Belarus may encounter foreign trade deficit by late 2016
According to the National Statistics Committee, in October foreign trade deficit was the highest in 2016. The overall decrease in exports of Belarusian goods to foreign markets was due to a slump in prices on key Belarusian export items. Considering expected growth in consumer imports in November and December, current foreign trade surplus may not be enough for keeping overall foreign trade surplus after year-end.
According to the National Statistics Committee, foreign trade deficit in January-October 2016 was USD 2 965 million. In the same period in 2015, the deficit was USD 2 274 million. In October 2016, foreign trade deficit reached its maximum volume and totalled USD 545.5 million. The deterioration in foreign trade in October was due to the increase in natural gas supplies in connection with the beginning of the heating season, and cuts in oil supplies from Russia to Belarus entailing a decrease in petrochemicals export.
Belarus' foreign trade in 2016 was hit by a slump in prices on exported goods (by 16% compared with 2015), while import prices reduced by 9%. Exports of petrochemicals in January-September 2016 reduced by 38% or by USD 2 billion, due to the cuts in oil supplies from Russia from 2 million tons to 1.2 million tons per month. Negative trends also affected the second most important export item, Belarusian potash fertilisers. The average price for potash decreased as compared with 2015 by 25% and totalled USD 220 per ton, export volumes fell by 11% to 6.7 million tons, which led to an overall reduction in potash exports by USD 724 million. Exports of other Belarusian products could not compensate for these losses.
Thanks to exports in transport, construction and IT sector, Belarus managed to retain surplus in foreign trade in January-September 2016 at USD 390 million. In November and December consumer imports are likely to increase, reduced supply of oil will continue until early 2017, which means that export of petrochemicals is unlikely to increase. Re-exports of vegetables and fruits to Russia were scrapped; and import of natural gas will increase due to the winter season. Low prices on the potash market are likely to retain, which means that potash exports will not compensate for the increase in imports.
Overall, the seasonal increase in imports of natural gas and the negative price trends for key Belarusian export items have led to a sharp deterioration in foreign trade in October 2016. Foreign trade surplus in November and December 2016 is unlikely to compensate for the overall deficit of foreign trade in 2016.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.