Presidential Administration: Downshift in the new architecture of power
In 2021, the Presidential Administration (PA) was in a state of intense competition with the Security Council and its State Secretariat, Council of the Republic Speaker Natalia Kochanova and Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko. The country’s leadership is looking more and more like a military junta, whose rule and personnel purges it initiates objectively diminish the PA’s importance. Although the Presidential Administration copes with all the assigned tasks, its real status is becoming uncertain in the new system of governance enshrined in the updated Constitution.
- Further increase in the political heft of the Security Council and the entire security bloc, which acts as the president’s political headquarters, which had previously been a prerogative of the Presidential Administration;
- Increasing competition between the Security Council, Council of the Republic Speaker Natalia Kochanova and Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko;
- Uncertain place and role of the Presidential Administration in the architecture of power after the adoption of the new Constitution;
- Persistent staffing problems (a short bench of substitutes) exacerbated by purges and de-professionalization.
Factional strife: loss of influence
The year 2021 was marked by a decrease in the political and personnel policy role of the Presidential Administration compared with the State Secretariat of the Security Council, and the retained influence of Natalia Kochanova on personnel policy, which used to be one of the priority functions of the Administration.
Alexander Lukashenko’s meeting with the Administration leadership on October 1 was a key event for the latter. Lukashenko rebuked the PA for poor strategic planning and scheduling of presidential events, inadequate responsiveness to changes, incoherent personnel policy, ideological shortcomings, and reproachful groundworks for political decisions.
The meeting was in many respects aimed at summing up the first results of the PA restructuring in line with presidential decree No.147-dsp of April 16, 2021. It has become typical that the composition of the Administration was previously available in the public domain in the most general terms, while now, this information is for official use only.
One of the main innovations was the formation of the Central Department for Information Policy and Social Development headed by Tatiana Shendik, former member of the Belaya Rus (“White Russia”) NGO and former deputy director of the Belarusian State Institute for Strategic Research (2019–2021). Judging by the criticism, this institution has nothing to boast about.
In April, the Presidential Administration was tasked to comb up civil society, and so was the Ministry of Justice with a focus on political parties.1 Also, the presidential chief of staff was ordered to ‘optimize’ Belarus’ diplomatic missions abroad in cooperation with the KGB and Foreign Ministry.
The State Secretariat of the Security Council used to play an important role in personnel appointments, and its influence on the selection of candidates increased even more in 2021. Decree No.2 ‘On Protection of Sovereignty and Constitutional System’ of May 9, 2021 considerably strengthened the State Secretariat. Its role in public administration was discussed at the session of the Security Council held on May 18. Decree No.214 ‘On the Security Council of the Republic of Belarus’ of June 11, 2021 approved a new wording of the provision on the Security Council.
Among other things, the State Security Council was given the status of a state body and a number of functions previously largely performed by the Presidential Administration, in particular, forecasting, identifying, analyzing and assessing risks, challenges and threats to national security, working out response measures, assigning state agencies and officials to implement such measures, and strategizing. The main function of the Security Council is to prepare proposals to the president for making decisions on domestic and foreign policy matters aimed at safeguarding national security and national interests of Belarus. Essentially, the State Secretariat of the Security Council has become the second political headquarters alongside the Presidential Administration. Previously, the latter was almost exclusively in charge of strategic development aspects.
The government became the fourth center of power after the Presidential Administration, State Secretariat and Kochanova. In the official “State for the People” bulletin presented by the Presidential Administration, Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko was the absolute leader last year in terms of presence (eight separate columns); Economy Minister Alexander Chervyakov was second (six columns); Deputy Prime Minister Igor Petrishenko and Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin shared the third place (four columns each); Presidential Chief of Staff Igor Sergeyenko was fourth (three columns) together with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, Industry Minister Piotr Parkhomchik and some other officials.
This was done, to some extent, to withstand the impact of the sanctions, which, certainly, is a function of the government, rather than the Presidential Administration, although during the previous period of cooling in relations with the West, the PA played a greater role in this than it does today. It is characteristic that, according to aforementioned Decree No.2, the prime minister chairs the Council of Ministers, which would take over the country in the event of the assassination of the head of state, an act of terror, external aggression, or other violent acts.
Ideological contradictions and the vague future
Significant changes took place in the ideological narrative. The state ideology, which has always been quite incoherent, lacking worthwhile ideas, turned into a hair-raising mix of “enemies all around,” “stand vigilant, brothers [against traitors]” and “the Year of National Unity” annunciations combined with the declaration of September 17 the Nation’s Unity Day (predominantly in the foreign policy dimension).
To a certain extent, the emergence of these ill-compatible ideas was caused by different approaches to the resolution of the political crisis in Belarus. The Presidential Administration, on the one hand, proposed the Year of National Unity, while, on the other hand, Chief of Staff Igor Sergeyenko was directly instructed to conduct a political housecleaning in the state apparatus to get rid of “traitors”.
The Presidential Administration diligently organized the 6th All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in February 2021. Despite the fears of a possible disruption of the event, in concert with other state bodies and organizations, the PA demonstrated its capability to conduct pseudo-political campaigns. In many respects, the Assembly was the first rehearsal of a referendum on amendments to the Constitution.
The preparation of the updated Constitution and the referendum on its adoption was among the most important political events of 2021. At first, the Presidential Administration was not publicly involved in this process, although the Administration employs well-known lawyer Olga Chupris as a deputy chief of staff. Not a single representative of the Administration was on the list of the 36 members of the constitutional commission appointed on March 15.
