Belarus Economy: In a Queue for US Dollars
The Belarus Ministry of Statistics reports that the GDP growth for January-February was 7.8%. It could seem impressive but other indicators tell us a totally different story. The gross external debt for 2010 was already US$28.5 bn, which makes 53% of GDP and it continues to rise. And the total foreign reserves contracted to US$4 bn (by 25% from December 2010), while the foreign currency reserves account has only US$1.3 bn (see Belarus National Bank statistics). In January-February the deficit of trade balance was nearly US$2 bn. It is only with Russia that it reached US$1.3 bn in those two months. So the foreign currency reserves are barely enough to cover the monthly amount of import.
The data perfectly illustrates that Belarus did not live within its means. The GDP growth is backed by an increase in debt. Resources (including foreign currency reserves) are spent to produce goods, which do not sell, but accumulate in stockpiles. Such a situation creates an enormous pressure on national currency. For many years the government was able to keep it stable and overpriced, but with the melting of foreign currency reserves it became a real challenge. The devaluation is obvious and necessarily measure for Belarus’ economy, but without complex reforms it will not become a cure. In its last report on Belarus, IMF points out the importance of Belarusian rouble devaluation, but warns the government to avoid administrative measures aiming to restrain the washing out of foreign currency reserves. Unfortunately Belarusian officials do not know any other economic tools besides presidential decrees or bans.
At the beginning of March, the government restricted organistions operating in Belarus from buying foreign currency for importing equipment for more than 50,000 USD. But it only increased the awareness of Belarusians that something is wrong with the economy and they started to buy US dollars and Euros to protect their savings. The expectance of an increase in custom duties on foreign cars from 1st of July (when Belarus join the Custom Union with Russia and Kazakhstan) has also busted the demand for those cars and created an outflow of foreign currency. Under demands of pressure the National Bank allowed a 10% fluctuation of the currency rate for commercial banks instead of 2%, which in fact amounted to a devaluation of the national currency by 10%.
In few days time banks and exchanges were filled up by people standing in queues waiting to buy US dollars or Euros, which had simply disappeared. Afraid of further devaluation of Belarusian rouble some have already started to withdraw their foreign currency deposits or convert rouble deposits into the foreign currency ones. The whole banking system appeared under threat. The deficit in the availability of foreign currency has also provoked an increase of in demand for gold and other precious metals.
And what did National Bank or state officials do to deal with the problem? Instead of offering an official explanation and clarifying the situation to calm down the panic, the National Bank issued a new directive in which it banned itself from making any decisions until the end of April, when the Russian loan is expected. State media are also silent.
But what does this credit mean for Belarus and how much does it have to pay for such support? Similar to the IMF, Russia has required the Belarusian government to introduce a plan of economic reforms and seriously reduce budget spending. But only a select few believe in the noble motives of Russian government. Most Belarusian experts agree that the plan of reforms most likely will be supplemented by other economic and political concessions from Belarus government. Being in a strong bargaining position, Russia can require everything – from recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the sale of key Belarusian enterprises to Russian businesses.
Such glum tendencies in Belarus’ economy have begun floating rumours about an economic collapse soon. But even though the situation is really serious the government still has the means to relatively stabilize the economy at least for a year or two. With the help of privatization it can gain the necessarily resources. However, even if a default can be avoided it will be hard to avoid mass unemployment, which will happen as soon as the government cuts off state enterprises from subsidies and begins the restructuring process.
The contraction of budget spending by 50%, which was already proclaimed by government, without a large institutional support for business will put a lot of people in severe economic distress. In a normal economy, free labour force can easily find employment in the private sector. But it is highly questionable if this will be the case in Belarus, where the government still has a much too cold attitude towards the private sector.
Belarus: Sanctions Seem to Work
The regime acts quite logically given the critical situation in the financial system of Belarus. The devaluation of the Belarusian rouble seems almost inevitable now. The population of Belarus will see its living standards fall. The population’s loyalty to the government will also fall, respectively.
The few foreign investors who already had the bad luck of investing in Belarus are reported to be now withdrawing their money. The current financial problems have made hopes for an influx of new foreign investors, doubtful before, completely illusory. Without a significant positive signal from Belarus nobody will ever come back there again. And the best signal investors could get would only be democratisation and improved relations with other countries. Authorities need currency from whatever external sources possible. All this gives an unambiguous answer as to the feasibility of imposing economic sanctions by the West.
It may be argued that if western investors to not participate in the privatisation of Belarusian state assets, Russian investors in any case will. This may bring Belarus under bigger dependence from Russia.
This, however, may be an other argument in favour of a dialogue and coordinating efforts between the West, the Belarusian opposition and Russia. Besides that, the West remains key source of cash of the Belarusian regime in any case, by buying oil refining products from the state oil company BelOil.
Also, there is the eternal dilemma of whether the population of Belarus will not be hit harder by the sanctions than the regime. Some may also question whether the liberation of political prisoners and a stop of political terror should be paid by lower living standards of people not involved in politics.
In any case, December of 2010 must once again have taught everyone that Lukashenka’s regime only responds to harsh economic dictates in a situation where it has no space to maneuver. The fact that Lukashenko has reduced the possible sentences for several political prisoners should not create an illusion of progress in the democratization of the Belarusian regime.
To the contrary, it should be a signal that economic sanctions against Belarus should be introduced immediately and in the most rigid of possible forms. The regime is indeed afraid of them. It appears that only a concrete threat of sanctions can indeed motivate it to positive action. It is now high time to demonstrate this threat.
The introduction of economic sanctions should not be the subject of negotiations between the West and Lukashenka. The subject should be the lifting of them.