Belarus president appoints veteran 'silovik' to PM post amid dramatic election campaign

Belarus president appoints veteran 'silovik' to PM post amid dramatic election campaign
President Lukashenko contemplates upcoming election
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv June 4, 2020

Belarusian authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has appointed Roman Golovchenko, the chairman of the State Authority for Military Industry - a weapons export and military equipment arm of the Belarusian government - to the post of the nation's PM on the eve of the August presidential election.

On June 4, Lukashenko said the new PM is most importantly "a reliable person who can be trusted. He understands things, has first-hand knowledge," state propagandist news agency BELTA quoted the president as saying. "He is a reliable man, a patriot of his country, was born and raised in Belarus. Having travelled the world, he did not stay anywhere, in any country. It is very important for us now that patriots and professionals come to power."

On May 25, Lukashenko, Central and Eastern Europe's longest-ruling head of state, said that the reshuffle of the cabinet is "a matter of principle" for people to see who he would work with after the election.

"We do not do this after the elections when you have voted [...] This is why we need to prepare a new government, to decide how the new government will be formed before the elections - either it resigns or the president sends it off. We need to think about it. People need to understand that we are not departing from this principle. Almost a final government will be formed before the presidential election," he said, hinting at his victory during the election, which is considered by local and Western experts to be brazenly rubber-stamped.

Veteran 'silovik'

According to Golovchenko's official biography, he was born in August, 1973. He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Russian Foreign Ministry with a degree in international relations in 1996. Later, he earned a degree in economics and international economic activity management from the Academy of Public Administration under the aegis of Belarusian President Lukashenko.

In 1997-2002, Golovchenko was chief specialist of the nation's State Secretariat at the Security Council; in 2002-2005, deputy head of the Division at the General Prosecutor’s Office; in 2005-2006, principal counsellor of the Foreign Policy Department at the Belarus President Administration; in 2006-2009, principal counsellor of the International Security Cooperation Division, principal counsellor of the International Security Department of the State Secretariat at the Security Council.

In 2009, he wroked as minister counsellor at the Belarusian Embassy in Poland; in 2009-2013, as the first deputy minister of State Authority for Military Industry Republic of Belarus.

On June 3, Lukashenko said that the outgoing PM Sergei Rumas "wants to go into business" from the government. "He told me that he wants to do business, to earn money, that he can make big money," the president said. "I do not think that Sergei Rumas will leave the country and take all the money with him. He will invest it in the economy here. Everything should be fair and according to the law."

In August 2018, Lukashenko appointed Rumas, head of the nation's state development agency, the Development Bank of Belarus, to be the new premier instead of Andrei Kobiakov.

Unveiling the appointment, the president slammed the former government for attempts to re-start the stalled privatisation of state-owned companies. "Will they throw half of the employees out on the street, which is proposed by some investors who come to me and say that they don’t need that many workers? Such privatisation will not be allowed in Belarus, we don’t need such privatisation," Lukashenko's media office quoted him as saying at the time.

The re-start of privatisation was one of the key demands from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new loan programme for Minsk, which failed at the final stage due to Lukashenko's refusal to greenlight privatisation of state-owned companies and a sharp hike in utility tariffs.

Lukashenko also branded attempts to hike utility tariffs as a "brainless" policy. The president also said that his order to boost average monthly pay to BYN1,000 ($500) "had caused a panic" among the government's officials. According to Lukashenko, the former cabinet was warning that a hike would cause a collapse of the national currency, as well as "the collapse of the country".

Later in August 2018, Lukashenko said that he was forced to reshuffle the nation's government in August due to the fact that some senior officials "drank a lot", which is "unacceptable. I want to publicly say that heavy drinking is unacceptable," Lukashenko's media office quoted him as saying. "I was ashamed to say that many [government] officials whom I have recently dismissed drank a lot."

The statement followed the change of the nation's prime minister, four deputies and a number of ministers in a move, which Lukashenko explained was a result of attempts of the government to implement unpopular economic reforms, including reforms demanded by the IMF.

Dramatic election campaign

On June 1, Lukashenko pledged to prevent Ukraine-style street protests in his country during the August presidential election. "The goals are clear: to organise a Maidan in the run-up to the presidential election or on voting day. That was their plan. Using this meeting I would like to warn you and all people who will hear us, I want to warn all those ‘Maidan fanatics' that there will be no Maidans in Belarus," he said.

The statement appeared against a background of thousands of people in Minsk and other major Belarusian cities gathering on May 31 to protest against Lukashenko's rule, taking part in collecting signatures in support of opposition presidential bidders. In Minsk, some 2,000 people attended a protest.

Political tensions in Belarus have started to increase since the arrest of Sergei Tsikhanovski, a nationally known popular blogger, who is critical of the Belarusian authorities, on May 29. He was arrested while he and his supporters were collecting signatures in support of his wife’s presidential bid in the western city of Grodna.

On June 1, four Belarusian human rights groups declared that detained Tsikhanovski was a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release.

In May-June, Belarusian law enforcers detained or arrested hundreds of anti-government protestors, activists and journalists in different regions of the country.

Western reactions

On June 3, the missions of the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union on behalf of the EU member states represented in Minsk urged the Belarusian authorities to take the measures necessary to hold a safe, peaceful, free and fair August presidential election and to ensure fundamental freedoms.

"Citizens must be allowed to peacefully express their opinions. This is why we are also concerned regarding the recent detentions of peaceful protesters and imprisonments of journalists. We recall that tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal fundamental freedoms, rule of law and human rights will remain key for the shaping of our future policy towards Belarus," their statement reads.

Earlier in June, leading members of the European Parliament responsible for EU-Belarus relations condemned the new wave of arrests of presidential election candidates, opposition politicians and peaceful protesters in the country, and warned Minsk about possible sanctions targeting the officials responsible for these actions.