by Tatyana Ivanova
After a short period of liberalization, the Belarus government has changed course, tightening the screws and escalating political repression. In the past few weeks in Belarus, the authorities have unjustifiably detained, fined, and arrested more than 300 people, including politicians and journalists. This crackdown has been the response of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, to peaceful mass protests against his Decree No. 3, legitimizing forced labor for all and punishment for the unemployed.
Will this call and response by the government and the opposition move Belarus toward a stronger dictatorship or toward revolution?
The mass protests began February. 17 in Minsk and have continued all over the country. They are the first in Belarus since 2010, according to the popular website belaruspartisan.org. That year about 50,000 citizens took to the streets to protest against fraud in the presidential elections. This year in Belarusian cities such as Minsk, Gomel, Vitebsk, Brest, Mogilev, Grodno, Molodechno, and Orsha people went to the main squares to demand a revocation of presidential Decree No. 3 on so-called social parasites. On March 15 alone, about 5,000 people took part in the rallies against this law.
In this and other weekly protest actions, the participants were citizens on the margins of political power, supported by the Belarusian political opposition and NGOs, which helped them organize their rallies, formulate their demands, and forward them to the government.
A repressive decree on social parasites adopted in 2015 was widely criticized for its violation of international obligations adopted by Belarus and attached to its constitution, which prohibits mandatory labor. Decree No. 3 also contradicts national tax legislation. The mass street protests this year coincided with the decree’s implementation. About 400,000 unemployed people have received form letters from tax inspectors demanding that they pay a tax on unemployment of about $240. For people who have struggling to find jobs and who are in a precarious financial situation, that’s a huge amount of money. Meanwhile, the authorities warned that those who failed to pay could be fined more or even arrested. Non-compliance could also result in property seizure.
Tax inspection lists for 2015 mistakenly included people who are disabled, retired, mothers raising children, and even employed people, all of whom had to undergo a lengthy procedure to explain their situation in order to clear their names. Among other negative impacts, these letters from tax inspectors have already been blamed for at least two suicides in the towns of Osipovishy and Rogachev.
The Belarusian authorities have ignored these criticisms. Lukashenko has called the decree “socially just” and “important for us.” He has refused to abolish it even though, early on, he admitted to the injustice of the decree when he responded to opposition by freezing its implementation for the year of 2015 and then orienting it to support “good people” and punish “bad ones”.
Lukashenko also ordered local authorities to get out onto the streets because “people want to talk to decision-makers.” But protestors were not satisfied. They continued to demand the unconditional abolition of the decree.
They also have begun to raise political demands, such as the resignation of the president and the government. In the town of Slonim, hundreds of inhabitants, taking to the streets, expressed their distrust of the head of local administration and called for the resignation of the government and for democratic elections. They submitted the appropriate resolution to the local administration
The next officially permitted rally is scheduled for March 25 in Minsk. It is expected to be a mass demonstration. Opposition politicians do not agree yet about its plan, but all of them insist on the peaceful character of the action.
Tatyana Ivanova is a Belarusian journalist residing in the United States. Photo: Alexander Lukashenko