Andrei Liakhovich. Development of the Situation in Belarus in the Second Half of February 2012: Main Events and Comments

Mar 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Belarus

Foreign policy of Lukashenka’s regime is quite rational even after the events of December 19 and based on the assessment of the West’s capacity to exert pressure. The authorities regard the EU as a weak partner. In the authorities’ opinion, the extension of the travel ban is the maximum that the West can do, first of all, because the West is afraid to push Lukashenka towards Russia.



 Miensk,Republic of Belarus


I have participated in a number of conferences and meetings of analysts and experts in Warsaw. Some arguments, which I find questionable and not true to the fact, are quite common among Belarusian and Western colleagues:

1. December 19, 2010 г. marks the end of the period when politics in Belarus were quite rational in their nature. After December 19 politics are determined by Lukashenka’s emotions and/or law enforcement officers who are involved in harsh actions of the regime.

2. The power in Belarus after December 19 reposes on brute force (of security forces) and lies (of government mass media). The social contract between Lukashenka’s regime and population and common citizens ceased to exist.

3. Lukashenka burns his bridges in relations with the West and goes into the arms of Russia.

4. Foreign policy of Lukashenka’s regime is exclusively reactive in its nature. Political decisions are made depending on what the West and Russia do and on changes in political environment.

5. Lukashenka’s regime is not capable of any major innovations. All efforts of Lukashenka’s team are directed solely at maintaining the status quo.

This understanding of situation in Belarus determines, inter alia, in which way many experts evaluate recent important events.

On February 27, the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU countries decided to expand the list of Belarusian officials covered by the EU travel ban. The names of 21 persons were added to the list, among whom are Minsk police chief Aliaksandr Barsukou and a number of judges.

In retaliation, Lukashenka’s team decided to recall its ambassadors from Warsaw and Brussels, and also recommended to Poland and the EU to recall their ambassadors from Minsk. As a result of emergency consultations in Brussels, a decision was made to recall the heads of all EU countries’ diplomatic missions.


Foreign policy of Lukashenka’s regime is quite rational even after the events of December 19 and based on the assessment of the West’s capacity to exert pressure. The authorities regard the EU as a weak partner. In the authorities’ opinion, the extension of the travel ban is the maximum that the West can do, first of all, because the West is afraid to push Lukashenka towards Russia.

The main purpose of the expulsion of the heads of diplomatic missions of the EU and Poland is the following. Lukashenka wants to tell to the West: take me as I am, and don’t ask for change.

Lukashenka invites the West to begin dialogue about conditions of release of political prisoners. He invites the West to develop cooperation on his terms which do not provide for any significant steps towards political liberalization.

Introduction and application of economic sanctions by the EU would force the authorities into releasing political prisoners and making steps towards political liberalization. However, the EU is unable to make such steps.

If the West decides to expand further the list of banned Belarusian officials, this will not result in release of political prisoners in the short-term perspective (in 2012). Lukashenka’s regime wants to demonstrate to the West that any attempts to revolution or change of the regime in Belarus will not succeed.

In the long run, under certain conditions, the sanctions against representatives of the authoritarian regime can result in release of political prisoners and steps towards political liberalization. This is a realistic scenario, but a sad one for Belarusians and in the first place for those who are now behind bars or will get there.

The siloviki are not a predominant group within the ruling elite

Issues of the relationship between rational and irrational in the political decision-making process and the degree of violence in domestic politics in Belarus are related to the issue of the balance of power within the ruling elite and, more specifically, to the issue of the role of the siloviki.

I said in my previous reports that the siloviki are not a predominant group within the ruling elite. I will provide additional arguments in order not to get back to this subject again.

First, some history in brief.

