Thursday, September 13, 2007

The price of things to come…

I have just finished remaking a pump. This is a manual spray pump which is equally adaptable to either painting or use as a garden sprayer, which is why I bought it. I like manual things more than I do electrical things. Probably this is true most of the time and not all of the time because some things, like the weed-whacker for example, are much easier and faster than doing it by hand. But even in that case there are times when simply doing it by hand is better. I was noticing this the last time I went to the dacha and cut our lawn with an extra sharp, extra wide hoe. But even so, I think I only did it because I was too lazy to fire up the machine and just went and did the five minutes of cutting by hand because the tool was right there and did the job just fine.

The thing about manual stuff is that you can almost always fix them simply by taking them apart and putting them back together. In the case of this pump all that was required was a couple of new hoses, hose clamps and a little grease in the cylinder. Now it is twice as powerful as it was and as all of our other spray apparatuses are broken, tomorrow I will retrofit our ten-litre spray tank for use with this hand pump and we will be back in business. I rebuilt the sprayer to spray poison over the fields we will plant on next year and to kill off some of the thicker grass around the edges.

If anything though I have a dark mood regarding agriculture right now. I don't know if I had mentioned it previously, but prices for fruits and vegetables have been skyrocketing lately. The cost of tomatoes, which last year was only 500 rubles (about a quarter) a kilo at the height of the harvest is now still between 1800 and 2500. I think the lowest it ever got was maybe 1200 a bit earlier but now there is almost a militancy to the sellers prices; any questioning of the price gets you a hard stare. Peppers and cabbages are also more than two times what they were last year and potatoes, the staple of the Belarusian villages is now sitting firmly at 1000 rubles (!) a kilo. And of curse that old axiom about reaping what you have sewn is very true: Because we didn't plant this year, we have to pay.

Now I agree that when the price of potatoes was 140 r/kg two winters ago that this was an insult to the growers. 140 rubles was simply not enough compensation for the work. Not that I minded as a consumer but like almost everyone who had planted and had hopes of selling a few kilos, we agreed that we would be better throwing them away than selling them to the state for such low prices. Last year though it was the buyers who were offended when the price went to 400 a kilo. People in the towns buy their potatoes in bulk in the fall, perhaps as much as 100 kg per person, leaving them in their root cellars for the winter. The usual price had pretty much always been about 200 rubles a kilo, about 10 cents and so the commodity was pretty much planned out that one would need about $10-15 extra in the fall to cover the cost of potatoes. State shops and factories have always even allowed for a potato bonus of perhaps $20 to $30 per worker so that potatoes would be there for the family. Now though we are looking at needing $50 and for sure most people are thinking that this is simply too much.

But it has not just been ovishe and bulbos that have gone crazy lately; even cooking oil just this last week went up five to seven hundred rubles a bottle. And we are talking about from one day to the next!! In fact, they even had a game they played one day when, because of a new tax on cooking oil which represents the largest part of the price hike, all bottles were to be withdrawn from the tables until the new tariffs were paid. The lady we always buy from actually pulled a bottle out of a bag under the counter, doing it like a drug deal and then pretending nothing happened when the inspector came around. When I asked her why there was no oil all she could reply was: This was the bright idea of our president.

Where are these prices coming from? Is this all simply a chain reaction from Gazprom and Russian oil? Has the 25% rise in the cost of heating caused a rise in all factories and eventually for all products? Or better, is this some sort of European based inflation? I am beginning to think it is the latter.

Since I have been writing this blog almost universally people have said that the prices of goods and services fits the wage level and therefore the economy self justifies. Of course this is not really the case and for most goods, Belarus pays the same as would be paid anywhere else. And in some cases, like with meats for instance, Belarus actually pays more than they do in Poland. If there was a subsidy situation it only existed in the basics such as with bread, potatoes, cabbages and some basic dairy products. But what we are seeing right now is that these very base items, which always allowed at least an escape from starvation for even the most lowly financed, is now starting to get to price levels as if it was coming from a Safeway store in Baltimore. What gives here?

I don't know that I have an answer for this except to say that perhaps we are seeing the results of Euro-ization of Belarus. Did Milinkevich or any of the other pro Europe minority ever mention that with the incoming of more European goods there would be an accompanying rise in prices to go along with it? Did they ever mention that ridiculous 100% inflation that went along with the introduction of the Euro throughout Europe and that this could happen here just the same? And worse, in only three and a half months Gazprom will jack up the prices on Belarus again. It seems that the market has already gone ahead and pretended to be "at European levels" already and like the president said, these are gonzo price hikes. How is Belarus supposed to pay for this?

There was also the issue a few weeks back when the president' refused to peg the Belarusian ruble to the Russian ruble. At the time all of the rhetoric seemed to be bravado but now it looks like it was a warning of things to come. During a lot of that talk it was mentioned that "perhaps" the ruble might be pegged to the dollar, but this was complete nonsense because the ruble had obviously been pegged to the dollar for the past three years. We all know this because the cost of the ruble to the dollar has never changed while the Euro, the Russian ruble and the Brittish pound have all risen during that time. So is the weak dollar to blame for all of this?

Well, it is not my place to pretend to be an expert on US affairs but if it is true that Belarus is riding on the coattails of the US economy, they are dragging the country straight down to hell. And why has the dollar been falling? I don't know. I could waffle on about the unpopular war or about how Russia seems to be able to have their way with the Americans as well as all of Europe these days. Or I could venture to say that perhaps all that money sent along to chase Bin Laden unsuccessfully seems to have left the war chest bare for the upcoming arms race with Russia. Or maybe it could simply be that all of that anti-American sentiment, that anti-Occidentalism which was being talked about a year ago was a lot more real than the west wanted to admit. If this last is true it means that a by-product of sticking one's head in the sand allows for ostrich burgers for one's enemies. I don't think Sun Su ever put it that way but he did say you should never underestimate your opponents, a trait for which America is a veritable poster child.

In any case, we are feeling US inflation here in the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus and let me tell you, I don't like it one bit. Today at dinner Tanya suggested that we simply not plan on buying all that many potatoes this year. She suggested that we go more with rice and spaghetti. This is all well and good flavor wise but as we chose generally not to plant so many potatoes this year, we will have nothing from our garden after a month from now, this means that we must pay for everything. And unfortunately, these things might cost more money than we can afford. A plate of fried potatoes with boiled cabbage basically did not cost much of anything and we had as much as we wanted. This year, this will simply not be the case and absolutely for sure, we are not the only ones here worrying about this.

I don't know. I really just don't know. I guess we'll just have to see how it goes. They have been rebuilding Lenin square, this the place we all go to for the New Year's party. It's nice that they have the money to do things like this. Last year at the New Years party there was a bit of a stain on things after Russia told us to go and get stuffed. This year they say that there are currency and gold reserves despite the price hike and that the rubble has remained stable. But as far as I can see something is eating us up and it is getting worse. Maybe it is just that "The Life" is getting closer and closer to a Euro-style price structure but the wages are not going up so fast as to justify it. It is getting out of hand, all of this, and I don't like it one bit. And really: 1000 rubles a kilo for potatoes?! You gotta be kidding me. Who in the hell has got that kind of money around here?

More soon…