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Belarus ruble sinks 20 percent, shocking citizens

January 06, 2009 | The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus' central bank sharply devalued the Belarusian ruble Friday, allowing the currency to plunge 20 percent to help stop the hemorrhaging of its reserves. The move came as an unwelcome shock to ordinary citizens.

The National Bank said the devaluation was aimed at raising the competitiveness of the Belarusian economy, which has been battered by the global financial crisis. It also was a condition of a $2.5 billion loan from the IMF announced Wednesday.

In the past six months the National Bank has spent about a quarter of its gold and hard-currency reserves keeping the Belarusian ruble stable against the dollar, euro and Russian ruble. The bank said its reserves stood at $3.8 billion on Dec. 1.

The Belarusian ruble is now trading at 2,650 to the dollar, 3,703 to the euro and 90.6 to the Russian ruble.

"I feel deceived by the government," said Galina Bychkevich, a 53-year-old history teacher at a currency-exchange point Friday. Her monthly salary of 800,000 rubles, which the day before was worth $360, had dropped to $300.

"(President Alexander) Lukashenko loved to talk about the wild capitalism in the West and stability in Belarus, but now that fairy tale is over," she said.

The devaluation will make imported goods more expensive and will likely drive up inflation. It comes after the government has already announced a 20 percent hike in electricity, heating and other municipal bills.

Stanislav Bogdankevich, a former central bank chief who is now an opposition leader, said the Belarusian economy is in serious trouble, kept afloat mainly by support from Russia.

The economy is still largely Soviet-style, with 80 percent of industry in state hands, and heavily reliant on cheap energy from Russia. Russia also has offered billions of dollars in loans.

The National Bank said it spent $572 million supporting the Belarusian ruble in the three-month period of August to October. The bank has not released figures for the final two months of the year, but Bogdankevich estimated it had spent as much as $1 billion in November and December.

"If the gold and currency reserves continued to decline at such a pace, soon the country would have no reserves at all," the former central banker said.

Russia's ruble also has come under extreme pressure during the financial crisis. It has shed more than 20 percent of its value against the dollar since its high in early August.

The Kremlin has been anxious to avoid a repeat of the 1998 financial crisis, when Russians rushed to withdraw their savings as the ruble plummeted suddenly. So it has been letting the ruble fall bit by bit in a managed float, intervening when necessary by using foreign currency reserves to buy rubles.

Analysts estimate the Russian Central Bank has spent tens of billions of dollars to support the ruble during the global financial crisis.

By YURAS KARMANAU

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