In 1999 – 2003, heads of security (KGB, Internal Ministry) and controlling (Committee of the State Control, Prosecutor’s Office) bodies headed by Viktar Shejman had significant influence on foreign and domestic policy of Lukashenka’s regime. Shejman served as Prosecutor General and State Secretary of the Security Council. Regardless of what position Shejman held, he chaired extended meetings of the heads of security and controlling bodies. The control and repressive mechanism, led by Shejman, was directed against the opposition campaign to hold alternative presidential election in 1999.1 In the same year, under Shejman’s leadership, opposition leaders, who could become dangerous rivals to Lukashenka at the presidential election of 2001, were eliminated: former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar.2 Unknown persons inflicted fatal injury to Hienadz Karpienka.

In 2001 – 2002, under the leadership of the second-ranked person in the State – Shejman, independent trade unions were persecuted, and the directorate of enterprises was cleaned of likely opponents of Lukashenka.

After January 2004, when Russia set a course for reducing subsidies to Lukashenka’s regime, Shejman began losing his positions within the power bodies.3 Survival of Lukashenka’s regime was now depending on efficiency of the economy.

In 2007 – 2008, the group of siloviki disintegrated. On July 7, 2008, Lukashenka removed Shejman from the position of the State Secretary of the Security Council. Significance of this position in the hierarchy decreased. Lukashenka’s eldest son Viktar, who is now Assistant to the President for National Security Matters, became unofficial curator of security and controlling bodies.

In 2008 – 2011, Viktar Lukashenka replaced Shejman’s appointees in the leadership of security bodies by his trusted men. However, one can speak only figuratively about the existence of a group of siloviki under Viktar Lukashenka’s leadership. Viktar Lukashenka’s group includes many civilians, young businessmen and officials, with whom he studied at the Foreign Relations Department of the Belarusian State University. It is known that one of the reasons of Viktar Lukashenka’s personal animosity towards Viktar Shejman was that the latter was interfering with the development of private business.

After the events of December 19, 2010 many experts were saying that the siloviki once again became a predominant group. Heads of security agencies involved in repression push Lukashenka towards further deterioration of relations with the West, because political liberalization in Belarus and rapprochement with the West means a threat of prosecution to them.

This opinion is not justified not only taking into account the historical background, but also considering changes in personnel and ongoing processes in the ruling elite after December 19. I will briefly elaborate on this point:

1. There have been changes in the modus operandi of the controlling bodies.

In 2011, the Committee for State Control carried out 30% fewer inspections of legal persons than in 2010. In 2011, the penalties imposed by the Committee amounted to 17% of the ceiling value, and this figure was 38% in 2010.

2. There has been certain movement towards economic liberalization and privatization.

It means lesser role of the controlling and law enforcement agencies in the political system in Belarus.

3. The siloviki do not exert pressure on the decision-making process in the Council of Ministers.

The government works in a quiet mode. The discussion is not around who should be punished (as it happened frequently while Shejman was in power), but what should be done.

4. Since December 19, there were no cases of criminal prosecution of top managers of major industrial enterprises and big private businesses.4

At the same time, criminal proceedings were initiated against Deputy Interior Minister Jauhien Paludzien.5 Personnel changes took place in the top management of the Interior Ministry.

5. There have been no instances of struggle of law enforcement bodies for control over state-owned companies or instances of takeover of private businesses by the siloviki.

During the existence of Shejman’s group such cases were quite frequent. For instance, top managers of the KGB and the Interior Ministry fought over top managing positions in the Zhlobin Steel Plant for their men.

6. It is not current practice to appoint people from security and controlling agencies to positions in the Presidential Administration.

In 2001, former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou (Shejman’s man) was appointed Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration on Personnel Matters. He was responsible for supervising the personnel management in the executive vertical.

Now, the Presidential Administration is rather a civilian body. And this is the most important body in the political system in Belarus.

7. The siloviki have not received the carte blanche for wide repression in Belarus after December 19.

After December 19, 2010 repression is much more prevalent than ever before. However, repression is directed against those opposition groups which, in the authorities’ opinion, were involved in the attempts to storm the House of the Government. Repression against other opposition groups and NGOs is localized and pin-point in its nature.

