Belarusians have been trying to buy up euros and dollars in an effort to protect their savings [EPA] 

Belarus has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan of up to $8bn, as it struggles with the most severe financial crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Myasnikovich, the Belarusian prime minister, said on Wednesday: "We ... estimate the size of support [loan] between $3.5bn and $8bn", saying the programme could last three to five years.

It comes a day after the government froze prices on a number of basic foodstuffs until July 1 and a week after a 36 per cent devaluation of the rouble currency failed to persuade banks and Belarussians to resume trading at official rates.

The devaluation has led to panic across the country, with residents lining up at currency exchange offices to get dollars and euros in an effort to protect their savings.

The IMF, which issued Belarus loans amounting to $3.5bn in 2009-2010 to help it with the impact of the global financial crisis, is studying the country's finances and is expected to produce a report in mid-June.

Analysts have said the country would need at least $9bn to get the country back on track.

The move signals growing economic pressure on Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, who spent heavily ahead of elections last year and promised to raise wages sharply while rejecting the need for Western help.

Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, has faced growing criticism from the West over a crackdown on opposition activists after his re-election last December, an incident that also soured relations with traditional ally Russia.

Moscow has since refused to offer direct assistance to Minsk and itself demanded that Lukashenko approve a privatisation programme that could see Russian firms take over large swathes of its neighbour's economy.

Interests rates were hiked last week by a remarkable 200 basis points to 16 per cent and the government admitted that annual inflation would this year hit 39 per cent under its optimistic forecast.

Belarus has no current programme with the fund after receiving its last IMF credit in March 2010.

The IMF issued a scathing assessment of the government's economic management after its last visit to Minsk in March and urged it to take some "difficult decisions".

Source: Agencies