Officially, the Administration pitched in with the preparation of the new Constitution as late as autumn, when an ad hoc group was formed to finalize the draft. The group included Chief of Staff Igor Sergeyenko and Presidential Aide Alexander Kosinets. The first meeting of the group attended by Lukashenko was held on October 21. It is worth mentioning that Natalia Kochanova was both on the constitutional commission and the ad hoc group. Since then, the group was actively working on both the draft Constitution and the constitutional referendum scheduled for February 2022.
One of the key points of constitutional reform was a redistribution of powers between the president, government, governors and, possibly, a new state body (according to the public version), so that Lukashenko retains full power, despite possibly stepping down as president (not quite public version). The first session, during which the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly was not mentioned yet, took place on March 30. After that the idea of the Assembly as a permanent government agency began to trickle down into the media landscape of Belarus.
The Assembly’s status in the future constitutional structure of the country was discussed most openly after the enlarged session of the constitutional commission on September 28. Since then, the future status of the Assembly remained rather unclear, but its future place in the new configuration of power was not publicly discussed during the rest of the year.
Although there had been much talk about a delegation of some presidential powers to other state bodies and organizations, nothing was well pronounced either in the public space or at the legislative level. Only during the “Big Talk with the President” on August 9, Lukashenko said that a part of his powers in the area of control and regulation of humanitarian activities had been delegated to the Department of Presidential Affairs and the Presidential Administration. Apparently, he meant the task given to Sergeyenko to “cleanse civil society”.
Personnel policy: personnel pool in the security bloc and new purges
Several important personnel decisions were made in 2021. Viktor Lukashenko was relieved of his position of presidential assistant for national security on March 1. This can be interpreted in two ways: as a vague beginning of the transit of power, or as an increase in the role and heft of the State Secretariat of the Security Council (which is to a greater degree in line with the trends of the second half of 2020 and 2021).
The dismissal of Viktor Sheiman on June 11 was a landmark event. The head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate, who, however, continued supervising the international projects and contacts, which are particularly important to Lukashenko personally, among other things, the nontransparent relationships with Zimbabwe and Venezuela, was replaced in July with Valery Ivanov, Chairman of the Belarusian Republican Union of Consumer Societies.
No less important was the April appointment of Information Minister Vladimir Lutsky as deputy presidential chief of staff in charge of ideology. Lutsky replaced Andrei Kuntsevich, who was demoted to first deputy minister of information. This reshuffle is symptomatic. As a deputy chief of staff, Kunzevich was expected to increase the presence of the state on the Internet and social media, promote the penetration of modern technologies in Belarus’ information policy and ideology. Apparently, in late 2020, the authorities decided that this was less promising than total censorship, declaration of media outlets extremist on a large scale, and application of more primitive propaganda methods. It is noteworthy that Kuntsevich was the only deputy chief of staff who was removed from his office after the events of 2020.
Among less significant personnel decisions were the appointment of Nikolai Rogashchuk to the vacant position of assistant to the president, chief inspector of the Gomel Region; Alexander Butarev as assistant to the president, chief inspector of the Minsk Region (replaced Igor Yevseyev), and the promotion of Alexei Guida to the Administration HR chief. Butarev was replaced by KGB Deputy Chairman Vladimir Kalach as soon as July 29.
The year 2021 was the first year of the work of presidential assistants/chief inspectors. Decree No.503 issued on December 29, 2020 significantly expanded their powers (a new wording of the regulation on presidential assistants was also prepared). In fact, the assistants/inspectors were given virtually the same powers as the governors in identifying ‘threats to national security’ and involving state agencies and organizations in the performance of the president’s assignments.
We wrote in the previous Yearbooks more than once that Lukashenko sought to increase the role of his assistants/inspectors to counterbalance the powers of the governors.2 In 2020, he introduced the positions of regional presidential envoys (as a rule given to security officials). However, in 2021, only one assistant/inspector–former Interior Minister Yuri Karayev, who was appointed to the Grodno Region–acted in a governor-like manner, which is quite problematic for the region from the political viewpoint, as Governor Vladimir Karanik lacked relevant experience.
During the period under review, state personnel policy encountered the increased chronic problem of a small personnel pool. This was, basically, a result of personnel purges and increased requirements for potential appointees in terms of ideological purity and reliability.
At the February session of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, Lukashenko made an unambiguous statement about the necessity to rely on sitting and former security officials, especially those who retired before reaching 50 years of age. He also touched upon amendments to the Law on Public Service, which had been actively worked on in 2019. Among other things, it was proposed to tighten conditions and requirements for public service even more. However, this topic did not evolve in 2021.
At the meeting with the Presidential Administration leadership in October, Lukashenko criticized personnel policy for insufficient rigidity. The purity of the staff was not achieved, purges remained incomplete in 2021, vacant positions remained unfilled unacceptably long, ant they should have been given to retired security officers.3
The trend towards the strengthening of the Security Council and the entire security bloc, including their traditional role as a president’s political headquarters, which had been observed since late 2020, continued in 2021. The purposeful sharp increase in the number of security officers among new appointees (which weakens the Administration and Natalia Kochanova personally), which began in 2021, will also continue.
The influence of Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko has increased, probably, because of his behavior during the 2020 crisis and the need to minimize the effects of sanctions, and this is not directly within the scope of the Presidential Administration’s functions.
The place and the role of the Administration in the architecture of power remain vague, as it must be formed in accordance with the new Constitution. Information policy remains in the state of a sharp degradation which is associated with the failure to create effective ideological narratives.