The past year showed that president Lukashenko enjoyed enough confidence of security ministries and had enough tools to carry out a gradual and painful reform of law enforcement agencies. Nothing suggests that security officials will stand against the country’s top leadership considering that the president has neutralized all groups he did not control. Alexander Lukashenko, who stays the one and the only (since 2012) protector of security officials’ interests, has always had the final say in everything that is going on inside the top echelon, which is probably one of the reasons why the entire system is that shaky. All Belarusian entities face great risks due to this configuration, and the chance of presidential transition in the mid-run gets slimmer should the president lose control over the state.
- controllability of the security, defense and law enforcement system by Alexander Lukashenko who, in turn, is more and more dependent on the security elites;
- political elimination of rival clans, which reduces the probability of presidential transition in Belarus;
- growing elitism of security, defense and law enforcement officials in the government and society.
1. President Lukashenko is the only guarantor of securocrats’ interests
The reform of the law enforcement agencies started in Belarus in late 2011 is still in progress. The first stage of formation of the Investigative Committee, which was fully staffed by the end of 2012 with Valantsin Shayeu at the helm, was completed.
The second stage was entered in 2012 with reorganization of the largest force – the Ministry of the Interior – under the direction of the new minister, Ihar Shunevich. The first stage has already resulted in appreciable statistical improvements, such as fewer groundless criminal cases and higher quality of pretrial investigation, whereas the reform of the Interior Ministry is still far from being completed in many respects due to the ambitious plans toreduce the staff and restructure the police.
The crime rate was down in the republic last year. The total number of reported offences reduced considerably year on year from 132,052 to 102,127 (22.7%). The rates of most serious and serious crimes were also down from 1,846 to 1,685 (8.7%) and 9,467 to 6,815 (28%) respectively. 1 Most likely, creation of the Investigative Committee was the reason, because different departments are in charge of operative search and investigation from then onward that increased responsibility of the officers.
For instance, in the first half-year of 2012 alone, prosecution was dismissed in more than 9,000 criminal cases. The quality of preliminary investigation has reportedly improved and the lower number of cases, which the Prosecutor’s Office returned for repeated preliminary investigation, is referred to as an indicator 2. This proves that the new chiefs of the major enforcement agencies appointed by the president, specifically those heading the Prosecutor’s Office, Investigative Committee and Interior Ministry, cope with the dual task: they control the reform and fight crime, light-fingered businessmen and public officers being one of the targets.
Two landmark incidents however stand out against this rosy background. They reveal the in-system vulnerability of three other departments at once – the State Boundary Committee, Defense Ministry and State Security Committee (KGB), and the way those gaps were filled up shows that incumbent President Lukashenko stays the only guarantor of coordinated interests of the security elites.
1.1. System vulnerability in air boundary protection
A light plane piloted by two Swedes illegally entered the Belarusian airspace from the Lithuanian side on July 5, 2012, parachuted several hundred teddy bears on the cities of Ivianec and Minsk and went back to Lithuania. The stunt performed by Swedish advertising agency Studio Total assisted by the editorial staff of Charter’97 website made it into history as the “teddy bear bombing.” After a month-long investigation, Alexander Lukashenko dismissed State Boundary Committee chief Ihar Rachkouski and Air Force and Air Defense Commander Dzmitry Pakhmelkin for breach of duty.
Besides, Defense Minister Yury Zhadobin and Chief of General Staff, First Deputy Minister of Defense Pyotr Tsikanouski received a warning for “partial inadequacy for fulfilling the job.” State Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau and KGB Chairman Vadzim Zaitsau were reprimanded. The KGB opened a criminal case on “violation of the state border committed by an organized group” (section 371.3 of the Criminal Code of Belarus).
The scandalous action discovered not only gaps in borderline surveillance, but also poor coordination between Belarusian and Lithuanian guards in charge of the air traffic, specifically on the part of the Belarusian State Boundary Committee, Defense Ministry (air defense) and Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Normally, Belarusian frontier guards are to maintain visual monitoring and inform the air defense of any trespassers. According to official reports, coordination between the State Boundary Committee and Defense Ministry was the weakest link that explains why the Swedes did what they did without any interference: the officer on duty did not alert the air defense unit and the plane went there and back unnoticed. In January 2013, the senior warrant officer of Subbotnikioutpost, who was blamed for the incident, was sentenced to two years in a medium security penitentiary.
The audacious action was remarkably successful not only in terms of politics, but also considering the media impact. There was an impressive sardonic coverage in Russian and world outlets, whereas Belarusian agencies kept it low profile. As a result, the media scene was filled with narratives about the weakness of Belarus’ air defense and even conspiracy theories about an alleged corridor at the western border for half-legal cargo traffic.
Alexander Lukashenko’s harsh reaction to the incident showed that he retained enough control over State Boundary Committee and Defense Ministry to punish them hardly not fearing to undermine the government’s power. Dismissals in the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Aviation Department did not have much publicity and were never linked to the teddy bear airdrop.
