Crowds took to the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk and other cities in the run-up to the February 20 due date for payment of fines, or "tax", imposed under a controversial new law that targets the unemployed for "social parasitism".
In the largest public protests since 2011, when rallies demanded the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, around 3,000 people gathered in central Minsk on February 17. Several hundred more people rallied two days later in the city of Gomel and crowds also gathered in Mogilev and Grodno. The protests largely passed without incidents, reports said, despite not having been approved in advance by the authorities.
Reinstating a Soviet-era crime, the new law requires people who were employed fewer than 183 days in a calendar year but are not registered as unemployed to pay BYN360 (€181) as a special tax imposed to combat what Lukashenko calls "social parasitism". The law exempts registered job-seekers, homemakers, subsistence farmers, and those working in Russia.
Officials said only about 10% of 430,000 Belarusians affected by the law had paid the tax before the February 20 deadline for compliance. Other reports said that about 1mn Belarusians had received notices that they were required to pay the tax.
In addition to protesting against the tax, some demonstrators called for free elections, Svoboda.org reported.
The rallies occur at a tense time for Belarus as it battles out a series of disputes with its neighbour and traditional ally Russia. In addition to disagreements over fuel prices and sanitary norms, Russia is unhappy about Belarus's introduction on February 12 of five-day visa-free travel for citizens of 80 countries, including the whole of the EU.
Moscow responded by stepping up border security with Belarus. Both Russia and Belarus stressed that the introduction of visas or any other restrictions for citizens of the other country is not on the agenda. However, a recent poll by VCIOM showed that 78% of Russians wanted a visa regime with the neighbouring country.
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