What Do the Protests in Belarus Mean?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 26

Protests in Minsk, February 17 (Source: AP)

A series of protests in Minsk and regional cities in recent weeks made headlines both inside Belarus and abroad (see EDM, February 21). The fact that they gathered the largest number of protesters in almost seven years sparked active discussions among commentators and on social media as to whether the protests can become a game-changer for Belarusian domestic politics and the country’s role in regional affairs.

Two polarized reactions emerged. The first one argues that the latest events represent just another attempt by marginalized opposition groups to instigate social protest and, therefore, that they constitute no serious threat to political stability (Imho.club, February 18). The other viewpoint is based on the assumption that Belarus has unexpectedly found itself on the brink of revolutionary events (Charter97, February 26; Euromaidanpress, February 24). A balanced analysis of the situation suggests that neither reaction is correct.

Unauthorized rallies gathered about 3,000 people in Minsk (on February 17), 2,000 in Homel (February 19), 1,500 in Vitebsk (February 26), and 500 in Babruisk (February 26). Smaller groups (100–300 people) demonstrated in Brest, Mahilyou and Baranavichy. Thus, so far about 8,000 people have publicly expressed opposition to Decree No. 3—the so-called “anti-parasites law,” which the government adopted in April 2015 (President.gov.by, April 2, 2015).

Reminiscent of the notorious Soviet-time law that essentially made unemployment illegal, the decree did not cause any serious public discontent until quite recently. Decree No. 3 set February 20 as the deadline for able-bodied but unemployed individuals of working age to pay a tax of $180. Several months earlier, about 470,000 people started receiving what quickly became known as “happiness letters” (pisma schast’ya)—official notifications from the tax authorities requiring that the addressees make the payment. It was then that the decree began to generate public discontent.

Right from the outset, the whole idea of the decree looked flawed and unreasonable for at least three reasons: First of all, its implementation was obviously complicated by numerous difficulties (see EDM, February 21). For example, the government had to not only identify all “social parasites” but also make sure that people did not end up on the list by mistake. Given that the tax authorities counted almost half a million officially unemployed (which, incidentally, contradicted the official unemployment numbers of about 1 percent), the latter task was overwhelming.

Second, the initial version of the decree did not make it clear what categories of people could be exempt from it. For instance, should housewives or gardeners, who do not pay income tax, be subjected to this law? Most importantly, what are really poor families with minimal income supposed to do if one or more of their members cannot find jobs (for whatever reason)? It was only at the beginning of January 2017 that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed into law amendments that softened the decree and gave local authorities more flexibility to assess individual cases (Naviny.by, January 12).

The economics of the law also looked dubious right from the beginning. Material and human resources needed for its administration clearly outweighed potential revenues. Assuming that all of the 470,000 identified “social parasites” paid the tax, the budget would collect nearly $85 million. But as of February 21 (i.e. after the deadline), only about 54,000 people, or 11.5 percent, paid the tax (Tut.by, February 21). Moreover, the economic logic of Decree No. 3—that of stimulating the unemployed to look more actively for jobs—only aggravated the problem of growing unemployment, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. Against the background of falling state subsidies, laying off employees is a way for companies to increase labor productivity, which they have to do in order to stay afloat (Nashe Mnenie, February 20).

Third of all, as a result, the decree is almost certain to harm the government’s image in society and allow the opposition to score additional political points. Actually, the authorities gave their political opponents a fantastic New Year’s gift, which the latter were not even prepared for (Tut.by, February 17). According to Lukashenka, the meaning of the “anti-parasites law” is to promote social justice and educate the population about the need to pay income tax (Sputnik.by, February 3). However, the latest protests suggest that many Belarusians interpret the social justice aspect of Decree No. 3 in a different way. One argument made at the protests was that the government is now trying stick its hand into everyone’s pocket and take every last penny. While it is important to underline that the 8,000 participants of the rallies represent only a tiny fraction of society, such an argument can easily resonate with the majority of the population, given the current economic difficulties. In recent years, Belarusians have seen their wages go down, utility bills go up and new taxes (for example the road tax) introduced. And now, as Maxim Stefanovich of the Minsk-based Liberal Club points out, they see the government all at once trying to charge almost a million people a relatively high sum of money (Liberal Club, February 23).

Of course, various opposition groups are now attempting to make full use of this unexpected political opportunity. Unable to agree upon a common strategy, they are competing for leadership by organizing protests in different parts of the country (see EDM, February 21). At the moment, this competition enjoys a certain momentum. The central authorities seem not to have made up their minds as to what to do next. Protests, even unauthorized, are not restricted. Local authorities avoid taking any initiative themselves, and to date not a single local official has even tried speaking at the anti-decree rallies. The state media also look unprepared: they either ignore the issue or provide clumsy comments. Finally, opposition groups can for the time being avoid direct clashes among themselves.

However, it is highly illusionary to interpret what has happened so far as a popular uprising in the making. If the government further mishandles the situation it could have serious repercussions, including the possibility of active external interference. But if the authorities eschew disuniting moves and demonstrate smart flexibility rather than stubbornness, this whole situation can in fact improve the atmosphere in society and strengthen its resilience against domestic and foreign challenges.