The Belarusian leadership under President Alexander Lukashenko is using a mix of police action and concessions to quell protests against taxation for the unemployed, fuelling concern abroad about a renewed bout of oppression against the republic’s political opposition.
A spate of small rallies began around a month ago against a BYN360 (€180) payment to the state budget, popularly dubbed the “social parasite tax”, to be levied on people who failed to pay taxes in 2015 but lived more that 183 days in the country that year. However, as so often happens the demands of the protesters, headed by opposition activists, grew to include broader anti-government slogans.
Police detained or fined more than 75 rally participants in recent days “for exercising their right to peaceful protest”, Marc Behrendt, director for Eurasia programmes with the independent human rights watchdog Freedom House, said in a statement on March 13. Authorities “apparently want to silence all criticism of a presidential decree” requiring payment of the tax, he added.
In a concession to contain the discontent, Lukashenko instructed his government to suspend collection of the tax during 2017, while warning against attempts by “Maidan fanatics” to “instigate aggression”, referring to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that toppled the government in 2014.
People who already paid the tax in 2016 will now not have to pay it in 2017 if they are still out of work. If they find a job, then the money will be reimbursed to them on request, Lukashenko told a government meeting on March 9, just before the latest round of protests got underway.
According to official data, 51,600 people had paid the tax by the deadline, February 20, their payments totalling BYN15.6mn. About 470,000 people had been ordered to pay the tax for the year 2015 by the Belarusian tax authorities.
The actions against the peaceful protesters drew a swift negative response from the EU. “The detention and sentencing of peaceful protesters, including leaders of opposition movements, is in contradiction with Belarus’ declared policy of democratisation,” Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European External Action Service, told BelaPAN news agency on March 13. “The EU is committed to a stable, democratic and prosperous future of Belarus, for the benefit of its people, and will continue its work with this objective firmly in mind. We call for an immediate release of the detained protesters.”
After a 700-strong rally on March 11 in the city of Molodechno, three opposition leaders, including Anatoliy Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, were detained by law enforcement officers and later sentenced by a local court to 15-day jail terms. Several other oppositon activists were sentenced to seven- and 10-day terms in jail in the city of 95,000 people.
“There should be hundreds of thousands of us,” opposition leader Vitaliy Rymashevskiy told the crowd in Molodechno, according to BelaPAN news agency. “We will force the regime to abolish the [tax] decree and hold free and fair elections.”
On March 12, several protesters were detained by law enforcement officers in the city of Bobruisk with population of around 220,000 during a rally of around 800 people; some 300 people turned out in the city of Rogachev (population 33,000), while 1,000 took part in a rally in Orsha (115,000). Police also raided the office of the United Civic Party in Bobruisk.
In the city of Brest, where 330,000 people live, only around 150 people participated in an anti-government rally on March 12 compared with more than 1,000 participants seven days ago, indicating that the protests are losing their momentum in this region.
Several journalists, specifically, with the RFE/RL, Poland-based Belsat televison channel and BelaPAN news agency, were briefly detained during the rallies.
On March 11, Joseph Daul, the president of the European People’s Party, urged the Belarusian government to “abide by international law” after the arrests. “[Belarus should] respect people’s basic human rights: freedom of speech and assembly; immediately release centre-right leaders,” the politician wrote in his Twitter account.
Meanwhile, three days earlier, Lukashenko had instructed national law enforcement agencies to introduce “perfect order in the country” during anti-government rallies.
“We cannot prohibit people from taking to the streets,” BelTA news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying on March 9. “Allocate places in cities and towns where people could come and express their opinions ... There should not be any obstacles for the normal life of working people.”
At the same time, the president urged the imposition of tough measures against “Maidan fanatics”, who went to Ukraine “to look for organisers [of anti-government rallies] there”. “Some 300 to 400 people led by our Maidan fanatics ... will try to instigate aggression. They will find 10 to 20 professionals like those who opened fire in Kyiv. This will lead to bloodshed and disaster. Therefore, we must do our best to prevent it,” Lukashenko said.
The tensions follow a period of cautious optimism that Lukashenko's government will relax its grip on civil society, following the release from jail of political opponents in 2015.
This in turn led to the lifting of most of the EU sanctions against Belarus in early 2016, raising hopes of a rapprochement between Minsk and the West.
“With basic freedoms strangled in Belarus, it has been years since we saw protests of this scale, which appear to have taken the Belarusian authorities by surprise,” said John Dalhuisen, Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
“After initially allowing protests against the deeply controversial unemployment tax to proceed, now the authorities have returned to their habitual knee-jerk reaction of arresting peaceful demonstrators. This escalation is disturbing and the arbitrary detention of dissenting voices must end immediately.”