Government of military discipline
Although the government entered the year 2021 with personnel and reputational losses, it, nevertheless, remained united and loyal to the regime, in many respects thanks to the extensive and systematic political housecleaning under control of the security bloc. Despite the drastically changed environment, in which the Roman Golovchenko Cabinet had to work last year, i.e. the legal default, severe sanctions, coronavirus pandemic, signing of integration maps with Russia, and preparation for a referendum on amendments to the Constitution, the government remained committed to the business-as-usual stand, and behaved as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
- Reinforcement of the government with security officials;
- Enforced military discipline in the Council of Ministers, which leaves no room even for minimum disagreements between the political leadership and the Cabinet over the expediency of one or another way of achieving the desired goals;
- Increasing subordination of state policies to ideological guidelines;
- Loss of the feedback from the independent expert community, discontinuance of the public discourse on government policies;
- Mass liquidation of civil society organizations that played an important role in the implementation of government plans in relation to vulnerable groups.
Usual work in unusual circumstances
Despite the increasing subordination of state policies to the ideological guidelines laid down by the political leadership, the government continued working as routinely as possible. The beginning of the year was marked by the preparation for the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which was held on February 11–12.
It remained unclear how the Golovchenko Cabinet would account for the completely failed 2016-2020 Socioeconomic Development Program, as its key objectives had not been achieved. However, this point was not touched upon at the Assembly, and the government officials and representatives of government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), who took the floor during the event, were mostly eager to demonstrate their complete political loyalty and keen willingness to adhere to the ideological guidelines set by the Lukashenko Administration. Lukashenko many times engaged in controversy against his opponents, who were not there in the hall, and repeatedly underlined the main criterion for the functioning of the economy and the social sector: loyalty to the incumbent leadership.
Throughout the year, the government was performing one of its key political tasks: to complicate to the uttermost the registration, operation and taxation of private entrepreneurs, who were among those accused the most of supporting the 2020 protests. Entrepreneurs and society as a whole did not get a plausible explanation of what economic sense the changes made, apart from the need for higher tax revenues and the alleged use of the status of individual entrepreneur for evading taxes.
According to the Minsk Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, the total additional costs incurred by entrepreneurs (not just taxes, but also administrative expenses) resulted from the innovations will be around BYN 1 billion, and many will have to shut their businesses down. The effectiveness of this measure for covering the budget deficit was questionable, while it may well deny one of the most affordable opportunities to start a business.1
IT companies were penalized the same way. In early 2021, the income tax relief promised to the High-Tech Park residents for the period to 2049 was abolished, since, as was said, extra money was needed to cope with pandemic challenges. IT specialists were also criticized for participating in the protests.
There were other ideological calls for action in the economic sector, which previously seemed to be abandoned, i.e. price regulation, tougher penalties for economic crimes, and pressure on big business. However, there was no public discussion on this point, as any public disagreement with government policy was de facto criminalized. Society stakeholders were not asked for an opinion, although consultations used to be held before.
Many of the planned innovations were eased by exceptions for a transitional period, though. At the same time, the fact that the officials dived without objection into the preparation of the innovations, which were obviously fully based on ideology and totally senseless from the economic viewpoint, shows that the Council of Ministers no longer played the role of an opponent to the Presidential Administration performed by the previous Cabinets.
The security bloc was thus becoming more and more powerful in shaping state policies. In 2021, it initiated a number of legal innovations as part of the so-called “fight against extremism,” which led to repressions on even a larger scale, while law enforcement agencies watched with Olympian calm the most outrageous violations of the law, provided that they were sanctioned by the political leadership, such as the migration crisis.
With the same Olympian calm (see below for possible underlying reasons) government officials observed the demolition of civil society announced by the foreign minister. Despite various attempts (some of them successful) to involve officials in civil society projects in the pre-election period, civil servants did not publicly raise their voice in defense of the organizations that had cooperated with the government for years in social, environment protection, or any other areas. It can be assumed that some officials feared being suspected of disloyalty by sympathizing with the organizations that had been declared instruments of a coup d’État. Yet it is also possible that many officials felt relieved by the removal of troubling partners, who sought to participate in government decision-making.
Personnel policy: securocrats and purges
During the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, Lukashenko set out the main direction of personnel policy for state administration bodies. “Today, we addressed the law on civil service. There will be a statute, a code, just like in the army, and certain requirements for public officers. Yes, they will be raised to unprecedented heights, but the state will demand more from them than from the military”.2 Reputable persons were needed, he said, and advised right away where to find them: “We must look at those coming from the security and law enforcement agencies, who, as you know, retire from the force before 50 years of age. We should not lose them”.
