David Marples, a leading political analyst, starts a series of publications on charter97.org.
There have been various opinions on the new appointments in Belarus of Viktar Sheiman as head of the President’s Property Management Directorate and Piotr Prakapovich as Vice Premier, as well as the announced proposals to move the country, economically at least, in a Western direction, including more privatization and the attraction of foreign, non-Russian, private investment. These measures lead to a number of questions about the future political and economic directions of Belarus.
Concerning the changes, there have been statements from the authorities that they signal a more flexible structure that will provide opportunities for “talented university graduates” to form a new professional business class that can reorient the country with a program of economic modernization. Within days of his appointment, Sheiman had exposed cases of corruption in his new department, and according to one account, former head of the Department of Presidential Affairs, Mikalai Korbut, had been placed under house arrest as a result of investigations into embezzlement at Belarusian construction projects in Sochi (http://bdg.by/news/politics/20484.html). On the other hand, the recent appointments have come under criticism from analysts because they appear to reflect a prevailing trend to appoint the “old guard,” a trusted elite that is not anticipated to question the decisions of the president.
Analyst Yury Drakahrust, for example, notes that in Belarus, personality counts for more than personal positions, which explains the decision to re-invite Sheiman into the elite circle around the president. Moreover, Sheiman has returned despite his murky past and his alleged involvement in the disappearances of several leading officials in 1999, at which time he held the post of Minister of Internal Affairs and Secretary of the Security Council (he was dismissed then but returned in 2000 as Prosecutor General). Drakahrust disagrees with another analyst, Siarhei Navumchyk, on the question whether the nomenklatura is capable of offering a challenge to the president. Navumchyk’s view is that no such challenge can emerge and that earlier efforts to take such a route have resulted in jail sentences for those bold enough to attempt it (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24885285.html).
Drakahrust’s response is that higher officials in Belarus wear masks and that their meek behavior means very little. He cites the contrast between challengers to regimes: in former Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel challenged the rulers from outside the system; whereas in Ukraine and Georgia, the challenges came from within: both Viktor Yushchenko and Mikael Saakashvili having been part of the power structure before rising to power. Notably, however, Sheiman has never offered such a challenge in the past. There is also a significant difference between the two personalities and likely role of the two new appointees. Prakapovich is neither popular nor powerful, and there is a consensus that his role may be to make unpopular decisions, trimming the bureaucracy for example, and then suffering the consequences, thus assuming what in the West would be termed the role of “the fall guy.” Sheiman on the other hand is very close to Lukashenka, a trusted and loyal figure, and one who has taken ruthless measures in the past with few qualms. There is some speculation that Prakapovich may be a replacement for Mikhail Miasnikovich as Prime Minister (http://zautra.by/art.php?sn_nid=12057&sn_cat=11). Certainly his appointment with responsibility for modernizing the economy would appear to undermine the Prime Minister’s role. Lukashenka has frequently appeared irritated with Myasnikovich, who is not part of his inner circle.
Yet it makes more sense to see these changes as part of a general plan to achieve two simultaneous goals. First, as a result of the 2011 financial crisis and Belarus’ continuing struggle to offset trade and payment balances, as well as potential encroachments from big business interests in Russia, Lukashenka—like his current and previous Prime Ministers—appears to have accepted that privatization has to be stepped up. This situation explains the decision taken on January 20 to seek foreign direct investment from Western companies (see, for example, http://belarusdigest.com/story/new-privatisation-plans-belarusian-authorities-prefer-western-investors-russian-7801). It may also explain why the president is willing to talk to representatives of Western think-tanks who wish to end Belarus’ isolation from the West, and to improve his public image outside the country.
But the nature of the regime, and the personal authority of the president render such a move a risky proposition. Thus while publicizing the need for the promotion of a new professional class, the president continues to take steps to ensure that his personal authority remains intact. The higher-level appointments are essentially to preserve the status quo. Some younger personnel may be advanced, but only at the middle level of the economic structure, without presenting a threat to the ruling elite. Above all, the only real power in the country is the president—the most important characteristic of Sheiman is not his brutality or efficiency, but his loyalty: he is the equivalent to Lukashenka of Lazar Kaganovich to Stalin, a man with no ideas of his own, and virtually devoid of morality or personal viewpoint (or if he has such, then it is well hidden and likely to remain so).
Belarus therefore has announced plans to embark on a bold new path, but with a familiar group in control. These steps can be reversed at any time; the new appointees likewise can be removed at will. It signifies that the first priority is the authority of the president, who controls privatization and can expect to benefit from it, both personally and as a means to avert a new economic crisis without sacrificing his power.
David Marples, for charter97.org