Police in Minsk reportedly detained hundreds of people on Saturday in a clampdown against a day of planned protest by groups opposing government policies, including a controversial tax on the unemployed. The protests coincided with Freedom Day, which marks Belarusian independence from Russian rule in 1918. According to reports, demonstrators in Minsk were met by police in riot gear, who blocked access to the square where a rally was planned. Many of those detained were reportedly beaten, and a number of journalist were among the detainees. Protesters have been demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko stand down amid an economic downturn in the country. Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty via Storyful
A EUROPEAN nation has hit upon a novel idea to reduce poverty — fine people for being poor.
Belarus, which lies between Russia and Poland and was formerly part of the Soviet Union, plans to introduce a “social parasites” tax on the unemployed.
Unlike in Australia, where the Government gives the unemployed Newstart allowance to cover them while they look for a new job, in Belarus, the long term unemployed will have to pay the Government.
The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, has said the $377 levy — around a month’s wage in Belarus — will “instil discipline in the work-shy,” according to the BBC.
Some Belarussians have taken to the streets saying it’s a step too far by Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
This weekend, around 400 people were arrested in the capital city of Minsk as protesters tried to hold a forbidden demonstration against the new law.
The Government says the protesters were not peaceful and “petrol bombs and arms-laden cars” were found nearby.
First signed into law in 2015, Presidential Decree number 3, more widely known as the “spongers” or “freeloaders” tax, proposed fining people if they had not worked for six months.
At the time, Lukashenko said the tax would “stimulate able-bodied citizens to engage in labour activity and fulfil their constitutional obligation to participate in financing state expenditures.”
Failure to pay the levy, or take on menial work that pays a pittance, could ultimately end Belarussians in jail.
The law harks back to the criminal offence of “social parasitism” that was on the statue books during the Soviet era to punish people who “intentionally don’t work”.
Around half a million people in the country of 9.5 million are thought to be out of work in an economy that is still largely centrally planned and dependent on Government intervention.
Yevgeny Radkevich, a 19-year-old unemployed repairman, was one of those chose to protest.
Recently freed from a seven-day jail stay after being arrested, he thinks he did the right thing.
“We have to go out and speak of our dissatisfaction, so that the government doesn’t consider us to be slaves,” Mr Radkevich told AP from Minsk.
The protests are not just about the tax. Many in the landlocked country are fed up with the 23-year-old rule of Lukashenko who has been called Europe’s “last dictator”.
In an effort to quell the protests, the President agreed to delay the introduction of the “spongers tax” but refused to axe the measure completely. This did little to calm demonstrators.
Dissent is usually quickly quashed in Belarus. However, in an apparent effort to curry favour with the west and reduce Minsk’s reliance on Moscow, the Government had allowed earlier protests to take place without arrest.
That tolerance now seems to be over.
Last week, Lukashenko claimed a “fifth column” of western intelligence agencies was stoking ferment.
On Saturday, authorities in Belarus raided the offices of a prominent rights group detaining dozens of people and seized a leading opposition leader on the Polish border as he was heading to an anti-tax protest.
Scores of people that turned up for the rally were grabbed by riot police and placed in vans, including several journalists. Some were beaten, an AFP correspondent observed.
Viasna, a non-governmental organisation said people seized at its offices were taken to a police station, where they were told they are “suspected of banditism,” the group’s lawyer said.
The European Commission called for all detained protesters to be “immediately released” by the authorities.
“Respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms, including of expression, association and assembly, needs to be upheld,” the commission’s delegation to Belarus said in a statement.
There were reports that state media aired allegations of weapons caches discovered by policy but no mention was made of the harsh crackdown by police.
Amnesty International said on its Russian-language Twitter account that dozens of people were grabbed off the street “indiscriminately”.