Protesters in Minsk during the “March of the Angry Belarusians”, 17 February 2017. Photo (c): Viktor Tolochko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.
The recent mass protests in Belarus over a tax on the unemployed, known colloquially as either the “parasite tax”, has captured the interest of many western observers. The political opposition, while still fractured, has found a meaningful issue to rally around that belies deeper systemic issues and, from afar, appears to be gaining some significance among Belarusians that it has not had in some time.
At this point, Belarus has been undergoing several years of a gradual rapprochement with the West and has played an important role as a mediator to help establish the Minsk I & II agreements, aimed at quelling violence and providing a path forward to a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Donbas. Lukashenka’s warming relations with the West have led some to believe that the gradual liberalisation of his policies are also underway.
Whereas some of the portrayals in the western media have sensationalised this apparent awakening of civil society, it is far too early to assess whether this movement will give rise to a popular political opposition or a genuine movement that would unshackle the Belarusian popular psyche from its dependency on an authoritarian state with a semi-managed, foreign-subsidised economy as the model of prosperity. If there is one thing that the current protests can provide the outside world, it is a glimpse into some deep-seated issues that are uniquely Belarusian.
A Morality Tax
Employing the language and pathos of a power now long extinct, Lukashenka signed Presidential No. 3 “On the Prevention of Social Dependency” on 2 April, 2015. The logic behind this decree, summed up in a well-known Soviet phrase (enshrined in Article 12 of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR), “He who does not work, does not eat”, a phrase, which has been updated in the Russian-language press to reflect the sheer dourness of the policy, to “He who does not work, will pay (taxes)!”
The old adage. “He who doesn’t work won’t eat”, reads this Soviet-era poster. Photo: sovietposters.ru. Some rights reserved.
Implicit in Minsk’s idea of forcing a tax upon the unemployed is its understanding of the social contract it has with its citizens. If one is unemployed, partially employed, or covertly employed, you are stealing resources from the state and should be held accountable for your theft. In other words, an individual must be compelled to be a productive member of the economy in the name of the state.
It is unfair to blame Lukashenka alone for his preoccupation with Soviet-era slogans, legal code and social guarantees. Since he was elected president in 1994, his politics and economics have largely been that of promoting a nostalgic edifice of the bygone Soviet era, including promises of full employment and a comfortable, though never lavish, life for hardworking Belarusian citizens.
Minsk has predicated much of its message of “stability”, that old bastion of post-Soviet autocrat sloganeering, on its ability to keep people employed
While full employment, however desirable, is unachievable, Minsk has predicated much of its message of “stability”, that old bastion of post-Soviet autocrat sloganeering, on its ability to keep people employed and gradually raise their wages. While real wages, according to the IMF, grew from an average of roughly $100 per month in 2002 to around $600 in 2014 (with a dip, following the global economic crisis in 2008), its real GDP growth declined from +6% to 1.7% over the same period. Meanwhile, the amount the Russia Federation has been giving to Belarus, has been slowly dwindling. In 2005, Russia’s overall net support accounted for around 23% of Belarus’ GDP. In 2015, this figure had dropped to around 11%.
Minsk’s potential for securing a good bargain with Moscow to extract rents or favorable terms and prices on oil or gas for its own usage or re-export for sale abroad in order to bolster its own economy will likely continue to dwindle. Propping up the Belarusian economy is simply no longer one of Moscow’s priorities.
The parasites unmasked
With the ability of the Belarusian state to artificially raise living standards and bolster employment, the state is seeking new ways to cut back on spending. While official state statistics have the level of unemployment at 0.9% as of January 2016, but include only those individuals who have registered as unemployed. The state’s ideologically driven rationale, as it were, is to show that virtually everyone is employed. The real level of unemployment [Russian link] is believed to be around 5.8%.
“We are not parasites!” reads this protest banner in Minsk, 2017. Photo: Naviny.by. Some rights reserved.
Few register for unemployment because the benefits are so poor (24 Belarusian rubles or around $12.70 per month) and the menial community work that officials require of you. Many others are employed, though make only minimal or no contribution in the from of taxes because they receive their pay under the table – a common practice throughout much of the former Soviet Union.
The “parasite tax” had its first official deadline for collections on February 20th 2017. State news agencies reported that 51,600 Belarusians had paid the $250 tax, with the tax authorities sending out a total of 470,000 notices. While it is not unclear if these notices were sent to 470,000 individuals, if they were, this would mean that nearly 5.0% of the population was considered unemployed, able-bodied and not working – and a departure from the official 0.9% unemployment rate.
