Belarus — like its embattled neighbor Ukraine — finds itself split geopolitically between the influences of Russia and the West.
With presidential elections looming this year, longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko is making choices that distance Belarus from the Western political norms even as Brussels and Washington reach out to him amid their tensions with Moscow. He’s resurrecting relics from the Soviet-dominated past, most recently by introducing a forced-labor law.
This April, Lukashenko signed Decree No. 3, whose official name literally translates to “on the prevention of social parasitism.” This term applied in the former Soviet Union to the conduct of able-bodied citizens who refused to work where they were assigned.
In accordance with the decree, every person residing in Belarus for half a year and one day has to pay a tax equivalent to $250 if he or she doesn’t work in an officially recognized capacity for those 183 days. When the president issues a decree in Belarus, it has the force of law.
There are exemptions to the rule — for the disabled, people of retirement age, full-time students, guardians of young children, farming households, and people officially registered as jobless who are seeking work — but these have to be certified by officially issued documents. For example, a disabled person is responsible for providing the government fiscal agency all the documentation proving that status. According to the decree, the agency then decides if the documentation is sufficient.
This red tape is reminiscent of the run-around in the former Soviet Union when every adult was obliged not only to work but also to be officially registered by an employer. To facilitate this control over its citizens, the government invented so-called personal employment books containing records of work histories with citizen signatures and seals. Independent Belarus has carried on the practice of keeping the employment books for calculating pensions and other social accounting needs.
In the USSR in 1961, so-called “parasitism” was recognized as a crime. People considered to be parasites were expelled from cities and subjected to forced labor. According to the new decree in Belarus, the so-called social parasites who fail to pay the tax on “social dependence” in full will be fined or arrested and assigned to forced labor.
In the category of parasites in Belarus are housewives, including those raising one or two children more than seven years old; people caring for elderly relatives; pregnant women who take more than 70 days leave prior to delivery; journalists, artists, poets, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals who aren’t part of official unions or don’t have officially recognized certificates; low-income persons who pay annual income taxes of less than $250; and finally, people who can’t find a permanent job and aren’t officially registered at a job bank.
This aspect of the law is also a direct legacy of the Soviet regime. Those considered parasites in Soviet times included housewives, unmarried childless women, intellectuals, poets, musicians, entrepreneurs, and subsistence farmers. The 1964 Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky was convicted of parasitism. He was sentenced to expulsion and five years of forced labor.
Penalties Instead of Benefits
Belarus currently has very high, though officially unrecognized, rates of unemployment and underemployment.
The official employment office can’t provide people enough work to satisfy the demand due to the lack of workplaces and to very low salaries. The formal sector of the Belarusian economy is collapsing, unable to provide jobs for all who need them. Salaries in the public education, health service, and state agriculture sectors are below subsistence level.
Even before the introduction of economic sanctions against Russia, many Belarusians worked as migrants in other countries in order to feed their families. According to the World Bank, more than a million Belarusians live and work abroad. If these people spend more than six months and one day in Belarus without officially registered jobs in the country, they fall into the category of “social dependents” and have to pay the tax.
In addition, according to Lev Margolin, a Belarusian small-business consultant, the decree means that citizens whose annual incomes are lower than $2,543 automatically fall into the category of “social dependents.” Margolin notes that not only low-income families fit this category, but also officials with low salaries.
Rather than helping low-income citizens with benefits, this post-Soviet “welfare state” is instead forcing them to pay fines. In addition, according to Minister of Labor and Social Protection Marianna Shchetkina, Belarusian citizens deemed “social parasites” can be barred from leaving the country.
The Parasite Party
On April 9, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) appealed to the parliament of Belarus to revoke Presidential Decree No. 3.
Human rights activists argue that the decree violates the constitution of Belarus, including the prohibition of forced labor enshrined in Article 41, the right and duty of citizens to raise their children and take care of elderly parents, the protection of personal data and privacy, and the limits on presidential power.
BHC experts point out that the tax on a “social dependent” does not fit into any established international practice or rationale for levying taxes, duties, and other targeted payments.
The decree is also contrary to the obligations of Belarus within the framework of the convention it ratified on the Abolition of Forced Labor through the International Labor Organization. Decree No. 3, effective retroactively, applies to labor relations since the beginning of this year, which also is contrary to the laws and the constitution of Belarus.