8. After December 19, there has been no significant expansion of staff of security and controlling bodies.

The establishment of a new agency – the Investigation Committee – has been done by recruiting employees of the existing agencies.

Finally, one cannot reaffirm that these were the siloviki who pushed Lukashenka into unleashing repression on December 19.

There were background factors indicating that under certain changes in the situation, on December 19, the authorities would stop following the scenario of certain liberalization and would act according to a different scenario, a scenario of repression.

In 2009, Lukashenka said that the establishment of a public consultative council at the Presidential Administration was an initiative of Uladzimir Makiej which he took rather negatively. In 2010, he said that he saw no sense in letting thirty opposition activists to get into the parliament, as “the West will be happy at first, but then it will ask for more anyway”.

Lukashenka received a lot of arguments for statements that the independence of Belarus is what matters most for the West. From the context of his statements followed that, in his opinion, the West can close their eyes on many things that were happening in Belarus for the sake of its independence from Russia.

Repression of December 19 and in the following period should not be explained solely by emotions and Lukashenka’s fear of revolution. Lukashenka acts and speaks in the framework of a certain contract with the nomenklatura. What Lukashenka says about opposition reflects to some extent the nomenklatura’s attitude towards opposition. Fragmented opposition represented by conflicting groups, with no leader and no program, is not able to speak not only to the majority of voters, but also to the nomenklatura and the directorate.

The West and democrats in Belarus have to deal with the nomenklatura frightened by an attempt to revolution. There are irrational motives – fear and emotions – in actions of the authorities. However, the authorities’ actions, including in relations with the West, are explained to greater extent by certain calculation.

The authorities say to the West: “Let’s start talking. Take us as we are”.

On February 29, another discussion with participation of representatives of the authorities and an independent journalists and experts was held in an auditorium of the major media outlet in Belarus – the online portal The very fact that representatives of the authorities participate now in such discussions in the media outlet with about 2 million visitors a day says by itself that the opinion about irrational behavior of the authorities is not well-grounded.

The discussion was dedicated to a diplomatic conflict between the Lukashenka regime and the European Union:

It wasn’t us who initiated the escalation of tension. We are making use of the relevant and globally applied set of diplomatic tools, in order to reach out to the EU and put it clear: “Let’s sit at the negotiating table! Let’s talk sense! Accept us as we are! Let’s work on our mutual interaction!” said Andrei Savinykh, the Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus.

The official authorities suggest that the West should start a dialogue, in spite of the fact that political prisoners are still kept in jail. The governmental negotiators would like to use their presence and the custody conditions as a factor of pressure on the position of the West. Regardless of specific topics for discussion during the dialogue in this format, the general logic will look as follows: The West will be proposed to pay for the release of political prisoners from custody on parole. The payment will be seen either as a credit or as “a constructive attitude” towards the Belarusian government. Actually, the Lukashenka regime will intend to get both at the best.

We are aiming at a dialogue, and we are going to suggest that it would be relevant. However, we will propose a constructive dialogue. Let’s set aside the force decisions, the attempts to put pressure and compel obedience. It won’t work. Let’s sit at the negotiating table and solve the pending problems. By means of building confidence and mutual understanding we will be able to solve all current disagreements much quicker than it seems to be from the outsider’s viewpoint,” noted Savinykh.

The official authorities believe that authoritarian trends in Russia and Ukraine improve significantly their positions in relations with the West

These sanctions affect the European Union itself. The EU suffers from numerous defeats of its Eastern policy. On their initiative, they have very tense relations with the Republic of Belarus nowadays. They have immensely tense relations with Ukraine. They are starting political attacks on the Russian Federation now. There’ve been articulated calls to refuse to acknowledge the election results in Russia. They’ve ruined the Eastern Partnership program.

The EU’s Eastern policy is a complete failure. They have to look for new ways and new guidelines. They have to reform their road maps in relation to the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states from the very beginning. The EU – Belarus relations shouldn’t be considered in isolation from all the processes, taking place in the post-Soviet space,” a TV propagandist Vadzim Gigin said during the discussion.

