Belarus strongman Lukashenko sacks PM amid economic woes: Official

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a news conference after a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a news conference after a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MINSK (AFP) - Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday sacked his prime minister and several other top officials as the ex-Soviet state reels from the effects of Russia's economic crisis next door.

Lukashenko dismissed Mikhail Myasnikovich, in office since December 2010, and appointed his chief of staff Andrei Kobyakov as his new head of government, his administration said.

Lukashenko also replaced the head of the central bank and other top officials including the ministers of economy and industry.

The new economic team will be held personally responsible "for the country's economic and financial situation," the president was quoted as saying on his website.

"The economy is an area which calls for the greatest responsibility and represents the greatest danger."

The tightly-controlled country's economic ills present a serious challenge to Lukashenko's 20-year rule.

The country faces a presidential vote next year.

Lukashenko has indicated he would seek re-election in case of popular support.

Although the Belarussian rouble is not officially pegged to the Russian currency, the country is highly dependent on its former master Moscow and is hugely sensitive to its economic woes.

The collapse of the Russian rouble this month sparked panic, with Belarussians rushing to convert their savings into dollars.

Since the start of the year the Belarussian rouble has lost about half of its value.

The run on the Belarussian rouble forced the central bank to announce a "temporary" tax of 30 per cent on all purchases of foreign currency and raise interest rates to 50 per cent.

Lukashenko has admitted that his country's economy has been hit hard as around 40 per cent of its exports are bound for Russia.

Earlier this month, the Belarussian strongman tasked the government with conducting transactions with Russia settled in dollars or euros.

"Fluctuations on the Russian currency market are unfathomable," he said at the time.

Under pressure from falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, Russia is sliding into a full-blown economic crisis complete with the collapse of the rouble and growing inflation.


Independent political analyst Alexei Korol said the Belarussian government re-shuffle was a band-aid solution that would not help address the root causes of its economic troubles.

"The country needs deep economic reforms. Instead he is re-shuffling an old pack of cards," he told AFP, referring to Lukashenko.

"He won't embark on reforms because at the end of the day they would lead to the collapse of his authoritarian regime," he added.

"It's important for Lukashenko to pass the buck onto his team."

The former head of the Belarussian central bank, Stanislav Bogdankevich, also said that the move signalled Lukashenko's apparent unwillingness to conduct sweeping reforms.

"You have to openly say that the economy is in crisis and you have to come up with new economic policies," said the opposition-minded figure.

He dismissed Kobyakov as an "obedient" official who will be unable to challenge the president.

The IMF lent Minsk US$3.5 billion in 2009 but has denied it further support since 2011 as Belarus refused to implement the liberal reforms and budgetary cuts it was demanding.

Lukashenko, once described by Washington as Europe's last dictator, has ruled the state of 10 million that lies between three EU states and Russia since 1994.

In 2010, tens of thousands of people protested against what they saw as unfair presidential elections that gave Lukashenko a landslide victory.

Following the protests the strongman unleashed a crackdown on the opposition, imprisoning some of his most prominent critics and muzzling non-state media.

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