More than 1,000 arrested in Belarus protests against 'parasite law'

Authorities have been struggling to contain unsanctioned protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has sharply curtailed dissent during his 23 years in power.

Sergei Grits/AP
An activist, detained at a rally, is escorted by police officers as he exits a police van for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday.

A human rights group said more than 1,000 people were arrested across Belarus over the weekend, as another wave of unsanctioned protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko reached the streets of Minsk and other cities.

Vesna told the Associated Press that about 150 of those arrested have been sentenced to jail terms of up 25 days.

The demonstrations against a leader who has been described as Europe's last dictator started last month when frustration over a tax against the unemployed boiled over and 2,000 protesters gathered in opposition to the $250 annual tax locally known as the “law against social parasites.” At the start of 2017, the average monthly salary was $380. The Lukashenko government has since suspended the tax for 2017, but has not repealed it.

Protests in the former Soviet Republic are rare, as Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist ever since he first took power in 1994. It’s unclear how dissatisfaction with the president will turn out, even as some protesters demand he leave office.

That’s because Belarusians are not demanding the same rights – free speech, an independent press, or fair elections – that toppled the regimes of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, explains The Washington Posts’s Amanda Erickson.

“They want, instead, the benefits that come from a Soviet-style leader – a reasonable income, state benefits such as free health care, and a good pension,” she writes.

“People don’t want more freedom,” Belarusan expert Balazs Jarabik tells her. “They want more government. They want the better life they used to have.”

This frustration wasn’t evident in the capital on Saturday. A former Lukashenko supporter told Reuters that nothing could be worse than the economic situation of a country in the midst of a two-year recession.

"I voted for him but now I tell Lukashenko – leave," said protester Lubov Sankevich. "I'm afraid but how long we can be afraid? Why should I be afraid of prison if I'm already in prison?"

Mr. Sankevich and hundreds of other protesters were met with police in riot gear, blocking off access points to the square where the demonstration was set to take place. Nearby metro stations were also closed and three water cannons were kept on standby.

Protesters were carried away, many of them beaten, as well as at least 10 journalists, a Reuters reporter observed.

Earlier, police also raided the offices of Vesna, the human rights and opposition group, and detained about 60 activists, although they were later released, Vesna said.

The protests were the latest in a series to erupt across Belarus starting on Feb. 17, beginning with opposition to the “social parasite” tax. The law, which first came into effect in 2015, required those who work less than 183 days per year to pay the government $250 in compensation for lost taxes. Those who are officially unemployed were exempt from the law, and instead required to do community service for $10 per month. According to the last tax inspection, most of the 470,000 Belarusians who are unemployed didn’t, with only 10 percent of this segment of the population registering, and generating just $6 million in extra revenue for the government. Those who refused to pay were meant to face a fine and two weeks in jail.

While Lukashenko suspended the tax for 2017, his government has said it is about everyone paying their fair share, reminiscent of Soviet attitudes about joblessness. In fact, the “parasite law” was created a century ago to punish those who refused to work, according to the Post.

But modern-day critics have said it’s the government’s fault they are unemployed or poorly paid. The country has been suffering from an economic recession caused by slumping oil prices and fallout from the financial crisis in Russia that it depends on for its own economy. Belarus’s economy is closely tied to Russia, and many Belarusians work there in order to send money home. Belarusians are now earning almost half as much as they did in 2014 – $4,000 a year, on average, compared to $7,500 in 2014, according to the Post.

Lukashenko has tried to win favor in the West, allowing more leniency to political opposition. He has pardoned several political prisoners, resulting in the European Union lifting sanctions against his country.

But the repeated protests have Lukashenko warning of a “fifth column,” a plot to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, and saying “someone wants to blow up the situation, and they use our scumbags.”

"The government have stirred up a scandal," Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky told Reuters. "There won't be a revolution out of it, but dissatisfaction with this specific decree adds to the general dissatisfaction with the economic situation."

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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