Personnel shifts follow traditional patterns
Lukahsenko’s personnel policy is based on the permanent rotation principle. The increasing threat of the financial crisis recurrence forces the President to ease ties with local officials. Yet there is no reason to talk about a new round of a ‘dialogue with the West’, on the contrary, relations between Minsk and the EU and the U.S. are maintained in the same frozen state.
On November 16th, the President made a number of appointments. In particular, he appointed former Minister of Culture Mr. Latushko Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to France, Mr. Khainovsky - Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus in Hungary and in Slovenia. In addition, the President approved the appointments of 16 heads in local and regional authorities. Staff changes were also made in the security agencies and the Defense Ministry.
Anticipating popular interpretations that Latushko’s appointment carries a certain “signal to the West”, we should note that his appointment, in the first place, is a downgrade, which indicates Latushko’s administrative weight loss. In Belarus’ governmental system the most important decisions are made by either the President or his immediate environment. On the contrary, the further away an official is from Minsk and from the President, the less influence he or she has on the Belarusian foreign policy (this does not apply to President’s assistants or his special envoys).
Thus, Latushko’s transfer back to the Foreign Ministry as Ambassador in France does not imply the resumption of the “dialogue with the West”. On the contrary, the intention is to maintain the relations in the conflict-ridden state, which is confirmed by a sequential dissolution of the officials involved in the project. Thus, earlier President Lukashenko removed Vladimir Makey from the Presidential Administration and Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov. Both were known as the main drivers for negotiations with Western countries in 2008-2010. Recently Mr. Latushko, former Culture Minister, who previously served as Belarusian Ambassador to Poland, was transferred back to foreign office with a ‘special’ task from the President: to study carefully the activities of the French Socialist Party.
As for other appointments in regional and local executive committees, it is most likely that they are the result of the curbing privatization programme in Belarus, and in particular, the recall of the pre-approved lists of companies put up for sale. In political terms, the national privatization programme reform reduces the local authorities’ importance as assets are located in their territories and potentially, they could have already started coordinating future sales with potential buyers. Therefore, these officials should be replaced with others, who do not have such commitments, which is what we observe.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.