Berlin (CNSNews.com) – The autocratic president of Belarus, the former Soviet republic nicknamed “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has triggered angry protests by refusing to abolish a controversial tax on the underemployed.
Dubbed “the tax on social parasites,” the scheme fines citizens a fee of 233 euros ($250) if they fail to work for at least 183 days in a year.
Protestors took to the streets of four cities on Sunday, calling for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, a despot who has been in power since 1994.
The protests went ahead despite Lukashenko agreeing to a concession last week to suspend implementation of the tax for this year.
Dozens of activists and journalists were detained in the protests, including opposition leader Pavel Severinets in the eastern city of Orsha.
Journalists covering the events were reportedly fined for “taking part” in “unsanctioned” rallies.
In a Broadcasting Board of Governors press release Monday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Thomas Kent criticized one such arrest as “a blatant attempt to prevent a journalist from doing her job.”
The largest protest took place in Orsha, with a crowd of about 1,000 people chanting, “We want Lukashenko’s resignation” and “We want elections.” Some 600 turned out in Babruysk, and hundreds more turned out in Brest and Rahachow.
The protests were the latest in a rare wave of public demonstrations in the otherwise authoritarian country. Lukashenko was labeled “Europe’s last dictator” in a 2012 documentary.
A similar protest last month in the capital Minsk drew around 2,000 people, becoming the largest demonstration in the country in six years. Protesters delivered an ultimatum, vowing to return to the streets if the government did not repeal the tax by March 17.
The unpopular presidential decree, entitled “On preventing social dependency,” was originally issued in April 2015. It was ostensibly implemented in 2016, but Lukashenko last week suspended implementation for 2017 in response to the protests, while stressing that it would be adjusted, not abolished altogether.
A Reuters report citing figures from Belarus’ last tax inspection, found that only about one in ten of the 470,000 people liable for the tax for not working enough in 2016 actually paid it.
Michael Strelchyk, a social activist against the tax, told the news service beyondtheEU that the amount raised for the year was about $8.5 million, while the expected take had been $85 million.
He said the government had spent more than the $8.5 million it collected on implementing the measure.
The tax decree was one of the central topics on the agenda of a government session last week.
“The key goal of the decree is to make people work,” said Lukashenko. “Everyone should get a job by May 1.”
Expanding on the issue in the next day’s session, Lukashenko explained why he felt this to be necessary.
“Why? Because an unemployed person – you know it very well – is a future criminal.”
Belarus’ economy is a centralized, state-controlled one. It has been retracting, stuck in a recession for over a year. The average monthly salary has fallen from an all-time high of $630 in mid-2014 to $380.
For his part, Lukashenko has been making efforts to reduce his country's dependence on Russia, and advocates better engagement with the European Union.
Apart from Russia, Belarus is the only country in Europe to earn a “not free” grade in Freedom House’s annual evaluation of countries’ records on political rights and civil liberties.