Belarus Gets a ‘National Rescue Government’
On May 25 Belarus’ president Aleksandr Lukashenko announced that the country’s current government will step down before the August presidential election. The president stressed that appointing a new government ahead of the election is the country’s tradition, so that “people could see who we’ll be working with”. A quick search shows, however, that no such tradition ever existed and it’s the first time in 26 years Lukashenko reshuffles his cabinet right before the elections. So why now?
The previous cabinet appointed in August 2018 and led by PM Sergei Rumas was largely considered to be reformist. Some of the appointments like that of the finance minister Maksim Yermolovich or the prime minister Rumas himself were met with large enthusiasm by the civil society. From their speeches, both seemed to be in support of liberalization and market reforms. However, it soon turned out that whenever it came to action, almost all of their reformist initiatives were turned downed by the president Lukashenko and his administration because of their inconsistency with the leader’s anti-market mindset.
The government was fired on June 3. Although, apart from the non-existent tradition, there was no other official explanation provided, the demission hardly came as a surprise. In fact, it was only a matter of time before Lukashenko would sack Rumas and it is actually somewhat surprising that it took him so long. The main reason is that PM Rumas’ progressive views simply didn’t fit in the Lukashenko’s system. In the president’s view, the role of a prime minister is not to come up with his own initiatives but to make sure that all the president’s decrees are being followed and executed.
Rumas acted as though he didn’t understand that. He kept drawing up various proposals, which did not match the views of Lukashenko and his conservative administration. The sacked PM even made a couple of political statements contradicting the president’s stance. Just recently he promised the package of state support to the private businesses hit by the COVID-19 pandemic – those proposals were later turned down by Lukashenko who is adamant that not a single penny of the ‘state’s money’ should be given to the private business.
A few times 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 amendments to the road tax.
However, it seems that the last drop was Viktor Babariko’s unexpected decision to run for the presidency. For 20 years Babariko has been CEO of Belgazprombank. Sergei Rumas for most of his career has been working alongside him in the banking sphere including a short spell as a member of the board of Babariko’s Belgazprombank.
Furthermore, Babariko in his statements has been speaking very positively about Rumas’ government. He recently said he agrees with 80% of its ideas and initiatives and that the only problem is Lukashenko turning these initiatives down. These statements created a bizarre situation where both the incumbent president and his main contender de facto supported the same government. Even more so, it was clear for everyone that PM’s views are much closer to those of Babariko than Lukashenko’s. Well, not anymore.
Yesterday morning the new government was announced. Among others, Lukashenko dismissed Sergei Rumas and Maksim Yermolovich – the finance minister and Belarus’ key negotiator with the IMF and World Bank. Announcing the changes Lukashenko noticed: “Today is not the time to destroy. Nor it is the time to build. Today is the time to save what has been built.” Judging by the new appointees, the new cabinet can rightly be called a crisis government, or, for that matter, a National Rescue Government.
The new appointments indicate that any reforms are now definitely off the table. Lukashenko’s recipe to the country’s problems is as simple as a slipper – more control and the military-style mobilization of all resources. The new appointees are either deeply loyal siloviki from the Lukashenko’s eldest son Viktor’s entourage or the long-time adherents of the command-administrative measures.
Roman Golovchenko was appointed the new prime minister. Golovchenko is far from being a public figure. What we know about him is that since 2018 he has been a chairman of the State Committee for Military Industry and before that the ambassador to the Gulf countries, which are the main market for Belarusian weapons.
A quick look at Golovchenko’s biography tells us that he is clearly a protege of Viktor Sheiman – Lukashenko’s right-hand man and the biggest hardliner in his entourage who is still under the EU sanctions for his involvement in the late 90s political killings. Golovchenko started his career at the Belarus’ Security Council in 1997 when it was headed by Sheiman and for over ten years had been following his patron whenever he received a new appointment. It is known that in late May Lukashenko held two meetings with Sheiman. It is possible that he was the one who suggested the president to make Golovchenko the new head of government.
Probably the only thing we can say about Golovchenko at the moment is that he is loyal and reliable, which is all Lukashenko needs at the moment. Apart from Golovchenko, another new appointee from siloviks is major general Ivan Tertel, a former deputy chairman of the KGB, who became the head of the State Control Committee, the structure that mainly oversees big business.
Tertel’s former colleague, the current head of the presidential administration, Igor Sergienko, who was in charge of drafting the proposals on the new government was himself appointed only in December last year. Before that, he also was a deputy chairman of the KGB. Back in December the nomination of a silovik to this position, which previously had long been held by people from civil sectors, was largely perceived as a sign that if the upcoming 2020 is to bring anything new to the Belarusian politics, it would be tightening the screws rather than the thaw.
Yesterday’s appointments made it clear that Lukashenko indeed decided to tighten the screws to the max. The current situation when almost all major positions in the country are held by committed hard-liners, people with military and secret service background is unprecedented even by the authoritarian Belarusian standards.
The crackdown has already begun. It is almost certain now that the scale of repressions will only increase, including more restrictions, provocations, attacks on the opposition, civil society, and independent media. This presidential campaign is expected to be unprecedentedly difficult for Lukashenko. Western politicians’ concerns and disapproval are the last thing Belarus’ president cares about right now. The collapsing economy is also not too high on the list of his priorities. It is not the time to think strategically. All efforts are focused on surviving the election campaign.
At his yesterday’s press conference Lukashenko had once again lost his nerve calling other candidates pigs, thugs, and foreign agents. He also used a lot of military expressions making it feel like the war has already begun. But at some point he said something that was a bit too extreme even by his standards.
He said: “[You] forgot how President Karimov suppressed the putsch in Andijan by shooting thousands of people. Everyone condemned him, but when he died people kneeled, cried, sobbed! We didn’t experience this so we can’t understand it. Some of us can’t. Well, we’ll remind you!”