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Belarus cracks down on growing protests

Belarus security services detained at least 450 protesters in the wake of rallies across the country against the strong-armed measures of President Alexander Lukashenko.

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Lukashenko's policies to manage the budget shortfall, estimated at 16 percent of GDP, have shifted most of the pain onto the population. Measures include a steep devaluation of the Belarussian ruble, state price controls on basic foodstuffs, fuel rationing and export bans to prevent Belarussians from trading in neighboring Poland or Russia.

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Economic meltdown

Experts say efforts to freeze gas and basic food prices have led to panic buying and the inevitable shortages, while the best produce now finds its way onto a burgeoning black market. The Belarussian ruble has lost about 60 percent of its value since January, including a whopping 36 percent devaluation in May. A US dollar officially costs about 5,000 rubles, but can rarely be found in currency exchanges; on the street dollars can be bought for 8,000 rubles and up.

Belarus's industrial economy, which depends heavily on increasingly unaffordable imported inputs, has slowed disastrously.

"Many of my students, who combine study with work, say they've been fired, forced to take unpaid leave, or had their salaries slashed," says Oleg Manayev, director of the Institute of Sociology, Economy and Political Studies.

"Our polling shows that people overwhelmingly blame the authorities for the deterioration in living standards," he says. "That's something new. We didn't see that even a couple years ago."

Lukashenko may find temporary salvation in yielding to Russian demands and letting go of key assets, though that may eventually undermine his 17-year-old system of rule, especially the ability to placate the population with high public spending.

Early this month Moscow media reported that Russian fertilizer tycoon Suleiman Kerimov, a close associate of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was in talks to buy a controlling share of Belaruskali, one of the world's biggest potash producers, for as much as $7 billion.

That kind of cash infusion might enable Lukashenko to close this year's budget gap, consolidate his rule and possibly ride out the storm, says Mr. Romanchuk.

"We are deep into this crisis, and we don't see any steps toward liberalization from Lukashenko," he says. "If he can get what he wants by selling off one or two assets, the pressure will be off and he won't see any need to undertake reforms," that might eventually allow a market-driven economic recovery.

"That might work for him, at least for a while, but things for ordinary Belarussians are going to keep getting worse," he says.

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