Belarus police block a street during an opposition rally in Minsk. (Sergei Grits/AP)

It was an unusual sight in Minsk: About a thousand people gathered in the capital Saturday to protest the authoritarian government. Activists, some wrapped in the red-and-white flag of the opposition, shouted “Fascists!" at riot police.

The rally was unsanctioned, and officials reportedly warned the demonstrators to stay home. But they came anyway and were met by policemen armed with shields and batons. Tanks and soldiers waited nearby. Before they could even begin marching, arrests and beatings started. One human rights group said more than 400 people were arrested. Earlier that day, Viasna, a human rights group based out of the capital, was allegedly raided by masked, armed policeman; at least 57 people were jailed.

“They’re beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev told the Associated Press.

“They grabbed everybody indiscriminately, both young and old,”  BBC Belarus correspondent Sergei Kozlovsky told the AP. “We were treated very harshly.”

The protest, which came after weeks of opposition activity around the country, reflected widespread frustration with the harsh, Soviet-style rule of the authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994.

The Belarus economy is tightly controlled by the government, and human rights and free speech are strictly curtailed. The country’s elections are widely considered to be unfair. Even so, the country has not been touched by the kinds of large-scale demonstrations that toppled Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

There is a small, committed opposition movement. In the past, thousands have taken to the streets to protest. But the majority of Belarusans don’t want to topple their government. They won’t take to the streets to demand free speech and assembly, an independent press or fair elections. They want, instead, the benefits that come from a Soviet-style leader — a reasonable income, state benefits such as free health care, and a good pension. “People don’t want more freedom,” Belarusan expert Balazs Jarabik said. “They want more government. They want the better life they used to have.”

For a long time, people mostly got just that.

Then the Russian economy tanked, crippled by sanctions and a slump in the oil market. Belarus relies heavily on its neighbor; without Russian support, Belarus’s economy crumbled, too. People lost their jobs; their incomes shriveled. Desperate for money, the government decided to reinstate a Communist-era law taxing the unemployed. The so-called “parasite law” was created, a century ago, to punish drunks and bums who refused to work.


A woman tries to defends herself after being pushed to the ground as police detain an activist during an opposition rally Saturday in Minsk, Belarus. A cordon of club-wielding police blocked the demonstrators' movement along Minsk's main avenue. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

In its modern incarnation, 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.) Those who refuse to pay face a fine and two weeks in jail. In December, about 500,000 people (a tenth of the country) were told they had to pay.

Lukashenko said the law is about fairness. But Belarusans saw something else: a government tax on top of a government failure to provide people jobs. And they got angry. Thousands took part in protests in the country’s regions. A couple thousand more gathered in the capital of Minsk. Unlike past protests, the demonstrations attracted a wide swath of people.

The outrage was so widespread that a couple of weeks ago, Lukashenko announced that he wouldn’t enforce the tax 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. Lukashenko has promised to keep the law on the books, and he says people will be taxed next year.

That wasn’t enough to mollify some protesters. And the country’s more traditional opposition hoped to build on the outrage to create a more sustained, far-reaching movement. “This was the first time the government lost its ability to control people,” Jarabik said. It was a rare moment when the country’s leaders did something that got a majority of people riled up. “The opposition thought this was a moment to pick up the ball and run with it.”

The opposition “will never be satisfied with a scrap thrown by the authorities,” opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka told the U.S.-funded broadcaster RFE/RL. “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.”

That got the government nervous. In the days before Saturday’s showdown, more than 100 opposition supporters (including an independent bookseller) were sentenced to two-week jail sentences. One leader, Vladimir Neklayev, reportedly was pulled off a train by police overnight while trying to travel to Minsk. Though the government allowed other parasite protests to go ahead without incident, police cracked down severely today. “The authorities wanted to show this isn't going to be a Maidan,” Jarabik said, referring to the uprising in Ukraine that toppled a president. “They want to show they’re in control.”