor general and Lukashenka’s campaign manager in the 2006 election. Notable achievements include suppressing the opposition, human rights NGOs, and the independent media in 2000-2006, and the crackdowns on civil society following the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections. Sheyman is under Western sanctions for alleged involvement in the disappearance of Lukashenka’s political opponents in 1999-2000.
Lukashenka does not feel threatened by women and is therefore able to trust them. His current confidante is Natalya Kachanava. A technical engineer from the northern town of Navapolatsk, her personal loyalty was rewarded when she became a vice premier and later the head of the presidential administration. Kachanava nominally heads the upper chamber in the (equally nominal) parliament, but takes the lead in all spheres of policy-making, particularly in personnel decisions and the economy. Lukashenka also sends her to solve problems and calm down the public. Her views are old-fashioned and unsophisticated. Kachanova advised the public to “make friends” with the coronavirus and swore her loyalty to Lukashenka by pledging to remain by his side “until the end of her days.” Kachanava believes in the top-down management of the economy. Recently she proposed to “direct banks” towards becoming shareholders in the country’s notoriously inefficient state-owned enterprises.
Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the long-standing chair of the Central Election Commission, is another loyal female functionary. She was appointed by Lukashenka in 1996, after the incumbent, Viktar Hanchar (who later disappeared), refused to certify the results of the controversial referendum that significantly expanded Lukashenka’s powers.
Lukashenka’s policy has been to replace an old guard of sometimes-competent officials with connections in Russia with loyal careerists. In close consultation with Kachanava, Sheyman and Ihar Serhienka (head of the presidential administration and deputy head of KGB until last December) Lukashenka in early June appointed a new government. The top economic positions are held by siloviki (a hard-to-translate Russian word meaning literally “men of power” or, roughly, “securocrats”). The new prime minister, Raman Halouchanka, previously led the military industry and worked under Sheyman in the Security Council. Ivan Tsertsel, yet another former deputy KGB chief, was put in charge of the State Control Committee, an authority that controls much of the economic activity in the country. He swiftly instigated a large-scale fraud case against Belgazprombank and its former boss and presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka.
The role of the siloviki is to implement orders and enforce loyalty. The goal, says Lukashenka, is to preserve the status quo, “today is not the time to destroy. It is not even the time to build. Today we must rescue what has been built.” Greater effort and mobilization of existing resources should refuel the economy, an approach rooted in Soviet thinking. For Halouchanka economic growth rests on state-owned enterprises and the “industrial economy,” protected by import controls.
Expertise in economics is signally lacking. The inner circle, like the boss, is backward-looking and politically incapable of modernizing the country. Belarusians who grew up during perestroika find this irksome, so too do young people who hanker for the wider opportunities and modern lifestyle offered by Europe. Such thinking is ideologically and intellectually alien to the regime.
Katia Glod is a Former Robert Bosch Academy Fellow at Chatham House.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: "Talks with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko" by the President of Russia under CC BY 4.0.
30 June 2020