The first protests against the parasite tax unfolded in Minsk on 17 February, where an estimated 2,000-2,500 protestors took to the streets in central Minsk to call for the tax’s repeal. This was followed by protests on February 19th that took place throughout several oblast capitals. In Gomel, 2,000 people came out to protest. In Vitebsk, 200-250 demonstrators showed up in protest to the tax, and Mogilev an estimated 400 people attended, while another 100 protestors were seen in Brest and Grodno.
Estimated number of protesters by date and geographical spread, Feb-Mar 2017. Graph by Devin Ackles, data via tut.by. (Click to enlarge)
Regional protests followed regularly from the 26 February to 15 March, when the largest nation-wide protests registered roughly 3,250 total protesters. It is important to point out the sheer number of towns and cities involved, as well as their distribution throughout much of the country.
Yet, there are other, perhaps more important considerations to keep in mind. When compared to the 19 December protests in Minsk which erupted after Lukashenka’s 2010 re-election, whose range of total estimated participants being somewhere between the “tens of thousands” reported by the Guardian or the 40,000 cited by the CBC, the total number demonstrators who have so far taken part in the latest protests are rather minor.
While some of the protests, like that which took place in Rogachev on March 12th, reported having either a minor or virtually no political opposition leadership present, leaders and members of the opposition parties the United Civic Party of Belarus, For Freedom, Belarusian Christian Democrats, among others, have participated and were arrested for their participation, or detained while reportedly in transit to, many of the other protest sites.
Despite the rising popularity in the press of the protests, they are still a long way from creating a deep and widespread transformation within Belarus
It is naïve to think that all of these protests have spontaneously occurred throughout the country, just as it is misguided to believe that average Belarusians are rising up en masse against the government given the available evidence. By paying closer attention, not only do the rather small size of the crowds become evident, but as does the regular appearance of the names and faces of notable opposition politicians and activists.
Welcome to Belarus. Prison van souvenirs in Minsk.
This is not to discount the genuine concerns of those who come out motivated simply by their civic consciousness in an effort to stand up against the absurd unemployment tax. Rather, it is an observation that despite the rising popularity in the press of the protests, they are still a long way from creating a deep and widespread transformation within Belarus. Their only success may well be Lukashenka’s decision to postpone enforcement of the tax until next year, which he announced on 9 March, or perhaps even its abolishment altogether – but the political opposition, civil society and the Belarusian public are nowhere near united at present.
Forward thinking, with no vision
Unlike the brutal 2010 crackdown on the opposition and protestors, Lukashenka appears to be taking a more measured approach. The authorities are briefly detaining and fining local activists for organizing unsanctioned demonstrations, well aware that the EU is watching their reaction. Three opposition leaders, Yuri Gubarevich, Anatoly Lebedko, Vitaly Rymashevsky were sentenced to remain under arrest for 15 days for violating public order.
Lukashenka can always enact the decree again, and if protests really gain momentum, he can deflect responsibility towards the puppet MPs who revised it
The human rights group Viasna reported over 100 individuals detained in March in relation to the protests, not an insignificant number when only a few thousand Belarusians have participated in the protests. There have also been some disturbing reports of law enforcement officers conducting searches of activists homes and also one instance in which a young activist from Brest, Natalia Papkova, was sent to a “psychoneurological dispensary” (a psychiatric ward) over the course of a weekend after her neighbor allegedly called the authorities and said she was suicidal. While the authorities have thus far been restrained, there is no telling when their calculus may change.
Minsk is exhibiting some tactical thinking in other ways as well. By delaying the tax’s enforcement by a year and having the House of Representatives work on a series of amendments to exclude certain types of unemployed individuals (e.g. people in psychiatrist care, all individuals who own land), Lukashenka can always enact the decree again, and if the protests really gain momentum, he can deflect responsibility towards the puppet MPs who revised it. It remains to be seen what other types of leverage, and with whom, he will devise if the protests grow and do not dissipate in the weeks ahead.
And yet, if the constant stream of anti-protestor sentiment emanating from state media or the messaging coming out of many quarters of the opposition are any indication what awaits Belarus ahead, it seems clear that the needs of the silent Belarusian masses will continue to be brushed aside in the name of ideology.