At his State of the Nation address to the nomenklatura on August 4, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said a remarkable phrase: “I’ll accept any of your decisions. But don’t you dare betray me! Betrayal won't be forgiven even in heaven. If you’re not capable or ready, step aside, don't obstruct [me] from saving the country!”
Every successful revolution in the post-Soviet space has one thing in common. It was not mass protests that caused the regime to collapse but the split among the elite. It was only when the street protesters were joined by yesterday’s prime ministers, capital mayors and heads of police that revolutions succeeded.
Even more so, in the absolute majority of cases, new leaders were not civil society activists but the key members of ousted presidents’ teams. Before defecting to the opposition, Saakashvili in Georgia, Yushchenko in Ukraine and Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan were all prominent ministers in their predecessors’ governments.
Lukashenko, long known as one of the most skilful autocrats in the world, is well aware of his colleagues’ mistakes and for many years took all the precautionary measures. He removed all charismatic people from his entourage, and constantly reshuffled the heads of regions to avoid the formation of regional groups more loyal to their direct patron than Lukashenko.
Same with the law enforcement agencies: high-rank officers are constantly moved from the KGB, through the Interior Ministry to the State Control Committee and the other way around. The idea is the same – to prevent the emergence of groups more loyal to their organisation rather than the president.
In the majority of Belarusian ministries the leadership doesn’t really need any hard skills apart from the loyalty. With one notable exception – the economy. You can’t rule over the economy like you can over the army or the education sector. In the past 5-7 years, many prominent positions in economic ministries were taken by market-oriented technocrats simply because the old generation of the planned economy proponents died out and the only people capable of replacing them were young professionals with a modern mindset.
One of the most prominent representatives of this new generation, presidential aide Kirill Rudy, even wrote books and articles where he criticised the Belarusian economic model. The recent finance minister, Maksim Yermolovich, and the prime minister, Sergei Rumas, were also market-oriented. A few times PM Rumas even confronted the president himself, like when he urged Lukashenko to admit that it is not possible to return the money invested in the loss-making agricultural sector or when he clashed with the presidential administration over the amendments to the road tax. Lukashenko never fully trusted these people, he constantly accused them of being radicals and marketeers but had to put up with them because they knew how to steer the economy.
When the election campaign started, the PM Rumas became even more untrustworthy since he was known for being on good terms with one of Lukashenko’s rivals, Viktor Babariko. So when the political crisis loomed in early June, Lukashenko removed all the ‘doves’ from the government and replaced them with the ‘hawks’ – people with the law enforcement background.
Rudy and Rumas left for the civil service, Yermalovich was sent abroad as the ambassador to the UK. But Lukashenko has kept reshuffling his apparatus even today – one week ahead of the election. Last Wednesday he unexpectedly sacked his commissioner for Vitebsk region Vladimir Andreychenko and replaced him with Ivan Tertel, former deputy head of the KGB who was recently appointed the head of the State Control Committee, and almost immediately opened a criminal case against Viktor Babariko.
The first open defection also took place last week when the director of the municipal stadium in Grodno, Viktor Shumel, wrote an open letter to the head of Belarusian trade unions demanding he withdraw the claim that all union members support Lukashenko. Shumel is hardly a top official but his action has a big symbolic meaning.
It is somewhat of a Kremlinology where the scholars tried to divine the influence of the Soviet dignitaries by the way they stood at the Mausoleum, but Grodno was also the only city in Belarus where the local officials offered Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s rally an extremely convenient ground right in the city centre. In Minsk and other cities, local authorities only offered some suburban dog parks, and in some places, her rallies were banned altogether.
Obviously, these are hardly serious signs of defection. People with questionable loyalty have been removed from the government in the past few months, but there is almost no doubt that even Lukashenko’s most conservative dignitaries are calculating the risks right now. The thing about being a defector is that it is extremely dangerous to be the first one. If others won’t back you, you will lose everything and gain nothing. But it will take a co-ordinated action of just a few high officials to start an avalanche.
There will most certainly be no radical moves before the election day. The crucial factors will be the declared result, the scale of the protest, and the way Lukashenko will handle (or mishandle) it. Many in Belarus believe that, unlike his predecessors, the current head of police Yuri Karaev is a decent man and a real officer who will remain loyal to Lukashenko but at the same time won’t carry out criminal orders.
One thing is clear. If the nomenklatura had any doubts as to Lukashenko’s longevity and their prospects under him, his today’s address set the record straight. His time is over, maybe not just yet but it is already time to prepare for life without him.