Presidential Administration: Preparing for the sixth presidential term

Nikolai Burov

Summary

In 2019, the Presidential Administration of Belarus made determined efforts to get ready for upcoming challenges, primarily to ensure Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election in a difficult socio-economic and political situation. An attempt was made to reconsider the ideological component of domestic policy, reinforce the ideological platform and provide follow-up information and analytical support for the presidential vertical. The composition of the Administration was considerably renewed.

However, the Administration’s efforts were ineffective largely due to the inertia of the vertical and the conservative position of the head of state. As a result, the most important tasks – creation of an ideological platform for the presidential campaign, personnel policy, development of a new version of the law on public service and possible amendments to the Constitution – have been performed in a highly conservative way.

Trends:
Ideological platform update

One of the paramount tasks of the Presidential Administration in 2019 was to provide ideological backup to the parliamentary and the future presidential elections. Two main propaganda emphases were chosen out of several options: first, to highlight the merits of the incumbent president in overcoming the crisis of the 1990s (Alexander Lukashenko spoke about this when visiting the Presidential Academy of Public Administration on October 18, and addressing the upper and lower chambers of the parliament on December 5), and, second, to emphasize the value of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty, which only the incumbent president can guarantee. Attempts to add other topics failed. Much hope was pinned on the possible propaganda effect of the 2nd European Games, but the public remained generally indifferent about them.

The work with petitions filed by individuals who point at local issues was used, as always, as a tool to legitimize the sitting government. Once again, the Administration was instructed to closely monitor the compliance with the requirement to quickly respond to people’s complaints. To this end, monitoring groups were appointed to look into the highlighted local communities’ problems. Administration officers meet with petitioners in the regions on a regular basis, saying that society is growing impatient seeking justice. In response, the central authorities, among other things, declare their commitment to restrain the arbitrariness of security agencies.

The Administration cannot but feel the need for some adjustment to the ideological component, or at least of an adequate interpretation of the complex processes that Belarus is facing at the current stage. However, after the appointment of Vladimir Zhevnyak as deputy presidential chief of staff for ideology in April 2018, observers unanimously described the efforts taken in the field of ideology as clueless and ineffective.1 V. Zhevnyak was replaced by Andrei Kuntsevich on August 19, 2019. He was given a “simple” task to ensure consolidation of Belarusian society.

The areas of the Administration’s ideological efforts remained separated. A. Kuntsevich oversees ideology, public associations and media, which overlaps with the functions of presidential press secretary and confidant Natalia Eismont, which competes with Kuntsevich in this matter. First Deputy Chief of Staff Maxim Ryzhenkov is in charge of ideological matters related to culture and education.

Last year, Orsha remained the area of special responsibility of the Administration and the chief of staff (in particular, the regional logistics hub of the Bremino Group LLC). Despite heavy investment and the repeated personal participation of Chief of Staff Natalia Kochanova in field sessions of the Vitebsk Regional Executive Committee in Orsha, no considerable successes in the Orsha district development project were achieved.

The personnel pool still fails to cope

The Administration’s personnel problem has become chronic, basically not just because the personnel pool is too shallow, but also because the potential candidates for senior positions are professionally unfit. Addressing the Minsk Region functionaries on December 4, President Lukashenko pointed at the large number of unfilled executive positions. Although the pool numbered 209 people in the reserve, 47 offices in the regional and district executive committee remained vacant.2

Apparently, the Administration has no idea how to overcome the personnel crisis. Formally, personnel policy does work with all regular rotations and the skill pool formation. On the other hand, attempts are made to resolve this problem, involving traditional tools, such as training at the Academy of Public Administration and changes in legislation, in particular, the law on public service.

Decree No. 343 on activities of the Presidential Academy of Public Administration of September 16 approves a new charter of the Academy, but does not make significant changes in comparison with its old versions. When visiting the Academy on October 18, Lukashenko said that the current civil service system generally met its objectives, and only needed updates, which the new version of the law on public service is meant to make.

The quality of training at the Academy of Public Administration is hard to assess from the outside, while quite enough is known about draft amendments to the law on public service. Despite the direct instructions given by the head of state, the new version of the law was not finalized in 2019. The proposed changes are mainly aimed at tightening the rules and regulations applicable to public servants, and at equaling their status with security and defense agencies’ staff.3 The fact that the new version was not provided on schedule suggests increasing personnel problems in Belarus.

The frequent reshuffles in the presidential vertical also indicate personnel policy imbalances. Nearly 40 new chairs of district and city executive committees and heads of city administrations were appointed in 2019. Alexander Turchin (previously first deputy prime minister) replaced Anatoly Isachenko as chairman of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee. Gennady Solovey took the office of the Gomel Regional Executive Committee head. Lukashenko appointed presidential assistants, chief regional inspectors: Anatoly Linevich in the Vitebsk Region, Anatoly Markevich in the Brest Region, and Vitaly Prima in Minsk city.

