Serfdom – a system in which peasants were exploited by landowners – existed for hundreds of years in imperial Russia before being officially abolished in 1861. Not many people long for its return.
Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, does, however. According to a Gazeta.ru article, Lukashenko last week agreed to sign a new decree that would forbid workers on collective farms from leaving to pursue jobs elsewhere.
The Belarusan dictator was open about what he was talking about, saying the decree was "about, let’s speak frankly, ‘serfdom.’ " The decree would increase the power of regional governors and “teach the peasants to work more efficiently,” Gazeta reports.
Lukashenko's plan clearly has human rights implications, but, as Isabel Gorst noted at the Financial Times, the international community doesn't hold much sway with Minsk: Belarus may have signed the 1957 international convention on the abolition of forced labor, but it seems unlikely that Europe's last dictatorship, in one of the most isolated countries in the world, would be too concerned.
Lukashenko has experience of virtual serfdom from his days running Soviet-era collective farms, and he's no stranger to outrageous statements. Even so, you have to wonder why someone would announce a policy in a way that is guaranteed to attract negative attention. "Well, that's Lukashenko at his best," Yauheni Preiherman, policy director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk, explained in an e-mail. "He sometimes likes declaring things that civilized people would consider unacceptable."
Perversely, Preiherman said, there may some good to Lukashenko's comments. It's ultimately a sign of weakness. "Lukashenko has become particularly tough in his statements in recent years," Preiherman said. "My hypothesis: this is the result of him feeling that he is steadily losing his control strings."
Lukashenko has some reason to feel weak. Until 2008, Belarus had enjoyed strong economic growth, but it has struggled since the global financial crisis (In 2013, real GDP growth slowed to 0.9 percent, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit). One part of this problem is that poorly paid workers in state industries have left their jobs to seek better salaries in cities or abroad.
The problem for Lukashenko is that the neo-Soviet tactics he used in the past may not work so well anymore. In fact, just two years ago, he decreed that the 13,000 employees of nine state-controlled wood-processing plants would be banned from quitting their jobs, a move very similar to the "serfdom" decree announced last week. There's little indication from Belarus that this measure actually worked.
"Lukashenko finds no better solution than his traditional tough methods that worked well for him in the 1990s," Preiherman explained. "However, as the experience with the wood-processing industry has demonstrated, such methods do not work today. It was a complete failure."
It's also worth remembering that Lukashenko's statement came around the same time that Belarus joined with Russia and Kazakhstan to form Eurasian Economic Union. Membership of such a union implies free movement of labor between the nations, and Lukashenko has a habit of making bold statements when he hopes to get something from Moscow.