Belarus, run by “Europe's last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko, is one of the most repressive countries in the West. Protests, free speech and civil society are all tightly controlled; those who speak out can be beaten, jailed or even killed.
So what happened in February was pretty remarkable. Thousands of people took to the streets in the capital, Minsk, and elsewhere to protest a tax on the unemployed. The “law against social parasites” requires people who work less than 183 days a year to pay the government $250 annually. (At the start of 2017, the average monthly salary was $380.) Officials estimate that there are about 470,ooo such “parasites” in the country of 10 million.
Even more shocking?
The protesters won. On Thursday, Lukashenko announced that he won't enforce the measure this year, though he's not scrapping it. “We will not collect this money for 2016 from those who were meant to pay it,” he told the state news agency Belta. Those who have already paid will get a rebate if they get a job this year.
The law, signed into effect in 2015, is reminiscent of Soviet-era crackdowns against the jobless, who undermined the state's portrayal of a “workers' paradise.” Homemakers and subsistence farmers are exempted, as are the “officially unemployed,” who must register at the country's labor bureau and then perform community service for $10 a month. Those who refuse to pay face a fine and two weeks in jail.
Lukashenko often explains the law in moral terms, saying it is about getting people to pay their fair share.
Critics, though, charge that it's a tool of economic coercion. The vast majority of Belarusans work for the government or state-owned enterprises (everything from health care to universities to railroads are managed by the state), just the way Lukashenko wants it. Employee must re-sign their contract every year. As Mitchell Polman, a consultant who specializes in post-Soviet countries, explained in The Hill, this “gives employers the enormous power to coerce employees to engage in pro-Lukashenko political activities or to take part in elections work where they can be made to falsify results.”
“Bosses don't necessarily have to threaten to fire employees for failing to obey political orders,” Polman continued. “The fear of a contract not being renewed after a year is sufficient reason for an employee to do as they are told. If their contract is not renewed, there will always be some nonpolitical rationale for the termination.” Employers can also send staffers suspected of working with the opposition away on business.
That worked well for a while. But the country has been suffering from an economic recession for two years caused by slumping oil prices and “contagion” from the financial crisis in Russia. That has taken its toll on income — in 2014, the average Belarusan earned about $7,500 a year. Now, Belarusans make about $4,000, on average. As a result, some are working for themselves, as translators, writers and editors, software developers or artists. “The tax serves as a way to essentially punish people for their independence,” Polman wrote. “It also punishes the very entrepreneurship that Belarus needs. Nevertheless, anti-Lukashenko activists often purposely take informal jobs in order to avoid being financially dependent on the state.”
Lukashenko has promised to keep the law on the books, and he says people will be taxed next year. But protesters say they will not let up. Opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka told the U.S.-funded broadcaster RFE/RL that the March of Non-Parasites, scheduled for Wednesday in Minsk, would go on as planned.
“It will never do to be satisfied with a scrap thrown by the authorities,” Lyabedzka said. “We have to continue demanding a completely different situation. . . . It is necessary to change a large number of laws, to create different opportunities for the people, to give them a right to choose.”