A SURPRISE BUMPER YEAR FOR BELARUSAN AGRICULTURE.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 56

Last year saw the best performance by Belarusan agriculture in at least a decade. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the farm sector, agricultural production last year rose by a reported 9 percent after three consecutive years of downturns (Belapan, February 8). The boost in agricultural output was due solely to the crop sector, which enjoyed particularly favorable weather conditions in 2000. Crop output rose 24 percent last year, following annual declines of 5 percent in 1998-1999 and a 15 percent drop in 1997.

Reports of the good harvest are surprising in light of the agricultural sector’s well-known problems. Belarusan agriculture remains dominated by Soviet-era collective and state farms that are kept alive by high tariffs, subsidies from the state budget, and soft credits funneled through the banking system. Many farm prices are set by the government, which remains a major purchaser of many farm products. But despite this protection from market forces, officials admit that half of Belarus’ agricultural producers are losing operations. Moreover, the state seems to be losing its ability to offer this protection. State agencies last year supplied farms with 6 percent less chemical fertilizers than in 1999, 15 percent less gasoline and 3 percent less diesel fuel. Only 23 percent of the country’s grain combines were operational. Despite last year’s good harvest, agricultural output remains some 29 percent below its 1990 level.

These problems led President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to announce a “reform” program for agriculture in February. But the program offers little new, other than reorganizing agricultural producers into joint stock companies. Lukashenka continues to emphasize that sweeping reforms are not in the cards, that large-scale collective farms and state farms will remain the basic productive units, and that administrative controls over farm prices and production will continue. Ideological factors aside, Lukashenka’s views reflect the fact that much of his political support comes from the rural elites whose power stems from control over the agricultural sector. But without reductions in administrative controls over and subsidies for agriculture, Belarusan farms may soon find themselves without any operational grain combines whatsoever.

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