Belarus’ foreign trade: at an all-time low

April 22, 2016 19:03

In October 2014, Belarus’ foreign trade deficit exceeded USD 500 million. Foreign trade has deteriorated. This is mainly due to the the National Bank’s exchange rate policy, as well as the devalued Russian rouble. If the exchange rate policy is retained,  international trade deficit may reach USD 3.5 billion by the year-end. To normalise the export situation, the authorities may be tempted introduce a one-off devaluation of the Belarusian rouble.

In October 2014, foreign trade deficit was at its lowest for 2014 . For the second month in a row, Belarusian exports were below the USD 3 billion threshold. At the same time, imports have reached USD 3.5 billion, with crude oil topping the list of imported goods. In addition, crude oil prices have declined significantly in recent months. In October, costs of oil imports decreased by USD 45 million compared with September.

The foreign trade situation has deteriorated mainly due to the National Bank’s exchange rate policy. Amid gradual devaluation of the Belarusian rouble against the US Dollar, devaluation of the Russian rouble means that exports to Russia have fallen, while imports from Russia are on the rise. For instance, private persons took advantage of the fall in dollar prices on cars in Russia and significantly increased car imports. Import of foodstuffs has grown too. That said, due to higher prices, Belarusian foodstuffs are no longer competitive on the Russian market. In addition, a seasonal factor has increased the pressure on foreign trade – imports of natural gas and pharmaceuticals have grown as the weather gets colder.

In the given circumstances, there are two options. The first is to devalue the Belarusian rouble by lowering incomes. This option implies rapidly cutting cross-subsidies, lay-offs at enterprises, and decreasing wages in the economy. In this scenario, the Belarusian rouble could be devalued more rapidly than currently planned. The second option is to have a one-off devaluation of the rouble by 40-50% in order to normalise the situation with exports. This scenario would not solve the foreign currency debt problem at enterprises but would rapidly reduce people’s incomes, unload stocks, and increase exports.

If the exchange rate policy remains unchanged, with no adjustments to employment or wages, the situation with exports will deteriorate and will require the national currency to be substantially devalued - unless Belarus receives external financial aid. A large loan could freeze the situation for some time, but would not solve the problem. The first option is preferable, but it is difficult to implement. The authorities may even decide to hold a one-off devaluation in the election year and blame the population for it – for example, for swelling demand for foreign currency by converting their rouble savings into hard currency.

The National Bank’s exchange rate policy has led to an increase in foreign trade imbalances. The authorities may decide to devalue the national currency and pin the blame for everything on external factors as well as the population who decided to protect their savings by buying foreign currency.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.