On December 4, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made sweeping changes to the higher echelons of the leadership. The changes reflect both adverse news on the economic front and the installment of some hard-line personalities on the eve of a series of elections that will monopolize the next 12-15 months. The main opposition newspaper refers to the changes as “KGBization” and restoring ideological control over the media (Narodnaya Volya, December 5).
According to another opposition source, the mini-purge took place after the head of the Presidential Administration, Uladzimir Makei, was asked to prepare a proposal on potential changes to the government (BG Delovaya Gazeta, December 4). Lukashenka stated that he wanted a team in place that would remain after the presidential elections. He indicated that the changes would be finalized by the middle of 2010 (Belarusian Telegraph Agency [BELTA], December 4).
Among the officials dismissed are the following: Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich, Economy Minister Mikalay Zaychanka, and Mikalay Damashkevich as head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate. Two ministers –Defense Minister Leanid Maltsau and Secretary of the Security Council Yuri Zhadobin, exchanged places. Other changes occurred in the Ministry of Taxation and Duties, a post held formerly by Anna Deyko, and at the MAZ truck factory and Belenergo firm, which have been particularly hard hit by the recession (Belapan, December 4).
The incoming figures are: Information Minister Aleh Pralyaskousky, Economy Minister Mikalay Snapkou (the former deputy chairman of the presidential administration), head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate Mikalay Korbut, Labor and Social Protection Minister Mariana Shchotkina (a position vacant since June, following the departure of Uladzimir Patupchik to the post of Vice-Premier); and Minister of Tax and Duties Uladzimir Paluyan. Syarhey Hurulev, the former chief of staff of the army, is the new chairman of the State Military and Industrial Committee (BELTA, December 4).
Of all the changes, perhaps the most important is the transfer of Maltsau to the Security Council. A 60 year old native of Belarus, he received military education in Ukraine, and holds a candidate degree in Sociology. From 1994 he was head of the Chief Headquarters of the Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defense. He was appointed as the defense minister in 2001 (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, December 5). In October he was cited as stating that draftees into the Belarusian army –they have included several opposition figures forcibly conscripted– must cancel their membership in political parties (European Radio for Belarus, October 8).
Zhadobin is an equally controversial character. Born in 1954 in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, he joined the army in 1972 and attended a Tank Command institute in Kazan, Russia. Along with positions in Belarus’ civil defense structure and the interior ministry, he is a former Chairman of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and became head of the Presidential Security Service in September 2003 (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, December 4). In 2004, when Belarus held the referendum that permitted President Lukashenka to remain in office beyond the constitutionally limited two terms, Zhadobin maintained that an assassination attempt on the Belarusian leader was being prepared “from the side of the European Union” (Narodnaya Volya, December 5).
Information Minister Pralyaskousky, a Russian-born, Minsk-educated lawyer who served with Soviet forces in East Germany, also has a checkered past. He has held a number of prominent positions in the presidential administration and in January 2008, became director of its information and analysis center. During the debates on the Law of the Mass Media, which the president approved on August 4, 2008, he called for increased control over information on the internet, including what he termed “content filtration,” meaning the need to block the dissemination of information considered to be in conflict with the legal system (Narodnaya Volya, December 5, www.charter97.org, December 4).
The firing of Zaychanka, who was Economy Minister since 2003, can be linked directly to the alarming economic news that after several years of very high growth, Belarus’ GDP fell by 1 percent over the first ten months of 2009. Lukashenka informed new minister Snapkou: “The economy ministry seems to have forgotten that it needs to think about strategy without abandoning earthly things. However, it should also think about the future, a real future and a real strategy that the state could use” (BELTA, December 4).
In late November, Belarus signed an agreement for a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan that will allow 15 percent GDP growth by 2015, according to Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, through joint manufacturing projects and free trade (BELTA, November 27). Lukashenka noted the advantages of the new union for the ailing MAZ truck company, and maintained that the agreement could take effect within 18 months (BELTA, December 1).
Bad economic news can have an impact on election campaigns, which may explain the need to reassemble the leadership. Lukashenka is known for shuffling favored satraps between key posts. The new hierarchy suggests a reversal of the slight moderation in domestic policy over the past year. The new ministers are generally in the same age group as their predecessors –late 40’s to 60’s– and include people known for their hard-line approach, particularly toward the media and the opposition. Very little is being left to chance in Lukashenka’s Belarus.