Thousands of Belarusan private traders have been on strike since February 1. Their protest: against the imposition of a virtually prohibitive tax on private business. Ordered by the State Tax Inspectorate, the tax is retroactive to 1997. It is levied on gross annual turnover rather than on commercial profits. It is also a progressive tax being imposed on top of the existing flat tax. The strike has paralyzed the urban non-food trade. On February 2, the Constitutional Court rendered an "advisory opinion" that the new tax was inconsistent with existing laws and presidential decrees. The following day, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered the new tax suspended pending a decision by his administration within one week.
The private traders’ association responded yesterday by "suspending" the strike without calling it off. It reserved the right to resume after a week if it deems the presidential decision unsatisfactory. The traders point out that the new tax would in effect suppress private business, perhaps forcing it into black market channels. Private trading by "shuttling" small entrepreneurs has replaced a large part of the inefficient state-owned retail trade in Belarus. It has become too widespread to be suppressed by the authorities without provoking social discontent and, at the very least, forfeiting tax revenue to the state.
Meanwhile, in the city of Homyel, the regional court overturned on appeal the verdict of a first-instance court against two regional opposition leaders. The two leaders of Civic Action had been pronounced guilty of breaching a presidential decree by organizing a "readers’ meeting" with journalists of independent newspapers from Minsk. The regional court found that no breach of law had been committed and rescinded the heavy fines imposed by the lower court. In a similar verdict last month, a Minsk court acquitted National Committee ("shadow government") Chairman Henadz Karpenka of charges of having violated the law during an opposition demonstration in the capital.
If those court rulings are unusual for Belarus, the presidential Security Council acted in a more predictable fashion yesterday. It announced that Valery Papov, head of the agriculture department — in effect the president’s main agriculture adviser — has been arrested with Lukashenka’s personal approval for "large-scale embezzlement." The announcement seemed to imply Papov guilty. Last December, Lukashenka sanctioned the KGB’s arrest of Agriculture Minister Vasyl Lyavonav and of model farm director Vasyl Staravoytav on similar charges. Lukashenka, who used to be a kolkhoz chairman himself, has recently tended to lash out at agriculture officials with sweeping charges of corruption. (AP, Belapan, Russian agencies, February 3-4)
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