Minsk must tell Belarusians how it will overcome crisis

The Belarusian authorities must explain to the public what steps they intend to take to combat the serious economic crisis facing the country, the head of the IMF mission in Belarus said on Monday.

There is a serious economic crisis, IMF representative Chris Jarvis said at a press conference in Minsk, but there is a way out. The state must explain to the public what is happening and that it intends to do, he said.

The comments come as Belarusians get used to standing in lines to buy foreign currency and cheap vegetables in scenes reminiscent of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet times.

Currency is almost impossible to buy in exchange offices but there are still hundreds of people waiting for any to become available. There are regular roll calls to check the waiting list and anyone not appearing is crossed off.

Jarvis said the IMF recommended the government move to a free floating exchange rate, which would reduce the budget and current account deficits. It would also, he said, effectively cut workers’ salaries and create uncertainty in the market.

Belarusians aren’t just lining up for hard currency, though – dozens will wait in line for discounted produce. In Minsk, substandard tomatoes cost about a dollar per kilogram, while standard-quality tomatoes are about twice the price. Quality cucumbers are $1.50 per kilogram, but the cheapest go for just 20 cents.

Except for oranges and bananas, once plentiful imported fruits such as kiwi, mandarins, pineapples, avocados and grapes have all but disappeared from shelves, and their prices are now extravagant for middle-income Belarusians.

It’s the same situation with fish. Saltwater species, which have to be imported in the land-locked country, are especially scarce, and there are only two or three varieties on the shelves, where there were 20 or 30 before.

The cheapest cigarettes are still available, but smokers used to higher-priced brands may struggle to get their usual nicotine fix. Imported appliances are no longer available, and even the Belarusian Atlanta brand refrigerators and washing machines are much more expensive. Imported detergents and other cleaning and hygiene products are also in short supply, with many supermarket shelves sparsely populated.

But help is on the way – the first tranche of a $3 billion loan from the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) is due this month. Meanwhile, Belarus is seeking up to $8 billion from the IMF. Jarvis said on Monday that there would be no political element to any loan deal, but it would be dependent on economic reforms.

MINSK, June 13 (RIA Novosti)

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