A new version of the law on civil service was not adopted before the end of 2021, but former security officers took a number of crucial and not so crucial positions in state agencies and organizations. According to Belorusy i Rynok (Belarusians and the Market) newspaper3, Belarus is ahead of both Russia and Ukraine with respect to the number of security officers in executive positions: out of the 37 sitting members of the Council of Ministers of Belarus (including the prime minister, his deputies and heads of ministries and state committees), more than one-third (13 people) have been one way or another affiliated with security and law enforcement agencies. The Belarusian prime minister is the only former security officer in the three countries.
Former Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Khomenko, who was in charge of extra-departmental security and has no legal education, was appointed minister of justice in October. Also in October, Oleg Chernyshov, former deputy head of the KGB, former commander of the KGB Alfa task force, was appointed deputy chairman of the Presidium of the National Academy of Sciences.
A number of high-ranking security officials were transferred to regional administrations together with several retired military officers fully in line with Lukashenko’s guidelines. These appointments are both supposed to ensure loyalty of civilian bodies, and provide former ranking servicemen with honorary and not much burdensome positions away from the capital until their final retirement.
Disloyal civil servants were combed out in order to ensure unquestioned obedience of the state machinery, and barriers were posed to their careers in public offices. Questions about the attitude to the incumbent government, participation in protests, etc., were added to the recruitment checklists. According to new amendments to decree No.6 “On Higher Requirements for Senior Officials and Employees,” recommendations from previous employers and information from the unified state database of offenses against candidates for managerial positions are required now.
The recommendations must now include not only information about the professional qualities of a candidate for public office, but also his or her attitude to “state and public institutions”. Provision of false information is punishable by law.4
Spontaneous purges in the state apparatus took place throughout the post-election period at the discretion of the heads of government bodies. The purges became systematic in the autumn of 2021, following Lukashenko’s call for the purity of personnel, which was a “matter of paramount importance”. Now, one does not even have to make any public appeals or openly sympathize with protesters to lose the job. Even those who only signed up for an alternative candidate during the 2020 presidential campaign are to be combed out, and when it comes to high-ranking officials, a signature of a family member for a wrong presidential candidate is enough to be disqualified.
It is hard to count the public officers, who lost their jobs for ideological reasons, since concurrent purges took place in state organizations and at state-owned enterprises. The minister of culture once admitted that 300 people had been fired from the ministry and its subordinate organizations for their “destructive position”.
It came as a no surprise that in late 2021, the Presidential Administration, which is in charge of staffing, discovered a shortage of qualified personnel for the state apparatus. “There is a paradox: the succession of generations, rejuvenation of the senior staff is going on”, said Chief of Staff Igor Sergeyenko, “Vacancies are filled, but there is a shortage of competent managers and specialists”. He called for “brainstorming” to find out what was hindering the talent capacity development. It is quite possible that the ranking officials may find out that they are the reason.
The year 2021 saw the continued trends in the government’s work, which had been observed back in the crisis year 2020. The power vertical continued the transition to the wartime footing, and not only because security officials were taking civilian positions. Government bodies now submit to military discipline, and any attempts to challenge ideological guidelines are regarded as betrayal of the living principles. No such attempts have been made, though. Civil servants, who have long learned to quickly understand spoken and unspoken demands of their superiors, have instantly adapted to the tightened rules of the game.
New rules have also been established between the state and society: criticism of government policies is now considered extremism, if not treason. This makes it unnecessary for the country’s leadership to reckon with interests of the business community or civil society as a whole, to publicly justify any decisions, or to adopt international experience. From this point of view, state administration practices have been set back many years, and all the achievements of the period of liberalization have been nullified.
It is worth noting that during the whole year, Lukashenko did not use his favorite method of motivating the government: the threat to dismiss it together with the prime minister. There were no high-profile dismissals of ministers, although before the 2020 election, it used to be a routine during Lukashenko’s inspections of enterprises subordinate to their ministries. Probably, he wanted to ensure loyalty without a split in the power vertical.
The practice of selecting loyal executives instead of professionals for top positions will most likely continue in 2022. This may not lead to some overnight collapse of the vertical, but the quality of decisions will definitely deteriorate. How quickly this deterioration will result in a decline in living standards, the quality of public services and the entire economy depends on many other factors. However, the fact is that the lack of professionalism and officials’ willingness to snap a salute to any, even the most absurd political stance is generally incompatible with economic growth and social prosperity.