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Belarus: A Nation Fights For Food

Prague, 24 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody in official Belarus is saying a word about what has become an open secret: Most Belarusians are staking their hopes of eating this winter, not on the stumbling agriculture sector of the economy, but on tiny plots of land near their country homes and dachas. There, those who can grow meager crops of vegetables and potatoes to sustain themselves through the winter.

This just two months after Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared war on crop shortages. Last July 31, in a televised conference with oblast and district administration leaders at regional television centers throughout the country, Lukashenka called upon the nation to launch a battle for the harvest.

He said that grain and agriculture are the foundations of Belarusian statehood and independence. He called on Belarusians to switch to what he called an "emergency operation mode" during this year's harvest. Lukashenka put his ringing call to arms in these words: "This means in plain folks' idiom that all living creatures, everything that moves or is able to move, should be sent to gather crops."

The Belarusian president compared Belarus' situation to that of the Brest fortress on the German-Soviet front line in 1941. That fortress' outgunned but defiant defenders forced the German-Soviet front eastward. The president invoked this military imagery by saying, in his words, that "the front of economic cataclysm is now sweeping over former USSR countries."

He said Belarus has stood firm so far, and it should continue to do so. We have nobody to rely on but ourselves, he said.

Applying military terminology to harvesting rye or barley is common in Belarus. Decades of Soviet indoctrination left indelible marks on the national psyche, including the way people use and understand language. The memory of the Soviet military effort in World War Two -- called the Great Patriotic War in the former USSR --was kept alive by the communist authorities throughout the entire post-war period.

In particular, The Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was made a Soviet guerrilla stronghold during the war, cherished Soviet military traditions and vocabulary. Thus, Lukashenka's appeal to mobilize the nation for a heroic battle doubtless had an effect on both the conscious and the subliminal levels, even though the battle involved tractors and harvest combines rather than tanks and aircraft.

In keeping with the traditions of the command economy, Lukashenka appointed top government officials to oversee the harvest campaign in the Belarusian regions.

He gave National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich responsibility for securing a victory in his native Brest Oblast. While Prakapovich was carrying out his harvest mission, the Belarusian ruble exchange rate plummeted from 70,000 to the U.S. dollar to 120,000 to the dollar by the end of August, and then to 200,000 to the dollar in mid-September. Russia's financial turmoil shouldn't get all the blame for the Belarusian ruble's plunge.

The emergency mode required emergency measures to prop up the Belarusian agricultural sector. Independent analysts say that more than half the collective farms are, in fact if not in law, bankrupt. The Ministry of Agriculture itself says that 62 out of Belarus's nearly 3,000 collective farms are in satisfactory financial condition. Reports in the Belarusian independent press suggest that the National Bank printed the equivalent in Belarusian rubles of $280 million to support to the shaky sector. Belarus's financial markets reacted with galloping inflation.

The harvest campaign illustrates the Lukashenka government's approach to running the agricultural sector. Whenever the need arises -- and it routinely does twice a year, first in the sowing and then in the harvesting seasons -- the National Bank switches on its printing presses and grants collective farms both credits and advances. The money seldom is paid back, but the state compensates for its losses by purchasing grain, meat, and milk well below the production cost. Prices rise and the rate of inflation accelerates and real incomes plummet. Nonetheless, state statisticians happily report production growth.

Such tactics somehow have worked. If one accepts official data, they are working still -- on paper. But they no longer are working in the fields. Despite the nationwide mobilization for the harvest, the kolkhozes failed to reach their targets. Total grain output this year was 5 million tons, down from 6 million last year. Average grain yield was 2.34 tons per hectare this year; 2.7 tons per hectare in 1997.

Deputy Agricultural Minister Ivan Shakola says Belarus will double feed grain imports this year to compensate for the loss of crops owing to heat waves and storms that severely hit the countryside this year. That's an implicit admission that Belarus lost its battle for the harvest.

Lukashenka wore a general's brave face at the official celebration of the harvest's end in the town of Nyasvizh on September 19. He told the best-performing tractor and harvest combine operators, in his words: "You saved the country." And he awarded new Lada cars to 12 of them. And he pledged food aid to crisis-stricken Russia.

He did not, however, breathe a word about what Belarus' worst-kept secret. The Belarusian government, even half a century after the great patriotic war, still wants people to believe that food provision is a heroic exploit, not a routine economic task.