The Helsinki Committee asked the Belarusian parliament to cancel the decree or refer it to the constitutional court. Belarusian human rights activists, experts, and representatives of civil society organizations have also condemned the law and urged authorities to cancel it.
Over the past several weeks, independent online media outlets in the country have been full of comments and interviews from dissident citizens. Some citizens even started an international petition campaign on the website change.org, gathering more than 35,000 signatures from supporters calling for the cancelation of the decree.
Protesters against the decree have also created a Facebook page for the so-called “Parasite Party.” Under the old Soviet slogan “We are not slaves!” they exchange views on the new law.
Lukashenko Blames the Jews
Among the sharpest critics of the new decree in the independent media was the web-portal tut.by, which is owned and run by Yury Zisser. Usually Zisser doesn’t use his news outlet to speak out against decisions by Lukashenko. But this was an exception.
Lukashenko identified the cause of this particular apostasy: Zisser is a Jew.
In a three-hour televised address the Belarusian leader called on the Jewish governor of the Minsk jurisdiction, Semyon Shapiro, to keep the Jewish population “under control” and to “normalize” Jews such as Zisser. “I told you a year ago to get all the Jews of Belarus under control,” Lukashenko said to Shapiro during the speech in parliament. He also called the Jews of his country “white boned,” meaning they do not enjoy menial labor.
Civil society representatives compared Lukashenko’s perspective to Hitler’s. Irina Halip, a recognized journalist and wife of former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikov, commented on a social network page that “the time has come to sew on yellow stars.” One of the well-known members of the Belarusian Jewish community, Eugeny Lipcovich, attracted attention for publicly asking the city administration to register him and his family for Lukashenko’s roundup. (“Are you serious?” replied the official.)
According to the Belarusian site euroradio.fm, human rights defender Tatyana Reviako complained to the attorney general’s office about Lukashenko’s call to get Jews under control. “I am asking the prosecutor to conduct an investigation into: 1) what kind of control the head of state has in mind, 2) the reason for controlling an ethnic group, and 3) the purpose of the order,” Reviako said in the complaint. She’s asking for a legal appraisal of Lukashenko’s statement to find out whether it could spark ethnic strife, which would be a violation of article 130 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, the independent Belarusian Private News Agency (BelaPAN) reported.
West Welcomes Lukashenko
Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s regime has escalated its repression of civil society by banning independent media, convicting journalists working for foreign publications, and increasing the pressure on jailed ex-presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.
Even so, the West has significantly improved its attitude toward Belarus. The United States and the European Union are beginning to broach a dialogue with Lukashenko, mentioning the possibility of lifting sanctions amid renewed tensions with Russia.
In December 2014, during a public event in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said that the United States has developed proposals for Belarus to improve relations. That same month, the U.S. government lifted sanctions against Trastbank that had been imposed in 2004 for money laundering. The bank was known for its close ties with Lukashenko — an example of the many forms of carefully hidden corruption in Belarus.
And last year, the State Department quietly exempted the Belaruskali fertilizer conglomerate from sanctions the Belarusian government had reallocated from the company called Belneftekhim. This past January, Belaruskali shipped the first batch of potash from Belarus in six years.
Responding similarly to Belarus in the European Union, former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt visited Minsk in March and stated that lifting sanctions on the Belarusian regime would be possible on condition of political prisoners’ release.
In April, the Minsk Commission for European Neighborhood Policy and Negotiations scheduled a visit from European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn to the capital of Belarus to explore the possibility of improving relations between the EU and Belarus.
Representatives of Belarusian civil society generally oppose the unilateral relaxation of sanctions by the United States and the European Union. “This will not free our political prisoners, but postpone the moment of their release,” says Vital Rymasheuski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party.
Belarusian Center for European Transformation Director Andrey Egorov believes that the policy of dialogue and unconditionally lifting sanctions will only lead to a repeat of the crisis that Belarus had in 2010, namely a brutal crackdown on protests and mass-repressions, according to eurobelaus.info.
Egorov believes that improvements are possible in Belarus if the West joins with Belarusian civil society and conditions reengagement on freedom for political prisoners, an end to repression, and the beginning of democratic reforms, including fraud-free elections. According to Rymasheuski, real progress should be demonstrated in the country before talks begin about lifting sanctions. Freeing all political prisoners is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to encourage progress. It is only one step on the road to modernization.