By Yauheni Preiherman
Until 30 June all young Belarusians who want to become political analysts at government institutions can apply for a special competitive program. The organisers of the program say that they are looking for fresh ideas and competent professionals.
The program started last year when the Information and Analytical Centre under the Presidential Administration in cooperation with other state institutions launched an unusual project called “Smart Network”. It aims to find young analysts for the government. First the project’s participants were asked to contribute to drafting Alexander Lukashenka’s annual address to the nation. Now they will make recommendations for the 2016-2020 Program of Socioeconomic Development of Belarus.
The project looks more like a PR campaign or competition between different groups inside the government than a real attempt to recruit young minds. The Belarusian authorities have never expressed much interest in fresh ideas. Moreover, the existing bureaucratic machine discourages young officials from independent thinking and taking initiative.
“Looking for Competent Young Professionals”
According to the deputy director of the Information and Analytical Centre (IAC) Alyaksey Matsevila, the “Smart Network” is a platform for “competent young professionals who want to engage in serious analytics and not emotional discussions”. To find such professionals the IAC together with the Ministry of Education, Republican Institute of the Higher School, Belarusian State University and Minsk State Linguistic University announced an open call in October 2012.
The program targets Belarusians under the age of 35 who either already have graduate degrees or are currently in their last university years. The educational background does not matter as long as applicants meet three core criteria: good analytical skills, wide political science horizons and willingness to create analytical product for practical use by government bodies. Knowledge of foreign languages is not obligatory but an advantage (particularly English and Chinese).
At the first stage of the project all applicants had to submit short essays on one of the following topics:
Does Belarus need political reforms?
What model of privatisation can be suitable for Belarus?
Socially oriented state: patronage or responsibility?
Can Belarus combine the European and Eurasian vectors of integration?
Social networks: the basis of the future, cyber weaponry or a journalistic myth?
After a closed revision process the 25 best essay authors participated in a week-long training seminar. And then they presented their individual projects with suggestions for President Lukashenka’s annual address to the nation and parliament.
The major promise of the project was that the finalists would get positions at the IAC and other government institutions. However, according to Alyaksey Matsevila, because of the 25% cut of the bureaucracy only 1 out of the 25 finalists became a government employee at the Ministry of Education.
Now the organisers of the “Smart Network” have announced a new call. The procedure and requirements mostly remain the same. But this time the participants will discuss the post-2015 agenda for Belarus. They will work on ideas for the 2016-2020 Program of Socioeconomic Development, which is the main document in the Belarusian system of state planning.
The scale of the project also seems to be growing. The organisers intend to invite 90 participants to a special conference in autumn. According to the call for applications, the conference will take a more practical than scholarly focus and in a way will remind an ideas fair. The participants will present their recommendations for the program and then choose the best ones.
The IAC’s representatives claim that about 75% of Lukashenka’s annual address contained points suggested by the participants of the “Smart Network”. They expect that their work on the Program of Socioeconomic Development will be as effective.
Wishful Plans and Sad Reality
The words of the organisers do not look trustworthy. In the Belarusian political reality it is difficult to imagine that out of a sudden the government starts listening to some young experts and incorporating their recommendations in the president’s address to the nation.
According to sources in various state bodies, even the suggestions of different ministries often get ignored or distorted by speechwriters in the Presidential Administration or Lukashenka himself. When choosing priorities, they stick to some very specific logic that sometimes has little to do with the realities on the ground. Certainly, there is little place for usually idealistic views of young intellectuals in the reasoning inside the Presidential Administration.
Moreover, the IAC itself does not seem to value much opinions of young analysts. Two months ago another deputy director of the Centre Vitaly Dashkevich publicly criticised young experts and commentators. He said that to give expert comments a person at least needs to hold PhD in a corresponding field of studies. Even though Dashkevich himself holds no academic degree and is chemist by training, this statement seems to reflect the attitudes towards young analysts among the IAC staff.
Move Against Independent Think Tanks?
Thus, the motives of the IAC and the government in general remain unclear. Why do they need the “Smart Network” if they have no particular interest in young analysts?
One of the obvious hypothesis goes that the “Smart Network” should serve the purpose of preventing young Belarusians from joining independent think tanks. The latter are becoming increasingly visible in policy discussions and popular among young intellectuals.
This hypothesis can explain a number of things.
Firstly, why the organisers launched such an impressive PR campaign around the project. Normally, if the IAC or other state institutions really needed talented young employees they would simply contact the management of universities and ask for their best students and graduates.
Secondly, why the representatives of the IAC all the time refer to some other organisations and analysts. The coordinator of the project Alyaksey Metsevila stresses it in the press that, in contrast to NGOs, participants of the “Smart Network” are competent to do real political analysis rather than express emotional opinions to the media.
Or Competition within the Regime?
Another hypothesis that circulates in the Presidential Administration points to a possibility of some form of competition among different groups in the governing circles. Usevalad Yancheuski, Lukashenka’s aide and head of the Ideology Department in the Presidential Administration, is said to be behind the idea of the “Smart Network”. Given the rumours about his ambitions for the future, he might indeed be forming a base of support in the government institutions.
Anyway, it would be interesting if the “Smart Network” were more transparent and allowed open discussions. Then everyone could see the level of the project and even learn from the participants (if they are really super competent). Unfortunately, the IAC refuses to make the contents of the project open for the general public. And this only causes additional suspicions.