Big personnel changes took place in the Administration as well. Former First Deputy Chairman of the KGB Igor Sergeyenko was appointed chief of staff. He replaced Natalia Kochanova, whose deputy in charge of legislation and interaction with the National Assembly Valery Mitskevich (since 2009) was replaced by Olga Chupris. Some experts believe that Mitskevich’s replacement4 is connected with the announced significant changes in laws and, primarily, the Constitution.

Constitutional amendments

Talks about possible amendments to the Belarusian Constitution resumed in 2018. President Lukashenko emphatically rejected this idea at that time. A year later, in March 2019, he returned to this subject during the Big Talk with the President. Lukashenko stated the need to give more powers to other branches of government, saying that this must be done extremely cautiously, and that amendments would by no means be steamrolled.5

During the president’s annual address to the nation and the parliament on April 19, Lukashenko said that the work on draft amendments to the Constitution and personnel decisions would be supervised by the chief of staff.

The most serious question that arose in 2019 in connection with possible amendments to the Constitution concerned Lukashenko’s re-election for the sixth term and then the possible procedure for the transfer of power. Technically, three questions are most relevant: (1) Does Belarus need a new Constitution, or certain amendments to the Constitution in force would be enough? (2) Which election should go first in 2020, parliamentary or presidential? (3) What ideological component will be chosen for these campaigns? The Administration decided on the second and partly the third one before the autumn. The first one will be thought over later.

Possible constitutional amendments have been considered in Belarus for nearly a decade now. This matter seems to be uncomfortable to the president. Many observers believe that the replacement of Valery Mitskevich with Olga Chupris means that the creation of a mechanism for the transfer of power can move to a new level.

No efforts spared to prepare for the presidential election

From the point of view of the election campaign procedures, a conservative option was predictably chosen, which corresponds to Alexander Lukashenko’s wishes: the parliamentary elections will be held before the presidential election, which shortens the parliament’s tenure, but not the president’s. The parliamentary elections also followed a conservative scenario. The experiment with the admission of oppositionists to the lower chamber was not repeated.

This suggests that the 2020 presidential election will be held according to a similar scenario.6 However, it can be assumed that the authorities hesitated for quite a while, rightly believing that the socio-economic and foreign policy environment may be less favorable in the coming year to formalize the next presidential term of Alexander Lukashenko in comparison with 2019. Although the president seemingly does not want constitutional amendments, he increasingly needs to figure out the way to legitimize his future successor.

The whole mechanism designed for elections has been working pretty good for years and proved reliable, but the results of the 2019 parliamentary campaign were kind of disappointing. The turnout in the regions was significantly lower than expected by the Administration (although this can only be judged by indirect indicators). The rating of the sitting government was also low. Since public sentiments and the turnout during elections are the area of responsibility of the presidential vertical, there might be truth to the rumors that Natalia Kochanova had to step down as chief of staff in early December because the president was not happy about the parliamentary elections statistics.

Kochanova’s removal from office was a matter of discussion throughout the year. It is not so much about mistakes she made, as the president’s strong commitment to regular managerial personnel rotations. Such a rotation was expected after the presidential election, though. This gives reason to assume that something went wrong with the parliamentary elections.

The appointment of former KGB officer, Major General Igor Sergeyenko as chief of staff on December 5 came as a surprise to many. There is, certainly, nothing unusual in the appointment of a security officer to the Administration. Gennady Nevyglas, Viktor Sheiman and Ural Latypov can be mentioned as examples. The point is that security officials of such high rank had not headed the staff since 2008. Experts see Sergeyenko’s appointment as an indicator that the authorities plan to hold the 2020 election without a single hint at liberalization and with a guaranteed victory of the incumbent president.

The Administration understands that the information and analytical support for its activities needs to be strengthened substantially in the face of far-reaching changes. Formally, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Research is being established to this end on the basis of the Administration’s Information and Analytical Center by decree No. 49 of February 12, 2019. It is yet unclear what the fundamental difference between these two agencies will be. In general, this reorganization is more like a redistribution of the areas of responsibility without an increase in budgetary funding. In particular, the Institute for Strategic Research has already announced a significant reduction in the sociological component of its activities.

Conclusion

The year 2019 was quite stressful for the Administration. It was tasked to rejuvenate its staff and prepare for the two election campaigns, and one of these tasks – the 2019 parliamentary elections – has been coped with relatively successfully. Other tasks will be addressed later.

Judging by a number of indicators, the 2020 presidential election will follow a strong-arm scenario in conditions of domestic socio-economic problems and the tension in the relationship with Russia. Furthermore, the wriggle room is confined by the rules of the game and the very conservative position of the head of state.