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Belarus: Economic Woes Reduce People To Poverty

Minsk, 31 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kamarovski Market is a mere 10-minute ride on the underground from central Minsk, but it is like a step back in time. Russian pop music blares from inside and outside the arena-sized market, where Belarusians both shop and sell to live.

According to official estimates, the average Belarusian earns the equivalent of $33, while pensioners struggle to survive monthly on $12 to $14.

Inside the cavernous hall, vendors display intricate stacks of colorful produce from pears and pineapples to berries. Aisles away, meat vendors pile their bloody, unrefrigerated tables with pigs heads, tongue, and lard.

Outside the market, youngsters trade bootleg compact discs, alongside pensioners pushing potatoes.

No fancy extras here, where even coffee and wine are not to be taken for granted at prices ranging from $5 to $10. A small bottle of local vodka, on the other hand, can be had for just $1 and appears a popular purchase.

One middle-aged meat vendor told RFE/RL he works at the market three days a week to supplement his income. He said that on a good day he earns an extra $8.

"Of course, we are having a crisis [in the country]. Times are hard."

A woman at the market said she could hardly keep from crying because things were so bad economically. "How can we live on this money?" she asks.

"This authority has left my family and myself to extreme poverty. I'm a worker. I used to work at a sewing factory and three years ago I made up to $100 a month. Now I can make only $15 a month. I also raise alone a teenaged daughter who is dependent on me. She needs an education. She needs to study."

Recent official statistics from both western financial institutions and the government bear these stories out. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a May 26 news conference, said the economic situation in Belarus was becoming "increasingly difficult."

John Odling-Smee, director of the IMF European department, said the growth of GDP has slowed down sharply over the last year, "partly because of the Russian crisis and partly because of the limits of a strategy based on rapid credit growth and increased state control." Odling-Smee said inflation in Belarus has also been high.

Official government data confirms that real wages -- wages adjusted for inflation -- are dropping.

According to data released by the Belarusian Ministry of Statistics and Analysis, people's real income dropped by 14 percent in the first quarter of 1999, compared with the same period last year. Real monthly wages reportedly fell by 13.3 percent and real pensions by 28 percent.

President Lukashenka scolded the government recently for what he called "rocketing prices." And he urged ministers during a May 18 cabinet meeting to regain control over the situation, which he characterized as a "bog."

Two days later, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Kozik said the government would pay particular attention to ensuring the country's food supply this year. He said that by the beginning of winter, the government plans to purchase 100,000 tons of potatoes, 50,000 tons of vegetables, 13,500 tons of butter and 13,200 tons of milk powder.

Milk is most often imported, especially in Minsk, and as such is expensive, at about $1 a liter. Butter was nowhere to be found during a recent visit, but there were at least four kinds of imported margarine on offer -- all costing over $2.

The longest line at the market was at the egg truck. Shoppers in the line knew they would be standing there for more than an hour. One observer told our correspondent: "You should have seen it in winter, when people queued up to three hours in the snow and cold, only to walk away with nothing." Eggs, averaging about 40 U.S. cents for a bag of ten, are a cheap staple and mainstay of the poor and elderly's diet. Common are the stories of pensioners who have not had meat in a month or more. One woman said these days she only thinks about sausages.

"I will buy milk and bread and then just go and look at the sausages and come back. The rich only buy this meat and these sausages and I wonder where they get the money from to buy all this expensive stuff."

She was selling parsley and mint from her garden, in the hopes of getting the three or four extra dollars needed to buy milk and eggs. As a pensioner from an outlying village, she told RFE/RL she makes about 5,000,000 rubles or roughly $12 a month.

She said people were making so little money that is was just "unbearable." She said her 25-year-old daughter just lost her job in a factory and they barely had any money coming into the household at all. Even worse, she said, "the prices just keep going up and up."

Our correspondent reports that the most haunting image of the day was of an elderly male pensioner standing in shabby clothes and soleless shoes holding a homemade foil tray of chicken. Upon approach, the rancid smell was close to overpowering. He told RFE/RL he had driven from a town two hours away in order to sell the chicken, in the hopes of buying milk and bread.

Over two hours later, as our correspondent exited the market, the man was still standing, hoping and hungry.