1.2. KGB management crisis
Informal sources said in October that an officer of the Minsk inter-district department of the KGB Minsk City and Minsk Regional Office committed suicide. On November 9, the president relieved KGB Chairman Vadzim Zaitsau of his duties, because he could directly or indirectly interfere with the investigation. The situation was obviously extraordinary given that Zaitsau was temporarily replaced not by one of his assistants, but State Secretary Leanid Maltsau. The Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office were in charge of the investigation, after which former Investigative Committee Chairman Valery Vakulchyk took Zaitsau’s office.
Judging by what President Lukashenko was telling at that time, the suicide was a tragic reaction to some management conflict inside the KGB during which the officer was under enormous pressure. In particular, the president said that“betrayal of state interests, corruption, and torpidity must be eradicated with a firm hand. But, at the same time, we should trust people, help those in distress.” 3
There are grounds for believing that the incident was a side effect of the investigative branch reform started in 2011. KGB’s investigative scope narrowed down considerably with the rise of the Investigative Committee. The KGB tends to compensate it in other sectors, first of all by repressing illegal migration. 4 A huge part of informal dominance was however lost that must have led to certain negative impacts inside the agency.
In particular, as a result of the reform, the KGB is no longer in charge of investigating corrupt practices in business and offenses against property. Following the reform of preliminary investigation, “contraband traffic” and “illegal export or export-oriented transfers of items subject to export control” were the only economic crimes the KGB was still entitled to investigate.
The uneasy transition period and redistribution of influence (archives and informal connections) between the KGB and Investigative Committee objectively threaten the entire defense and law enforcement system and, wider, the system of state administration. Perhaps this threat urged President Lukashenko to intervene in the incident with the KGB officer’s suicide quickly and rigidly to avoid increased risks. As in the teddy bear airdrop case, this intervention of the president should be regarded as successful leaving aside the demonstrative and not fully investigated bomb blast near the KGB Office in Viciebsk on November 11.
2. Demystification of the old security elite and the birth of a new one
As concerns present influence groups, demystification of the so-called Viktor Lukashenko group seems to be the major result of the year. The personnel reshuffle conducted by Victor’s father and boss, Alexander Lukashenko, revealed that “Victor’s group” was in many respects abrainchild of the Belarusian expert community, rather than a really influential and many-tentacle clan.
In particular, the quick and headline-making dismissals of Rachkouski and Zaitsau, and Vakulchyk’s urgent transfer to the KGB show that “Victor’s group” is first of all an informal club, which can help career climbers, but has no deep roots in their agencies. This looks true considering that the new Investigative Committee Chairman Valantsin Shayeu started the structural optimization right away and closed several monitoring and analytical services in the central and regional offices formed when Vakulchyk headed the Committee. Over 70 officers had to be reassigned to other positions as a result. 5
The Investigative Committee thus became the strongest and most influential agency in Belarus first of all because it is now in charge of investigation in most corruption cases, while the Ministry of the Interior loses power turning into an ordinary law enforcement body. Reorganization of the Central Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the Interior Ministry is talked about at the presidential level. The Investigative Committee will most likely take over its functions.
Meanwhile, former workers of the Prosecutor’s Office, which supervises investigation by the law, are extending their influence in the Investigative Committee. The new chairman, Shayeu, is a Prosecutor’s Office worker in the second generation, and his assistant Shved was deputy prosecutor general till 2011.
The growing elitism of security, defense and law enforcement officials in society has become a tendency. The rules for residential lending amended by decree No.13 in January did not apply to securocrats who still have the right for soft loans at an annual rate of 5%. Then, according to law No.417-Ç endorsed on July 13 and effective since September, civil and criminal law cases against defense, security and law enforcement officers fall under the jurisdiction of inter-garrison courts of military justice.
Finally, in 2012, the Interior Ministry Academy stopped admission of applicants to the courses on judicial, procuracy and investigative activities because the Investigative Committee does not need specialists of the 1st step of higher education. In exchange, in August, the Committee established cooperation with the Presidential Academy. An interdepartmental working group was formed in February 2013 with the participation of the chiefs of the main security agencies to reform the entire system of the higher legal education.
The reform of Belarus’ elephantine security system is going on pretty well. The distribution of functions between investigative, operative search, and law enforcement agencies creates more favorable conditions for ordinary citizens seeking protection of their rights.
The rise of the elites however poses serious risks. The process is going behind closed doors just yet, and it is tightly controlled by president Lukashenko, who still stays the only coordinator when it comes to competitive interests of the securocrats, and the guarantor of mutual interests in relations between them, the political establishment and businessmen. This configuration is however unsafe because Lukashenko can lose the ability or motivation to perform the mediating functions for any reason and it will be extremely difficult for anyone to take over that poses an increasing risk to both the government and public safety.
The ongoing reform therefore increases interdependence between president Lukashenko and the rising elites that reduces the probability of presidential transition in Belarus to the minimum in the medium term.