Since 2010, when the allegedly rigged presidential elections that triggered unrest, the despondency of the Belarusians had lied dormant. However, the recent implementation of a tax aiming at financing public expenses reawakened citizens’ discontent.
Also known as the tax against “social parasitism,” the fee targets those who work less than 6 months a year and amounts to about 200 euros per person. The “parasites” that do not pay are subject to a fine of 47 euros, 15 days of imprisonment, and community work. The Russian magazine Profile declared that by the payment deadline, only 12% out of the 470,000 people concerned had paid and many of the ones who did not bear the expense chose to rise up against this unfair government initiative.
What sparked the wave of protests in the streets of Minsk and many other towns throughout the country is that the fee corresponds to a blanket-payment that in no way is tailored to the different situations encountered by citizens. Some of the ones affected by the tax are the unemployed who are unable to find jobs in spite of their efforts, whereas others are artists who are not part of a union or who are part of a union that stands opposed to the government. The duty ascribed to some citizens to pay the tax is also often illogical and almost arbitrary. For instance, farmers whose domains are close to an urban area must pay the tax while those in rural areas are exempt from it. As a result, the tax affects a plethora of citizens, cuts across classes, and inevitably makes the protest movement a broad-based one.
In the face of the protests, the president tried to accommodate the population and adopted a conciliatory tone, going as far as to suspend the tax’s payment for a year. However, as demonstrations slowly came to integrate broader and deeper grievances, calling for the president’s resignation, the government did not hesitate to crack down on the protesters. To date, the May 25th Freedom Day protest is the most determined crackdown, as 400 opponents of the regime were detained.
As a result, the parasite tax is just the tip of the iceberg. It acted as a springboard that prompted citizens to voice the discontent they had amassed over the past two decades concerning the repressive nature of President Lukashenko’s 23-year rule over what is commonly referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship.
Despite the fact that the West has turned a blind eye on the country’s poor human rights record by removing sanctions against Belarus as a reward for the country’s initiative to host talks between Ukraine and Russia, it does not seem that Belarusians will stop until the president’s demise now that the movement has surfaced. As Natalia Kaliada of the Charity Belarus Free Theatre told the Guardian, “People don’t care, they want an end to this dictator. They say ‘basta’ – enough.”