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Lukashenka Fells Longtime Ally, Leaving Belarus-Watchers Stumped

Sixty-six-year-old Barys Batura's career stretches back to the Soviet era, when he worked in the communal-services sector and eventually rose through the ranks to serve a sturdy 12-year term as housing minister.
Sixty-six-year-old Barys Batura's career stretches back to the Soviet era, when he worked in the communal-services sector and eventually rose through the ranks to serve a sturdy 12-year term as housing minister.
On November 30, 2012, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took a tour of the Borisovdrev timber mill in central Minsk Oblast. He didn't like what he saw.

The mill, which began life as the Berezina match factory in 1901, was still selling millions of matchboxes a year to Russia, Turkey, and Iran. But profits were down and the mill was unkempt, surrounded by fields of mud and discarded equipment.

Disgusted, Lukashenka turned to a cadre of local officials, including First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Semashka and Minsk Oblast Governor Barys Batura, and issued an ultimatum broadcast on state TV that night.

"By the 7th of November next year, I want this place spotless, like Semyashka and Batura have promised," the president said, then repeated for emphasis: "The 7th of November. Next year."

"That's impossible," an official was heard to say off-camera, eliciting a rejoinder from Lukashenka: "Spotless!"

A year and one day later, Lukashenka returned to Borisovdrev, which had received a brightly colored new facade and some technical improvements.

Mill authorities had planned a carefully choreographed walkthrough to highlight the facelift.

But Lukashenka quickly veered off path, rounding a corner to encounter the same fields of mud and cobwebbed machinery, some dating back to the 1950s.

Infuriated, Lukashenka strode up to an Interior Ministry official and ordered him to fire Batura and others who he said were responsible for the mess.

"Remove Batura from his post and send him here to run the factory. Here," Lukashenka said. "If in three days, he hasn't come to work, launch a criminal case against him. And if he doesn't get things under control by spring -- as he told me, it could be done in 10 days -- I'll launch a criminal case against you!"

In the end, Lukashenka scrambled the entire management at the Borisovdrev mill and fired a number of other top-ranking officials, including the deputy head of the presidential administration, Andrey Tur, and Alyaksandr Pereslavtsau, the head of the Bellesbumprom wood and paper-product concern.

The public dressing-down, delivered in Lukashenka's inimitable collective-farm slang, was played repeatedly on the television news as Belarusians attempted to read between the lines of the president's latest purge.

Loyal Lieutenant

But it was the firing of Batura, a veteran of Belarus's political class, that surprised many. Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service shortly after his dismissal, the 66-year-old Volovysk native said he was not planning to report for work at the timber mill and instead was looking forward to an early retirement.

Asked by an RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent about the threat of a criminal case, Batura responded: "If they do that, so be it. We're like bonded labor. It's not a good feeling."

The career of the white-haired Batura stretches back to the Soviet era, when he worked in the communal-services sector and eventually rose through the ranks to serve a sturdy 12-year term as housing minister.

He is widely credited with reversing local economic woes while serving as head of the Mogilev region. In Minsk Oblast, he has been Lukashenka's front man on controversial plans for a $5 billion Chinese industrial park and an ongoing row with Russia over sales of potash, a critical ingredient in fertilizer.

Throughout, Batura has been seen as a loyal, compliant, and uncomplaining. But he has occasionally hinted at the style of leadership favored by the autocratic Lukashenka, who enjoys absolute power in a way that even Vladimir Putin might envy.

'Comrade, Not Master'

Even while serving in Mogilev, Batura acknowledged that he took his orders directly from above, saying, "I don't plan anything. It's our president who plans everything." Speaking to local residents in Minsk Oblast, he once referred to himself as "a comrade, not a master."

Minsk Oblast is home to some of Belarus's most successful industries -- average salaries in Salihorsk, the center of the country's potash industry, are reportedly higher even than those in the capital, Minsk.

But unlike Russia, where gubernatorial appointments are often seen as a free pass to personal enrichment, such profiteering is relatively rare in Belarus.

Batura's post, therefore, did not necessarily signal his standing as a Lukashenka favorite or a pocket-lining bureaucrat slowly building his own power base.

"There is Lukashenka, and then there's everyone else," one Belarusian analyst noted. "They spend their careers trying to demonstrate that they're close to him. That's what matters to them most."

'Dead End'

Others saw the dismissals as a sign of Lukashenka's growing instability, particularly as he seeks reelection in 2015.

Lukashenka, who has maintained an unrelenting crackdown on Belarus's political opposition, has also directed angry rhetoric at both Brussels and Moscow, and has fired a number of high-ranking officials in the past year, including his foreign minister, KGB chief, and the heads of the country's 2012 Olympic team.

His style of leadership-by-pronouncement was even emphasized this week, when he reportedly called for an alleged murderer to be sentenced to death, even before the man had been put on trial.

"The Belarusian president is distinguished by an exceptional rancor and cruelty," Russian analyst Andrei Suzdaltsev wrote on the site.

"The whole thing is reminiscent of the situation in the Stalin bureaucracy in 1952-53 -- everyone had already had enough and were simply waiting for a way out from what everyone could see was a dead end."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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