Presidential Administration: Always prepared for elections and crises!

Nikolai Burov

Summary

The Presidential Administration kept tightening the screws on the public administration system throughout the year 2014. The control over local governments became much tighter mainly through continuous rotation in regional offices and the use of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign for this purpose. The Administration has conditioned the environment to hold a seamless presidential election in 2015 thus driving nails in the coffin of the ‘Belarusian Model’ of development amid the economic recession.

Trends
Modernization...

In 2014, the Presidential Administration was still working on a new development policy needed primarily due to resource shortages and a crisis of the so-called “Belarusian Model.” Modernization, mobilization and optimization are outlined as the priorities.

Speaking about modernization, the Belarusian authorities first of all mean the procurement of new equipment for manufacturers. Despite an intense official discourse on modernization, its actual failure is obvious even to the country’s leadership. Alexander Lukashenko told Belarusian reporters on January 21, 2014 that the economy was sliding down, but said nothing about the failure of modernization. 1 Shortly after, at a meeting on the woodworking industry on January 31, he acknowledged the failure of its upgrade. On November 14, during a working trip to the Grodno region, the president openly called the outcome of modernization (the inability to sell the products) a crime.

...mobilization...

The failure of modernization is supposed to be compensated by active mobilization, which is interpreted as tighter control and heavier responsibility in all areas of social life in conditions of increasing scarcity of available resources. The government defined the key elements of mobilization pronounced in two decrees issued in 2014: the decree on prevention of social parasitism (the so-called “decree on parasites”) and decree No.5 “on strengthening the requirements for managers and employees of organizations” 2 (the working title was more revolutionary: “On strengthening of the struggle against mismanagement and increasing requirements to managerial personnel on all levels”).

The Administration attaches paramount importance to the decree on staffing. The head of state was announcing it regularly throughout 2014: on March 17, when considering personnel matters; on April 22, during the annual address to the National Assembly and the nation; on April 25, during a visit to the Klimovichi district; on May 27, during a working trip to the Minsk region; on July 31 at a meeting on improving the legislation to combat corruption; on August 11, during personnel appointments; on August 12, at a meeting on the said decree; on October 14, during personnel appointments; on November 5, during a working trip to the Mogilev region; on November 11, when hearing a government and National Bank’s report on the state of the economy in 2014 and forecasts for the next year; on December 2, during a meeting with Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus Mikhail Orda; on December 2, at the second meeting dedicated to the future decree. As a kind of culmination, the decree was finally signed on December 15.

It stirred up heated debates in the expert community. The decree enlarged powers of the presidential vertical, including those related to the private sector. Local authorities had never complained about their too loosened grip before the decree came into force, so, many provisions of the decree simply legalized the long-standing practice.

The decree does not seem to be able to solve the problem of the brain drain, low professionalism and its continuous decline, nepotism, departmentalism, poor management, the prevalence of political motivation over economic aspirations and other negative phenomena typical of the Belarusian state administration system. The decree should rather be seen in the context of simplification and simultaneous toughening of the state control methods, which indirectly indicates imbalances and problems in the administrative system.

The rumors and speculations about the “decree on social parasites” point at serious social and economic problems and deficient competence of the Administration. All agree that there is a problem of non-involvement of a large segment of the economically active population (the extensive shadow sector in the economy), yet most experts say that the decree on parasites is the least adequate solution. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection was tasked to work out an applicable legislative instrument in 2013. It would be an understatement to say that the ministry was reluctant to prepare a draft. It tried every possible way to soft pedal the assignment, but had to get to work under the persistent pressure from the Administration.

...and optimization

Imbalances in the Belarusian public administration system will apparently grow in conditions of the further optimization (i.e. a reduction) of the state machinery planned by the Administration and announced by the president. Analysts said in 2013 that the so-called “public administration reform” not only fell short of its aim, but even aggravated the existing problems. 3 Contrary to the popular belief, civilians in government offices are few, and the further downsizing will only complicate the functioning of the state machinery and make the national administration patterns even more primitive.

The very goal of this ‘optimization’ is hard to understand. Lukashenko only explained that it will increase incomes of officials through distribution of saved funds. He however repeatedly contradicted himself saying that officials’ salaries are adequate. Almost the same explanation (an increase in officials’ salaries through staff cuts) was given in 2013, but the reform was not carried out in full at that time either.

Many experts point out that the state machinery performs excessive functions, which is the main problem of the Belarusian government system. Lukashenko spoke about this during the annual address to the parliament and the nation. 4 However, speaking about de-bureaucratization, the president actually narrowed it down to a staff reduction. This is quite disturbing because the Administration staff should be reduced as well. In 2013, few believed that it would concern this quite small institution. Its further downsizing can lead to a serious deterioration in the quality of its work, given that the attached functions are not getting fewer (they even tend to expand lately).

Never ending struggle against corruption

While increasing powers of the presidential vertical, the Administration seeks to prevent excessive strengthening of local elites. The year 2013 saw many examples when Lukashenko’s personnel decisions were ignored in the regions. There was at least one such case in 2014: after Lukashenko’s working trip to Slutsk, Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Food Supplies of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee Vitaly Grishanov was appointed director of JSC Slutsk Flax-Processing Plant on April 11. He then transferred back to the Minsk City Executive Committee as soon as February 13, 2015. 5

Alongside traditional rotations, the Administration has been using anti-corruption rhetoric more often to closer monitor local activities in addition to regular intimidation of local elites. Anti-corruption efforts will apparently become a key element of Lukashenko’s election program, since he cannot offer the voters the living standards secured not long ago.

In conditions of a severe economic recession, the struggle against corruption is presented as a cure for all diseases of Belarusian society. A new anti-corruption campaign was launched on March 11, 2014 at a meeting on improvement of the procedure of admission to higher education institutions. The president dedicated a separate section of his annual address to anti-corruption efforts. After providing numerous examples of corruption crimes, Lukashenko emphasized his role in coping with the problem and referred to draft decree No.5 as a major tool to combat corrupt practices.

However, the new campaign has not brought anything new. As usual, criminal charges are only pressed against individual bribe takers. In the undisputed Corruption Perception Index, as of year-end, Belarus was rated 119th only having moved up four positions against 2013. 6

Rotation in the regions

As part of the declared mobilization, the Administration makes hard efforts to tighten control over the regions. Presidential aides, who serve as chief inspectors of the regions and Minsk city, were still gaining political weight in 2014, and the rotation of governors went on.

In May 2014, Chairman of the Gomel Regional Executive Committee (Governor) Vladimir Dvornik was officially warned for a failure to meet performance standards. He was accused of connivance, shortcomings, personnel misjudgment, and a failure to take appropriate measures to comply with the law on public service and the struggle against corruption. In August, former Chairman of the State Control Committee Alexander Yakobson was appointed presidential aide, chief inspector of Minsk. He replaced Fyodor Domotenko, who took the office of director general of the Minsk Tractor Plant.

The very fact of this reshuffle means that Lukashenko is deeply dissatisfied with the Minsk Mayor’s Office. The president had publicly criticized Minsk Mayor Nikolai Ladutko more than once actually accusing him of corruption. In September, Lukashenko finally dismissed Ladutko and replaced him with Minister of Municipal Housing Economy Andrei Shorets.

Alongside the anti-corruption component, Ladutko’s dismissal was related to the rotation of governors regularly practiced by the president and the Administration since 2013. In November 2013, the president dismissed Minsk Region Governor Boris Batura and replaced him with Grodno Governor Semyon Shapiro. The Grodno governor office was taken by little-known Vladimir Kravtsov.

Mogilev and Brest Governors Pyotr Rudnik and Konstantin Sumar got demoted in December 2014. The Vitebsk Region was given a new head as well, but, unlike Batura, Rudnik, Ladutko and Sumar, former Vitebsk Governor Alexander Kosinets was appointed to a high office of first deputy presidential chief of staff. Former presidential aide, chief inspector of the Gomel region and then deputy presidential chief of staff Anatoly Lis was assigned to manage the Brest Region. Presidential aide, Chief Inspector of the Grodno Region Bladimir Domanevsky was sent to the Mogilev Region, and presidential aide, Chief Inspector of the Vitebsk Region Nikolai Sherstnyov went to the Vitebsk region.

Alexander Lukashenko’s “December knot”

The large-scale reshuffle of December 27 was undoubtedly a peak of staff changes in 2014. The Administration and the government were expected to be replaced in June 2014, then in August, and then it finally happened at the end of the year. Given the circumstances of the preceding large-scale personnel changes made after the 2010 presidential election, the very decision was quite unusual and suggested that the atmosphere in the Administration was tense before the election year. The aggravating economic crisis complicated the situation even more.

Generally speaking, most personnel decisions, including the appointment of Andrei Kobyakov as prime minister, were easily predictable. For instance, the appointment of two deputy presidential chiefs of staff–first secretary of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union Central Committee Igor Buzovsky and Economy Minister Nikolai Snopkov actively lobbied by presidential aide Vsevolod Yanchevsky–came as no surprise. Alexander Radkov was relieved from his office of first deputy presidential chief of staff and appointed presidential aide, which was quite indicative (as a result, the position of first deputy chief of staff remained vacant in early 2015). This suggests that the Administration started focusing on the upcoming presidential election, which most likely will go by the standard scenario.

The 2014 local elections were a kind of a final rehearsal. Everything went as the Administration planned. In a number of organizations the early voting turnout was almost 99%, and the total turnout almost reached 100%.

The filling of the position of chief of staff was probably the only matter, which could bring an air of the unexpected. Natalia Petkevich was considered as the most likely candidate in early summer 2014. However, she was dismissed from the office of presidential aide on October 1 “upon mutual agreement of the parties”, which is an uncommon wording when it comes to officials of such high level. No one knows for sure why Petkevich chose to resign, but she was definitely not kicked out in disgrace, so her comeback to a senior position in the near future is a serious possibility, especially before the presidential election. The appointment of Alexander Kosinets, who is known for his authoritarian style of management, and the fact that there is no counterweight to him represented by a first deputy clearly demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to the policy of total control and tightened screws.

Conclusion

The year 2014 was a year of preparation for the 2015 election campaign and a year of a serious economic crisis in conditions of scarce resources. The Presidential Administration pursues a strategy of full control over all spheres of social life, accelerated rotation of officials, and a revision of the balance of power between the Administration and the presidential vertical.

The measures taken appear to be effective in terms of the retention of power by the incumbent president and related elites.