The ‘visa ban list’: consequences, pros and cons

The sanctions in relation to a range of Belarusian governmental officials and businessmen, connected with Lukashenka, appear to become the main form of Western pressure on the Lukashenka regime.

Numerous experts regard the factor of the ‘visa ban list’ in the foreign policy context. They wonder if broadening of the list and the corresponding escalation of tension in relations with the West will push Lukashenka towards Russia or not.

In my opinion, there wouldn’t be such a risk, even if the EU started talking about introduction of economic sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Lukashenka won’t cross a certain line in development of cooperation with Russia. He feels reluctant to be pressed to Putin’s bosom.

If the factor is regarded in the domestic policy context (i.e., its influence on the situation in Belarus), the experts explain the repressions and the recent policy line in general by Lukashenka’s emotions and/or the top brass members’ strong influence on him. One of Belarusian experts, who shares the opinion, noted during a recent conference on March 5, 2012 that the broadened visa sanctions would lead to total repressions against the opposition.

The influence of this factor should be considered in the domestic policy context, first of all. However, the situation should be regarded adequately, i.e. the full-colour vision instead of the black-and-white attitude is required. Lukashenka would like to convince the West in reality of total repressions, if the EU dares broaden the visa ban list. However, it is nothing but blackmailing, in fact. Lukashenka won’t burn his bridges in relations with the West.

Also, it is important to remember that Lukashenka wouldn’t like to sit on bayonets. Therefore, he will feel reluctant to make use of broad repressions, since they can lead to the superfluous strain in the society. He would like to keep the top brass members under his full control.

Most probably, the official authorities will respond to the broadened visa ban list with complicating the opposition members’ trips to the West. Consequently, the latter will have to travel through the uncontrolled Russian border.

As for the sanctions, the West is doing the things that the discrete and insufficiently popular opposition is not able to cope with. The visa ban list has formed peculiar memorials.

This way or another, the risk of getting on the list is a restraining motive for the public officers for sure. All of them think about the present and the future. They understand that Lukashenka is mortal. Consequently, a lot of things will change at some moment in the future. Some of them wonder if their descendants will be happy to bear their surnames.

Some top officials are thinking over the possibility to make use of privatization opportunities in Belarus. Therefore, they wouldn’t like to appear in the list either. They are mainly afraid of dealing with Russians. They would like to deal with safe business partners from the West. They understand that it will be impossible to develop the small and mid-sized business enterprises they are going to buy and make them cost-efficient without Western investments and technologies. Therefore, they are pondering over saving their good name for economic reasons as well.

However, different people in power share these motives to a different extent. Some of them will try not to smear their reputation now. Such people exist. And there are quite a few of them nowadays.

Others are less future-oriented. The authoritarian regime has enough of them to secure its existence.

In conclusion, it can be said that the sanctions against a number of Belarusian officials and businessmen, connected with Lukashenka, have certain impact on them. However, the impact is not sufficient enough for changing the situation in Belarus in the short-term perspective.

Unfortunately, the European Union fails to use a highly important key factor of human contacts as a means of pressure on the Lukashenka regime. A visa barrier still separates the Belarusian people from the EU.

1 In July 1999, the five-year presidential term of office of Lukashenka, set by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus adopted in 1994, expired.

2 On November 24, 1996, on Lukashenka’s proposal, a referendum was held to introduce amendments in the Constitution. After the referendum, Lukashenka stated that his presidential term of office began on the date of the referendum.

3 On January 24, 2004, Russia fully suspended deliveries of gas to Belarus. Lukashenka was imposed with the following demands: to sell the controlling stake in Beltransgaz for USD 800,000,000 or to face an increase of gas prices to the market level.

4 The arrest of General Director of Belvneshstroj Viktar Shautsou in October 2011 is quite in line with the pattern of controlled corruption which exists in Belarus. He appropriated about USD 10,000,000 which was more than allowed.

5 He was arrested on December 27, 2011.

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