Currency plunges, IT giants eye exit in Belarus

MINSK: The Belarusian currency is tumbling in value and companies in its crucial IT sector are threatening to pull out after weeks of unprecedented protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarusians are desperately trawling banks and bureaux de change for foreign currency to salvage at least some of the value of their savings.
“The banks don’t have any foreign currency. Staff tell you to wait, that a customer might bring some,” said one customer at the country’s largest lender, Belarusbank, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The national currency is falling at a record rate, losing more than 10 per cent of its value against the euro and the dollar in the last month due to uncertainty over the deepening political standoff and fears of an economic crisis.
Over the last year, it has fallen 27 per cent against the dollar and 33 per cent against the euro.
In recent days, numerous Telegram accounts widely followed by the opposition have urged people to buy foreign currency to destabilise the rouble and therefore Lukashenko’s regime.
They have also encouraged people to boycott the giant state enterprises that are the bulwarks of Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economy and buy from private companies.
The president, re-elected in disputed polls on August 9, on Thursday condemned “scoundrels” who are “calling for destabilising the financial market.”
“We will not allow the national currency to collapse,” he vowed at a meeting on state enterprises, in comments reported by his press service.
Independent analyst Alexander Vasilyev acknowledged that some people were selling roubles “as a sign of protest” but said the amount involved was not enough “to significantly affect the exchange rate.”
The mood of dissatisfaction has also extended to the country’s strong IT sector, one of Belarus’s few success stories.
It is angry that the government has attempted to quell protests by repeatedly cutting off online access and raiding offices of Internet giants, seen by Lukashenko as playing a role in the protest movement.
More than 2,000 people working in the IT sector have signed an open letter calling for new elections and an end to political violence and Internet shutdowns, even threatening to move out of the country.
Russian Internet giant Yandex had its Minsk offices searched by armed law enforcement officers in mid-August.
It responded by closing its work space in the capital and transferring all of its approximately 300 staff to remote working.
Yandex has said that some employees have left Minsk but has not confirmed reports that it is beginning to move staff out of the country.
The Viber messaging app said on Twitter that it temporarily closed its office in Minsk earlier in the month due to “the safety concerns of our staff” and “Internet issues.”
The office reopened last week, it said.
The political crisis caused by Lukashenko’s re-election amid accusations of vote-rigging has also hit sectors of the economy with a high level of state intervention.
This comes as Russia has cut down on its largesse towards its smaller neighbour reliant on subsidised energy.
“Strikes in key sectors could further erode growth prospects, which were already weakened by oil supply disruptions and the pandemic,” Fitch analysts said in a note.
They estimated that GDP would contract by five per cent in 2020.
Workers at tractor, heavy machinery and potash plants — seen as Lukashenko’s political heartland — have downed tools and joined protests, shaking the authorities.
The walk-outs have died down in recent days as workers have been threatened with dismissal and strike leaders have been detained.
But Fitch said last week that strikes at the potash mines of Belaruskali, the world’s largest producer, could lead to a reduction in the country’s exports. — AFP