Under pressure from Eurasian Economic Integration – digest of the Belarusian economy
As of 26 December 2016, the oil and gas dispute between Belarus and Russia remains unresolved.
Moreover, Russia persistently rejects any tradeoffs: this deprives Belarus of a substantial part its foreign exchange earnings from petroleum product sales, thus aggravating the economic recession in Belarus.
In turn, the growth of state debt points to the formation of stable insolvency for most state-owned enterprises and increases the risk of a banking crisis in the economy.
The energy sector: losing ground
The current oil and gas dispute between Russia and Belarus has deteriorated since the beginning of the year. Minsk has decided to pay its own gas price of $73 (a fair price which conforms to the agreement on the transition to equal-income prices between countries). However, the contract claims that the price should be $132.
As a result, according to the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, Belarus owes approximately $340m for gas deliveries from January to September.
In response to this debt, Russia decided in the middle of the year to nearly halve the quantity of oil supplies to Belarusian refineries: from 5.3m to 3.5m tonnes in the third quarter of the year, and to only 3m tonnes in the fourth quarter. Moreover, on 23 December 2016 Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Arkady Dvorkovich announced the court proceedings on the gas dispute.
Meanwhile, after some improvement at the end of last year and in the first quarter of this year, the country's economic growth has worsened again. One of the main reasons for this is the reduction in the amount of Russian oil processed.
According to Prime Minister of Belarus Andrei Kobyakov, the loss of 1.6m tonnes of oil in the third quarter has led to a chain reduction in industrial production and wholesale trade resulting in a 0.3 per cent GDP drop. By the end of 2016, this drop could reach 0.5 per cent (see Figure 1).
In turn, this reduces the real income of the population and effective demand within the country, thus creating preconditions for the formation of deeper systemic problems in the economy. For example, the number of foreign companies to close has overtaken the number of newly registered ones in Belarus in 2016.
Economic integration: a time of tough decisions
The main Belarusian argument in the energy dispute is grounded in the process of Eurasian integration, which implies four key economic freedoms for the participants in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU): free movement of goods, services, capital and labour.
However, this integration project includes various exemptions and limitations. In particular, the plans for the formation of a single energy market has been delayed until 2025.
At the same time, the creation of a common electricity market for the EAEU is scheduled for mid-2019. However, Russia and Belarus must first reach a compromise. Since Belarus produces electricity mainly from gas, the country urgently needs equal prices with the Russian regions by 2019.
However, Russia has so far shown few signs of willingness to radically amend its position (by transitioning to equal-income prices); it is offering to compensate only $300m a year for the difference in gas prices and only through resale abroad of part of the Russian oil supplied to Belarusian refineries.
This scheme thus reduces the oil flow to Belarus, as well as the amount of petroleum products produced from it, further decreasing its foreign exchange earnings. Moreover, Russia wishes to determine the volumes of oil supplies to Belarus on a quarterly basis, increasing Belarus's economic dependence even further.
In addition, Russia may insist on other tough conditions, including a requirement to redirect the export of oil products from Baltic to Russian ports and to sell the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant – a very important asset for the Russian defence industry.
State debt: missing the target
The problems in the energy sector put pressure on the internal and external debt of Belarus. In particular, in 2017 Belarus may have to return approximately $3.5bn to its creditors.
At the same time, the economic slowdown in Russia (the main trading partner of Belarus) has led to the weakening of external demand for Belarusian products. As a result, export earnings have decreased and a substantial part of enterprises transfer from profitable to unprofitable, further limiting the ability of Belarusian enterprises to finance their debt obligations.
On 15 December 2016 Alisher Mirzoyev, the Director of the project group on financial loans of the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development, stated that the decrease in efficiency of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the low efficiency of long-term projects financed primarily through directed lending have formed a significant part of the debt burden in Belarus.
The directed lending has created large imbalances in the economy. For example, interest rates on preferential loans in 2015 reached only 9 per cent versus market rates of around 35 per cent. Therefore, according to the Deputy Minister of Economy of Belarus Dmitry Krutoy, in 2016 the volume of directed lending has decreased almost by half (from $20bn) in comparison with 2015.
However, risks of insolvency of SOEs still lead to loss of revenue for the country's budget. Moreover, deterioration of the financial conditions of SOEs lead to an increase in problem assets of the banking system and exacerbate the problem by creating an additional crisis in this sector of the economy.
For example, since the beginning of this year the share of problem assets of Belarusian banks has increased by 2.2 times. If at the beginning of January they constituted only 6.8 per cent of risk assets, in November they reached 14.9 per cent (see Figure 2).
Thus, the problems in the energy sector aggravate the economic recession in Belarus further, affecting the capabilities of profitable enterprises to repay their debts and harming the overall investment attractiveness of the country.
Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)