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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Belarus, Speculation Is a Crime Once More

Police in Belarus have begun arresting people on charges of speculation in a clear sign of nostalgia for the days of the state-planned economy. The crime of selling goods for profit, absent from the books since the fall of the Soviet Union, was re-enacted by the Belarus parliament last month. The offense carries the penalty of three years imprisonment for small-scale operations, or six years for total sales over $300. "Many stores are practically empty because of speculation," said Vladimir Matzel, deputy director of criminal investigations for the republic's public prosecutor. "A number of people have cropped up who don't want to work and want to make money, and they use contacts in the stores to get the goods and resell at a profit." A spokesman for the Belarus Interior Ministry, Viktor Potapenko, said Friday that 56 people had been arrested for speculation since the new rules were adopted May 1. Commonwealth Television reported Thursday, however, that many people still trade in the street. "It seems as though no one is afraid of the law," the station's commentator said. Under communism, speculation was considered "a dangerous economic crime aimed at undermining the norms of Soviet trade," according to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1976. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, selling a few pairs of boots for profit could land a citizen a six-year prison sentence. "The law is not directed against a grandmother selling on the corner, although that is also illegal," said Valery Filimonov, who heads the Belarus government's trade inspection and price control department. "It is aimed at structures that buy up huge quantities of deficit goods in government stores in order to make a profit. "When there is a shortage of something, the government must think up some administrative measures," he said by telephone from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The new law in Belarus defines speculation as the purchase of goods from a state or cooperative for resale at a profit. Yet those who bring in goods from other countries such as Russia or Poland for resale in Belarus are welcome to do so, even if they reap large profits from their dealings, according to the authorities in Minsk. Russia scrapped anti-speculation legislation in 1992, but Russians still curse sellers for, in effect, raising prices up to their market level. In Belarus, speculators -- especially those who buy out state stores and then sell the goods outside a few steps away -- are equally unpopular. "I swear at the speculators but sometimes I have to buy things from them," Natasha Kuntsevich, a Minsk hospital pharmacist, said in a telephone interview. Yet Kuntsevich does not expect the new law to make much difference."As for the police, they are involved with more serious matters and I do not expect anything to change," she said. Although Belarus and Russia this year signed agreements on unifying their two monetary systems, Belarus has lagged behind in economic reforms. For example, the Belarussian government still controls prices on goods such as milk, bread, and vodka.