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May 24, 2011

Belarus Shoppers Panic as Ruble Collapses

Panicky shoppers in Belarus are buying up consumer goods and scarce food supplies as fast as they can, after a sharp devaluation of the ruble failed to halt a slide in the national currency's value.

Weeks of economic crisis have prompted many Belarusians to buy foreign currency - usually U.S. dollars or euros - to protect themselves against the ruble's plunge.  The government announced Tuesday the official exchange rate would be 4,930 rubles for $1 as of Wednesday, compared to the previous rate of 3,155 rubles, but that triggered an immediate shift in the ruble's unofficial or black-market price, which now stands at about 6,500 rubles per dollar.

President Alexander Lukashenko unexpectedly announced Wednesday that he may release hundreds of political activists who have been jailed since street protests that greeted the president's re-election five months ago.  This is being interpreted as a signal that Mr. Lukashenko may try to barter the prisoners' freedom for financial aid from the West.

This week, Belarusians hoping to protect their savings tried to buy foreign currency before possible further devaluations erode the value of their rubles.  Only limited supplies of foreign currency normally are available in state-regulated shops, but those currencies have now disappeared.  

Retail prices on imported goods and many domestic supplies already have risen sharply, but consumers descended on shops Wednesday, using their ruble savings to buy any goods before prices could rise again - everything from appliances to jewelry, and foods such as rice and frozen chicken.

Word that Mr. Lukashenko is considering a mass release of political prisoners came in a speech the president delivered in Kazakhstan, but it is unclear which detainees might be affected.  

Dozens of people rounded up after the election-day protests in December have been convicted and sentenced, but many others are awaiting trial.  

Among those already sentenced is opposition leader Andrei Sannikov, an opposition candidate who was reported to have the second highest vote total in the disputed presidential ballot.

Human-rights groups and Western governments have condemned Mr. Lukashenko for the crackdown on protesters.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP.