MINSK (AFP) – Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday sacked his prime minister and several other top officials as the ex-Soviet state reels from the effects of Russia s economic crisis next door.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country of 10 million with an iron fist for the past 20 years, linked the reshuffle to a presidential vote scheduled for next year and indicated he would seek re-election.
“Presidential elections will be a test for us all,” he was quoted as saying on his website.
“If all goes well, I am ready to work with this cabinet and these officials after elections, too.”
His administration, quoting the president, said the reshuffle was “nothing out of the ordinary.”
The president dismissed Mikhail Myasnikovich, in office since December 2010, and appointed his chief of staff Andrei Kobyakov as his new head of government.
He also replaced the head of the central bank and several other top officials including the economy and industry ministers.
The tightly-controlled country s economic ills present a key challenge to Lukashenko s grip on power.
The president said he would hold the country s new economic team, including the new premier and the central bank chief, personally responsible for the country s well-being.
He said the economy represented “the greatest danger” and therefore called “for the greatest responsibility.”
Although the Belarussian ruble is not officially pegged to the Russian currency, the country is highly dependent on its former master Moscow and is very 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 in dollars or euros only.
“Fluctuations on the Russian currency market are unfathomable,” he said at the time.
Under pressure from 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.
– Country needs reforms –
Independent political analyst Alexei Korol said the Belarussian 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 Lukashenko.
“He won t embark on reforms because at the end of the day they would lead to the collapse of his authoritarian regime,” he added. “It s important for Lukashenko to pass the buck onto his team.”
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 (2.8 billion euros) in 2009 but has denied it further support since 2011 as Belarus refused to implement the liberal reforms and budgetary cuts it was demanding.
Lukashenko, once described by Washington as Europe s last dictator, has ruled Belarus 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.