Belarus strongman sacks PM amid economic woes

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

Minsk: Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday sacked his prime minister and 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 as well as several other top officials including the ministers of economy and industry.

Ahead of the cabinet shakeup, Lukashenko on Friday issued a stern warning to the government, saying several officials might have spent too long at their posts.

"That can be fixed," he said.

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 ruble 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 ruble this month sparked panic, with Belarussians rushing to convert their savings into dollars.

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

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

Lukashenko has admitted that his country`s economy has been hit hard as around 40 percent 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 the pressure of falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, Russia is sliding into a full-blown economic crisis complete with the collapse of the ruble and growing inflation.

Independent political analyst Alexei Korol said the 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 the president.

"He won`t embark on reforms because at the end of the day they would lead to the collapse of his authoritarian regime."

"It`s important for Lukashenko to pass the buck onto his team," he added.

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 $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 demanded.

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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