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Never in the modern history of Belarus have the siloviki, or security services, played such a large role at the top of government. Their support has enabled President Alexander Lukashenko to survive the peak of the political crisis that engulfed the country following the contested presidential election back in August.
But the presence in government of so many security officials is causing new problems. As the crisis continues, Lukashenko needs to retain the loyalty of his generals from various agencies while keeping them all under control. He must strike a balance, neither allowing them to go soft, nor to acquire any excessive ambition.
Even before August’s presidential election, sensing trouble ahead, Lukashenko had as a precaution replaced many civilians in his inner circle with military men. Igor Sergeenko, a former KGB operative, was appointed head of the presidential administration at the end of 2019. Viktor Sheiman, a longtime associate of Lukashenko who has held all the key security posts at one time or another, informally became the president’s chief adviser during the summer election campaign. And in June, Roman Golovchenko, who previously managed the Belarusian defense industry, was appointed prime minister.
Officials with a non-security services background found themselves sidelined not because of any errors they had made, but because Lukashenko feels safer with uniformed men around him: they don’t falter in times of trouble. And it must be acknowledged that Lukashenko’s bet has paid off: they haven’t blinked.
Having surrounded himself with military men, Lukashenko started making bungling decisions, and the power system that had previously been adaptable lost flexibility. When the reports coming in from all agencies resemble messages from the front, it leads to ruthlessness—especially when the person reading them is Lukashenko, who has never been one to compromise.
As a result, the Belarusian regime has taken stamping out unrest to a whole new level. Murdered protesters, rubber bullets and stun grenades every Sunday, more than 20,000 arrests, mass beatings in detention centers and police precincts, over 1,000 criminal cases, the closing of disloyal businesses, and hundreds of university students expelled and jobs lost over politics are just some of the repressive measures seen in the last three months.
Many people have started calling the new model Belarusian regime a junta, but that’s not correct. There are no signs yet that Lukashenko has lost control of the generals. In theory, he could return to the previous balance between the security services and civilian bodies. In practice, it’s getting harder to do that with every passing day. Having put his fate in the hands of the siloviki to save himself from revolution, Lukashenko must now constantly make sure that they are reliable and content. And the steps he must take to do that only serve to cement the status quo even further.
For Lukashenko in his current plight, it is vital that the siloviki do not waver or think too much about the consequences of their actions or examine their consciences too closely. What this means in practice is that the regime must protect its own. There are about 1,500 complaints about torture and beatings gathering dust in the Belarusian Investigative Committee’s offices. To act upon them would be to sell out the police and other quasi-military bodies that have been systematically putting down protests for the past three months.
Not all of the country’s prosecutors and investigators are happy to turn a blind eye, however. Some of them supported opposition candidates back during the election, while others resigned in protest in August. Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk failed to suppress a stealthy mutiny within his agency. At the start of September, Lukashenko fired him, publicly calling on prosecutors to either play an active role in putting down the revolution or resign. A similar situation is now reportedly under way in the Investigative Committee.
By involving all the security services in the crackdown, Lukashenko is bonding them to him with a shared fear for their safety in the event that the protesters win. When everyone is implicated, no one thinks of going over to the other side. For this reason, army divisions have started to be drafted in to break up protests and protect war memorials.
But this creates another risk: that the generals may become too powerful, Lukashenko loses control of them, and they turn the country into a genuine military dictatorship. With the political and perhaps even physical security of the country’s leadership depending on their orders and troops for so many months, new ambitions could start to form. To prevent this, Lukashenko has always relied on regular staff rotation, interagency competition, and getting the siloviki to monitor each other.
The recent removal of the State Security Council (and former KGB) head Valery Vakulchik and Interior Minister Yury Karayev and his deputy Alexander Barsukov fit in with this logic of rotation. Since firing senior siloviki right now could look like a victory for protesters, their removal was positioned as their deployment to the front. Vakulchik and Karayev were appointed presidential aides and inspectors in two western regions, while Barsukov was given the same role in Minsk.
Such positions were previously held by mid-ranking regional officials. Now Lukashenko has given regional inspectors more authority, including in the selection of loyal staff there, and tasked them with fighting the revolutionary contagion.
The result of this rotation is only to boost the presence of military men in the Belarusian regime even further. Now they don’t just hold key positions in Minsk; they are also responsible for overseeing the regional governors and local power vertical.
Although the protests are gradually dwindling in size, they could continue for months. Then every upcoming political event—including a referendum on adopting a constitution, and future elections—will become a pretext for new protests. It looks as though outbreaks of street protests will dog Lukashenko for the rest of his presidency.
As long as the protests haven’t been definitively crushed, Lukashenko remains dependent on the security services. Reducing their role in the system before the job is completed would put the entire regime in jeopardy.
This means that in the event of a managed transition in the next year or eighteen months, it’s uniformed men who will supervise that transition and help to select a successor—who looks increasingly likely to be one of them. For Lukashenko, handing over the reins to some technocrat-economist in the current situation would doom him to a conflict with the siloviki. After all, any tenable way out of the crisis will involve loosening the screws of repression and making the system more democratic.
And so Lukashenko finds himself in something of a vicious circle. Having surrounded himself with siloviki and tasked them with managing everything, from the economy to domestic policy, he has become even less capable of launching the reforms needed to appease society. And an unhappy society will continue to prompt militarization and the toughening of the regime.
Unfortunately, one of the possible ways out of this impasse is a new escalation of violence. That could either turn the country into a full-fledged military dictatorship (propped up by Russia), or do what the first clampdown in August failed to do: split the authoritarian monolith of the Belarusian regime.
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