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Once derided as leeches, private firms see new hope in Belarus

[MINSK] Belarus's reputation as a hard place for private entrepreneurs to succeed is starting to fade as the Soviet-style economy frays and the president who once denounced them as "leeches" tries to woo them.

The former Soviet republic, squeezed between Russia and the European Union, is still dominated by the state, weighed down by bureaucracy and dependent on Russian money and subsidies. Its record on human rights and democracy has been widely criticised.

But President Alexander Lukashenko, who has faced protests over unemployment and low living standards, plans to sign a series of business-friendly decrees shortly to build on other reforms he has launched to encourage private companies.

The private sector accounts for less than a third of gross domestic product. But some private firms are blossoming and say Belarus is a good place to do business because it has a cheap, educated workforce, competition is not fierce and corruption is less rife than in some neighbouring countries.

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"Belarus is a blue ocean for investment. Not all Western investors realise this, but this is also one of our advantages," said Sergey Riabuhin, deputy director of Zubr Capital, which launched the country's first private equity fund last year.

Zubr Capital's portfolio includes online retailer 21vek.by.

Launched with a small stock room by three law students in 2004, it is now the market leader in Belarus, has more than 500 employees and expects revenues to rise by more than 50 percent this year from US$48 million in 2016.

"I believe that, in the European Union and in the USA, they overestimate the barriers and the troubles small businesses and middle-sized businesses may have in Belarus," said Ivan Pliuhachou, 21vek.by's 34-year-old business development manager.

Although Minsk also now has some smart Western shops and McDonald's fast-food restaurants, the contrast underlines how far Belarus has to go to shake off its image abroad as being stuck in a time warp.

Mr Lukashenko, 63, has ruled the country of 9.5 million people since 1994, brooks little dissent. With the economy propped up by Russian subsidies, he has avoided carrying out liberal market reforms on the same scale as some other ex-Soviet republics.

But with financial help from Moscow declining as Russia faces its own economic problems, and the Belarussian economy hit by recession in 2015 and 2016, unemployment has grown, salaries have dropped in real terms and public discontent has mounted.

Street protests earlier this year, against a "parasite tax" levied on the unemployed to compensate the state for lost taxes, were the biggest anti-government protests for years.

Mr Lukashenko has increased support for private companies, though without reforming state firms - a way of boosting the economy and potentially averting more unrest.

One decree he signed has cut red tape for starting a tiny business such as a hair salon or a bakery. He has also tightened regulations for the inspection of companies and made it illegal to halt a company's operations without a court order.

Decrees in the works will cut the number of licences firms need, reduce state interference in the private sector in favour of self-regulation, and put a moratorium on the introduction of any new taxes or increase of current taxes until 2020.

Private entrepreneurs welcome the changes, hoping the number of foreign and Belarussian companies that flourish will rise.

REUTERS