Madison, WI — Belarus has a long history of cooperative activity, with a form of credit unions existing there since the late 1800s. However, no World Council of Credit Unions, Inc. (WOCCU) board chair had ever paid an official visit to the former Soviet republic until June 27- 29 of this year, when L.R. (Bobby) McVeigh traveled there to meet with a number of prominent credit union and government leaders and one UN official. Discussion centered on the government's role in facilitating credit union development, specifically from a tax standpoint. All involved in the talks seemed acutely aware of the importance of credit unions to society and were highly supportive of their development.
Before speaking with the government officials, McVeigh met with the founders of the modern Belarus credit union system for a general update. Pawel Grzesik of the Polish system also contributed to the meeting, which provided McVeigh with a briefing on current developments and needs of national credit unions. Following this initial meeting, the WOCCU chair met with Antonina Morova, minister of labor and social welfare. Morova was instrumental in establishing the current system, having performed research for and edited a report that led to the country's first credit union governing legislation in 1999.
Morova stressed the urgent need for development of the relatively new system. She explained that published figures, which typically describe a 1.8% unemployment rate, are drastically understated. In reality, she said, the rate is closer to 7-9%. She is anxious to see the development of credit unions that can lower these unemployment rates by assisting the less educated and the handicapped. She also wants to see credit unions reaching out to small businesses and mobilizing savings in the process. Minister Morova was clearly committed to the sustainable growth of the credit union system in her country and willing to entertain the idea of external assistance to achieve such a goal.
The third in this series of meetings was conducted with the deputy minister of taxation, Vasily Kamenko. From the onset of the meeting, Kamenko expressed his enthusiasm for the establishment of government support for the credit union system. He noted that although state government mandates that banks make account services accessible to those who might otherwise be shut out, he sees credit unions as a valuable alternative to banks, not only for private citizens but also for small business. Legally, all small businesses must establish accounts with banks, but Kamenko welcomes the idea of offering a credit union option instead. To help credit unions compete, he would also consider changing their status to non-taxable. Kamenko went on to suggest a credit union awareness campaign, which he believes necessary to educate the public on their safety and soundness. Finally, he named, as a valuable resource for garnering governmental support for credit union development, the next official with which McVeigh was to meet, UN resident coordinator in Belarus Cihan Sultanouglu.
Kamenko was correct in his assessment, as Sultanouglu was similarly enthusiastic about the possibilities of a strengthened credit union system in Belarus. She made clear her intent to address the government on the need to move credit unions to a non-taxable status. The UN will maintain a country program in Belarus until 2010, she explained, noting that during that time she would like to investigate partnership possibilities between the UN, the Polish Credit Union System and WOCCU. Such a partnership, she noted, could work on women's projects, small business support efforts and micro-enterprise systems. She was very aware of the success of the neighboring Polish Credit Union System, partly due to her friendship with Pawel Grzesik, a former UN worker himself.
To begin the long process of changing ideas into results, a three-hour session was held for like- minded individuals from credit unions across Belarus. Attendees from the legal profession, trade unions, the banking industry, small business and the government sector convened to show their support and get the ball rolling, some travelling overnight by train to do so. Discussion topics included WOCCU, the Polish Credit Union System, the Canadian Credit Union System and the services provided by developed credit unions. It is clear to all involved that external assistance is necessary to further the development of the Belarus system, and to that end Poland has announced a project to develop three new credit unions in its neighboring state. The project will commence in September.
Meanwhile, it is hoped that by the end of 2005 new legislation will allow government funds for the development of small business to be funneled through credit unions towards the same end. With such a positive response demonstrated by government representatives, this outcome seems within reach. In the words of Minister Kamenko, "The state has to support credit unions." It seems McVeigh's historic visit has uncovered a governmental community highly supportive of the credit union vision.
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World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 103 countries serve 208 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.