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Minsk's Own Version Of 'Fathers And Sons'

  • Yuri Drakakhrust

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and his son Viktar in 2001

In the wake of a Minsk bombing earlier this month, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka fired two top aides and brought in some newcomers. But who are these people? And what do the changes really mean?

First, a word about what they don't mean. In the past, government officials -- and journalists eager to pass their message along -- would often paint pictures of the "evil masterminds" or the "liberal angels" of the regime. And then it would turn out that even when the onerous reactionary ideologues were toppled and the "angels" ascended -- inexplicably nothing changed.

It seems unwise to think the falls of Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman and presidential adminstration head Nenadz Nyavhlas will auger a new era of liberalism.

The new faces in the Lukashenka team are Uladzimir Makay, Yuri Zhadobin, and Vadzim Zajtseu. Although the three have very different biographies, they do have certain things in common -- if one can believe the drips of information that sometimes seep out of the government's almost hermetically sealed inner sanctums.

Makay has been rumored to be among the cadre of high-ranking officials who are close to Lukashenka's son, Viktar. Zhadobin, who last year replaced Stsiapan Sakharanka as head of the KGB, has also been connected with Viktar Lukashenka.

Convenient Pretext

Of course, one would think Zhadobin, as KGB chief, also bore some security responsibilities for the Independence Day bomb blast. Yet whereas Sheyman got the ax, Zhadobin got promoted. This seems a strong indication that the explosion was merely a convenient pretext to eliminate the losers in an internal clan showdown.

After last year's reshuffle, the KGB still seems to be monitored with a scrupulous eye. Tellingly, its new chief, Vadzim Zajtseu, does not come from its ranks, but from the border guards corps which is headed by Ihar Rachkouski, also purportedly a good friend of Viktar Lukashenka

Clan, team, generation -- call it what you will. But it's evident -- if we go by the available information -- that the people who have now come to power did not do so solely on the basis of their professional resumes.

The recent reshuffle of cadres proves one thing: Even if the masses in Belarus do not clamor for change, change is inevitable.
The generational hypothesis is less than clear-cut. Sheyman turned 50 this year, and Makay is his coeval. Zhadobin is four years older. So what talk can there be of a generational shift? Still, it is worth noting that those in Lukashenka Junior's immediate "clan" are all closer to his own age of 33. Deputy presidential administration chief Natalya Piatkevich is 36, youth leader Usevalad Jancheuski is 32, and the aforementioned border guard chief Ihar Rachkouski is 40.

All of the above, it may be argued, can be described as "post-Soviet," rather than "Soviet" individuals. That doesn't make them better, but it does make them different from those who came before. They do not view Lenin and Stalin as symbols of the nation. Nor do they consider Moscow the center of the universe or socialism the shining light of humanity's future.

President Lukashenka's cynicism notwithstanding, such sentiments are an intrinsic part of his psychological makeup. But not so for younger team -- which, incidentally, is rumored to have been the driving force behind the recent burst of privatization in Belarus. One might assume that now that their presumptive acolytes have filled some important positions, this process will be expedited.

Shifty And Duplicitous

Recent overtures to the West have also been described as the initiative of this younger group. Of course, the bargaining we've witnessed in the past is often shifty and duplicitous, based on the premise of giving a little in order to gain a lot. Allowing 42 opposition representatives seats on district electoral commissions, for example, makes barely a dent in the EU's list of 12 demands for democratic reform.

Be that as it may, any bargaining at all can be viewed as an effort to foster at least some dialogue. In the light of the cadre changes, these tactics will also probably continue.

The recent reshuffle of cadres proves one thing: Even if the masses in Belarus do not clamor for change, change is inevitable. And often it happens through the slow, incremental shift of generations.

During an April 2007 press conference Alyaksandr Lukashenka [said] that neither his first- or second-born son would ever be president.
Some analysts espouse the view that all these cadre reshuffles point to an heir-apparent scenario for Viktar Lukashenka, who has been steadily promoted by his father to his present position of senior aide. It should be noted, however, that during an April 2007 press conference Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself flatly disavowed such a scheme, saying that neither his first- or second-born son (Viktar or Dzmitry) would ever be president.

"Viktar is today and will tomorrow be weaker than the current president," Lukashenka said. "Why groom someone who is weaker?"

Certainly, Lukashenka may have been being less than honest, but why would he offer up such a harsh characterization of someone he was intending to promote?

Perhaps what it comes down to is that Viktar Lukashenka, rather than being the heir apparent, is more likely the key government representative of a group of young politicians surrounding the president. And this group is exploiting the closeness that exists between father and son to promote its interests -- even if those interests don't envisage posters bearing the words "Viktar for President!"

Yuri Drakakhrust is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Belarus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL