The Heavy Price of Belarusian Agriculture
Belarus is one of the world's top 10 butter producing countries.
However, such an achievement comes at a price – every year the agricultural sector in Belarus requires at least $750m on average in government subsidies. This is more than the Belarusian army, police force, health care sector and education budgets all together, according to the Polskie Radio
Today, even in Belarus not many people are aware that the main share of the Belarusian agricultural sector is composed of cooperative farms or so-called agricultural enterprises.
Contemporary Belarusian cooperative farms are the legacy of the "kolkhoz" – a collective farm that formed the basis of agricultural politics in the Soviet Union for its entire existence. Belarus is the only country in the world that has retained such a system. More than 60% of such collective farms do not generate any profit.
Belarusian agricultural renaissance
For more than 20 years, the Belarusian agricultural sector has existed in a limbo state. While current decision makers talk about the necessity of reforms, collective farms continue to function according to the pattern established during the Soviet era. Between 2001-2006, some collective farms were renamed "agricultural enterprises" but the essence of the command economy and governmental subsidies persisted.
collective farms have been renamed "agricultural enterprises" but the essence of the command economy and governmental subsidies persisted Read more
Today, despite being called cooperatives, large scale Belarusian farms have little cooperation or local decision making powers. The workers don’t see themselves as owners, but rather as hired temporary employees. Their performance quality reflects low wages. Farm management is not locally elected, but appointed from the neighboring political district. Moreover, almost none of the managers are specifically educated and the management turnover period can be as little as one year.
Critics of contemporary collective farms see such agricultural politics as old-fashioned. According to economist Mihail Zaleski, current decision makers, and Lukashenka in particular, can’t seem to think outside the pattern set by the agricultural encyclopedia from the Stalin era. Industrialization of the agricultural sector remains a priority for the Belarusian government, while in Europe it is rather a result of corporatization and agricultural-industrial integration.
the size of an average collective farm in Belarus is 100 times bigger than those in Europe Read more
The Belarusian government currently thinks according to the motto ‘the bigger, the better.’ Today, the size of an average collective farm in Belarus is 100 times bigger than its European counterpart and the average size is around 22 thousand hectares. Given current scaling and management problems, it is clear that such agricultural enterprises are be unprofitable. Even enormous subsidies from the Belarusian state are not enough to assure the efficiency of such giants.
The financial drain
Around $43.8bn have been invested into the agricultural sector in Belarus over the last five years.
At the annual agricultural celebration "Dagynki", in 2014, Lukashenka admitted that the country invests around $2bn into the agricultural sector yearly. At the same time, 60% of agricultural enterprises would fail without governmental support. Around 1/6 of collective farms in Belarus generate losses that are greater than the financial investments poured into them.
Despite all the investment into giant agricultural enterprises, they are suffering from a declining workforce and lack of adequate technical equipment. For example, in the collective farm of the Biaroza district in the Brest region, harvest machine drivers were only able to work every other day due to broken or unavailable equipment during the summer months.
Salaries in the farms can be as low as 25$ a month during the low season Read more
Salaries in the farms can be as low as 25$ a month during the low season, while the highest recorded salary is about 350$ for narrow specialists in the agricultural sector. An average milkmaid in the Biaroza district works for 60$ a month in the winter season, despite the fact that the workday starts as early as 4 am and ends late at night.
Accordingly, the number of people living in villages and working for agricultural enterprises has decreased from 29,9% to 24,9% over the last 10 years. Around 620 thousand workers have left their workplaces to seek employment elsewhere. Those who remain generally have troubles with alcohol and are not able to find a job anywhere else. To combat such a decline, the Belarusian government has even attempted to run campaigns to attract foreign workforce, primarily from the former Soviet republics.
So where does the money go? In 2013 one hectare of agricultural land incorporated into the collective farm required $110 of donations. At the same time, private farmers received only $28 per hectare.
Experts think the problem lies in a lack of comprehensive privatisation processes which would allow for better, smaller scale management and more effective resource allocation. Moreover, there is another larger scale problem: the Belarusian government is reluctant to grant private land property rights and can currently revoke them at any time.
The second problem is that such agricultural enterprises have high debts. Nobody wants to acquire a farm when the cost is so much higher than theoretical profits. Today, the debt of agricultural enterprises is about 1.7 times higher than the average income they make. It would be rational to allow privatisation for a nominal cost, for example at a fixed basic amount that today equals roungly $10.
The future of the Belarusian agricultural sector
One solution attempted by the Belarusian government was to ‘attach’ the farms to industrial units or business enterprises. However, that also didn’t work out very well: the most successful farm “Agra-Kuhtichi” curated by Belarusbank, Belarus's largest commercial bank, made only about $90,000 in profits a year. The least successful of the three attached farms “Agra-Navatar” made only about $9,000. Recently, the bank refused to curate any agricultural enterprises.
According to most experts, it is impossible to adapt current agricultural enterprises to a market economy. The farms have to downsize and acquire local leadership and participation investment. Economist Mihail Zaleski is sure that sooner or later privatisation will occur, but its results might be far from ideal.
In the worst-case scenario, large agricultural farms would become private property of higher level functionaries in a way reminiscent of feudalism rather than contemporary enterprise.
One of the biggest problems in the agricultural sector development today is that all decrees and decisions are taken in Minsk, far away from the land. Lack of comprehensive agricultural sector reforms is dragging the whole country’s development down and does not permit proper capital accumulation.
