Greece and Belarus are two largely Orthodox Christian nations in Central Europe. Both have roughly the same size populations. And both, according to international bond ratings agencies, are now virtually bankrupt.
Over the last year, European Union officials have labored to persuade Greece to accept a $161 billion aid package under International Monetary Fund supervision. Greek politicians have hemmed and hawed. This month, as many as 500,000 Greeks at one time took to the streets to protest IMF conditions. (In Athens, a favorite anti-IMF rallying cry refers to the New
York hotel incident involving former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn: “The maid resisted. What do we do?”)
Contrast that to Belarus.
For almost a year, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has asked for $8 billion in aid from Russia, his partner in a customs union.
Last week, the check finally arrived — for $800 million. (And $42 million of that was to come straight back to Moscow to pay Belarus’ overdue electricity bill. This money did not come back, and Moscow turned off the power on June 29).
And like any good banker, the Kremlin tied the loan to property that can be seized. In this case, the aid money is tied to Russian negotiations to take over 100 percent control of Soviet-era pipelines that carry Russian gas to Western Europe.
On Friday in Minsk, Martin Raiser, the World Bank Country Director for
Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, saw no reason for hand holding. At the conclusion of a three-day visit to Belarus, he told reporters: “Notwithstanding the social achievements of the past, Belarus’s economic model has run out of steam.”
The IMF is equally cool to Belarus.
In early June, Belarus asked the IMF for $8 billion in aid. This money would follow $3.5 billion that the fund provided in 2009-2010. Many economists say President Lukashenko squandered most of this money on boosting salaries and pensions, trying to buy the December 2010 presidential elections.
Chris Jarvis, the head of the IMF team in Belarus, recently told reporters in Minsk that any new aid would be contingent upon “a strong program” to restructure Belarus’s state-dominated economy. He warned: “We would also have to be sure that all actors — the president, government, and national bank — are committed to that program.”
This prompted Bloomberg to headline: “Lukashenka Must Choose Between Belarus Control or IMF Aid.”
Hoping to prolong his 17-year stay in power, Lukashenko now is preparing to sell what many Belarussians call “the family silver” – the rent-producing gas lines and Belaruskali, a state-owned potash giant that brings in about $1 billion a year in revenue to the treasury. In a recent rambling five-hour “press conference,” Lukashenko tried to soften up public opinion, saying that Belaruskali,, the nation’s largest enterprise, should not be made “into a Holy Grail.”
If the Belarusian president meets his goal of selling this fertilizer giant for $30 billion, he could keep the “Belarus miracle” afloat for a few more years.
Given Belarus’ near total isolation, this may be the only route open to Lukashenko.
European taxpayers are prepared to lend Greece $14,250 for each Greek man, woman and child. In contrast, Russia’s aid to Belarus amounts to $84 per person.
The difference boils down two intangibles that economists like to talk about: goodwill and brand.
Europe loves Greece because they love to go on vacation there. In 2008, 16 million tourists visited Greece, the vast majority visa-free.
In contrast, a visa to Belarus costs around $150 and is only issued with an invitation from an accredited organization within Belarus. At last count, Belarus ranked in 161st place worldwide for receiving foreign visitors – 91,000 in 2008.
When I came here last December, there were no taxis at Minsk airport. I felt I had flown into a Slavic North Korea. Finally, after 45 minutes standing in the snow, I shared a cab into town with a nice young man from Lebanon who was here to meet his internet bride.
Then there is the brand issue.
Ancient Greece, as everyone knows, was the cradle of democracy. Today, modern Greeks sing a national anthem called ‘Hymn to Liberty.”
Belarus has a very different brand.
In April 2005, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a visit to Moscow and Lithuania sought to help reporters put neighboring Belarus into perspective. She said that under Lukashenko, Belarus “is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe.”
The Bush administration has come and gone. But “the last dictatorship in Europe” label has stuck to Lukashenko like a wet leaf on his shoe. He just can’t shake it.
Not that he tries very hard. On Wednesday evening, his black shirted riot police were filmed physically throwing young men and women face down onto the steel floors of prison trucks.
Their crime: walking on sidewalks in downtown Minsk and clapping their hands.
Police also detained 16 journalists, breaking their equipment in the process. The Swedish Foreign Ministry complained that police manhandled and briefly detained their charge d’affaires, who was observing the protest.
Only days earlier, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had appealed for European attention to the economic plight of Belarus.
“We are, of course, focusing on the situation in Greece. We are all worried
about that,” Bildt said. “But Belarus might be even worse in terms of financial collapse.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington, Brussels or Stockholm to approve an IMF bailout for Lukashenko’s Belarus.
— Follow me on Twitter @VOA_Moscow