Sound familiar?

It seems that all brutal and repressive dictatorial regimes work off of the same playbook.

Does this sound familiar?

Trading Political Prisoners for Loans

WARSAW, Sep 26, 2011 (IPS) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is releasing political prisoners in hope of getting loans from the IMF. After the unexpected pardons over recent weeks, only about a dozen political prisoners remain in Belarusian jails. Among them are Lukashenko’s rivals in the December 2010 presidential elections, serving up to six years of hard labour.

Insiders warn that this is not a thaw, just a new step in the regime’s strategy. One of the released dissidents, Alexander Atroshchanko, has said prison authorities were openly calling the inmates “hostages” and “commodities” to be traded for loans.

“Lukashenko hopes to exchange political prisoners for a new credit line from the IMF (International Monetary Fund),” Belarusian economist Yaroslav Romanchuk told IPS. “He urgently needs 6 billion dollars to stabilise the situation. Otherwise he will be forced to sell assets to Russia.”

Belarus, a country of 10 million that became free from Soviet rule in 1991, has been ruled with an iron fist by Lukashenko since 1994. The country is now suffering a debt spiral. The trade deficit has crossed 7 billion dollars, and inflation is expected to reach 100 percent by the end of the year. Following devaluation of the Belarusian rouble, the average monthly salary has decreased from 450 to 200 dollars.

CUM, the largest mall in capital Minsk, is in the eye of a shopping storm – people are buying everything, regardless of whether they need it or not. What today costs 10,000 roubles may tomorrow cost 15,000.

“Shops are full, but the constantly rising prices are a serious problem,” Nadzeya Viarbouskaya, a student from Minsk, told IPS.

Month after month it gets harder to make ends meet. “Imported goods like cosmetics are going out of the reach. People now grow vegetables in small gardens, then pickle them for the winter,” Viarbouskaya said.

She speaks with a smile of the silver linings of the hardship: “More and more people turn vegetarian. Our girls are now slim and beautiful.”

In some parts of the country meat is out of stock. Authorities blame the Russians, who come and empty their neighbour’s shops, taking advantage of the favourable exchange rate. The Russians were also reported to be buying cheap Belarusian antibiotics and Viagra, until the Health Ministry in Minsk ordered those medicines to be sold on prescription only.

“The truth is that the state meat plants prefer selling their production to Russia, for the Russian currency,” Andrzej Poczobut, journalist from Grodno near the Polish border, told IPS. “Or to the middlemen, who sell it on the open market at double or triple the price.”

Fearing mass protests, Lukashenko is trying to smoothen the consequences of the crisis, and has promised extra allowances for pensioners and free public transport for students. But only foreign loans can prevent a collapse of the Belarusian economy.