Following the successful examples of neighbouring countries’ agricultural transformations, such as Poland, Belarus could be on its way to an economic revival.
Your Tomorrow, Global Belarusians Meeting, ADNaK! Winners – Civil Society Digest
City show releases final episode. First Ostrogorski Forum on Belarusian foreign policy and security. Your Tomorrow project assists in looking for a job for Belarusians who studied abroad. Vilnius hosts Global Belarusians Meeting. Art Siadziba offers assistance to BRSM in organising Vyshyvanka Day.
Imena online magazine is looking for investors. OEEC launches new educational course for female community leaders. 1,5 year and $2m donations – Belarusian Children's Hospice opens its doors for small visitors. Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections campaign starts releasing weekly reports on observations of the upcoming Parliamentary elections. This and more in the new edition of Civil Society Digest.
The City show sums up results. In the final 11th episode, The City project shows how a children pirate ship was built in Braslaŭ, the Little Prince was painted in Kamianiec and if other participants continued implementation of their initiatives. The City project was attended by 17 participants from 11 cities; attracted local resources and volunteer help for around $6,000 and mobilised over 2,000 people in project activities.
Global Belarusians Meeting in Vilnius. EESC in cooperation with partners is holding the Global Belarusians Meeting, which takes place on 29 June – 1 July , in Vilnius, Lithuania. The meeting gathered renowned Belarusian experts of Belarusian culture and identity from Belarus, Lithuania, and other countries to discuss a joint Lithuanian-Belarusian past, contemporary Belarusian culture, etc. The official opening took place at Vilnius Town Hall.
Art Siadziba offers assistance to BRSM in organizing Vyshyvanka Day. The pro-governmental Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) uses an idea of Art Siadziba CSO in its event and organises Vyshyvanka Day/Embroidery Day at the Palace of Sports on 2 July. In 2014, Art Siadziba conducted the similar event without any state support. Now CSO activists decide not to fight plagiarism but help make the event interesting.
First Ostrogorski Forum. On 29 June, the Ostrogorski Centre held a conference on Belarusian foreign policy and security. The conference featured five studies conducted in spring 2016 with grant support from the Mott Foundation and Pontis Foundation. Speakers discussed issues including Belarusian soft power in the region, Belarusian-Russian relations after the conflict in Ukraine, etc.
Your Tomorrow project was presented by the Salidarnaść Committee on June 29. The project aims to create a community of young professionals who studied abroad and willing to work in Belarus. A new project can be useful for more than 18 thousand Belarusians who received or are receiving education abroad. Surveys show that more than 50% of recent graduates would like to return to Belarus.
Solve Together: course for community leaders. Office of European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) invites grassroots leaders to participate in the educational course aimed to help female community leaders to increase their competencies in identifying and solving local problems, considering the interests of women and vulnerable groups. Priority in participation is given to women. Deadline for applications is 1 July .
Imena invites investors. The online magazine Imena/Names tells about Belarusians, who got in trouble and those who help others. During the first 2,5 months, the magazine has got 120 thousand unique users; 5 thousand followers in social networks and BYR 93m (roughly $4,700) collected in support of its heroes. The magazine requests support from its readers, in order not to depend on advertisers, international grants or subscription.
1,5 year and BYR 38.5bn (roughly $2m) donations: Belarusian Children's Hospice opened. On June 16, the ceremony of the official opening of the Belarusian Children's Hospice took place near Minsk. The hospice was built via crowdfunding, without state budget money. From July 1, Hospice will start taking seriously ill children and their parents. As a non-governmental non-profit organisation, the Belarusian Children's Hospice provides its services for free.
Business and civil society
aDNaK! announced the winners. On 30 June , an award ceremony of the Festival of Belarusian advertising and communications aDNaK! took place in Minsk. Initiated by Budzma campaign, for 7 years the festival is a communication platform that gathers professionals and beginners of the advertising market and encourages the creation of Belarusian-oriented advertising. This year Festival got 285 applications from 135 participants.
Non-food stallholders held another national forum in Minsk on 13 June. The event was hosted by Dom Moskvy (House of Moscow), a building owned by the Moscow city government. The forum was organised by a small business association called Perspektyva that campaigns against president's Edict No.222 that introduced controversial rules for non-food stallholders.
Student activists make series about Bologna Process (video). Two series are already out. The protagonist, Mr. Bologne, explains how the university autonomy works and what the quality of education is. "Belarus joined the Bologna Process on May 14, 2015 but no serious reforms have been carried out so far,” the authors of the series noted.
First report on the results of observation. The civil campaign Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections starts releasing the weekly reports on observations of the upcoming Parliamentary elections scheduled for September 11, 2016. The report of June 7-12 concludes that the current election campaign has a more favourable domestic political background as compared to last year's presidential election.
People's voting for the non-formal event of the year. More than 50 Belarusian educational projects/events are presented for people's voting within the VI Festival of Non-Formal Education, which will be held in Minsk on 7-9 July. The voting is available via social networks until July 5. The awards ceremony will be held on 8 July, at the Festival.
Mahilioŭ authorities denied registration to a local Center For Gender Studies Ruža. According to the NGO’s head, Aliena Barysava, the ban referred to an absence of gender discrimination in the country, as “gender equality is guaranteed by the Constitution of Belarus”. Therefore, equality is secured by authorised government bodies, while eradicating discrimination is allegedly beyond the NGO’s competence.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.