On Sunday the 26th of February thousands of Belarussians rallied against a labor law, imposing a special tax on the unemployed. Local media reported that around 3000 people gathered in cities across the country to voice their discontent. The first big protests had erupted earlier on the 17th of February when about 2000 people protested in Minsk. Among the protesters were opposition leader Mikalaj Statkievič (Belarusian Social Democratic Party – Narodnaya Hramada) and well-known political activist Uladzimir Niakliaeu, many other opposition leaders weren’t present however. Two days later rallies also spread to other towns in Belarus. Protests are usually suppressed by the authoritarian regime but were condoned this time.
"Law Against Social Parasites"
The controversial law that has sparked the protests is known as the "Law Against Social Parasites" and was signed by President Lukashenko in April 2015 after several years of planning. Its stated aim is to “stimulate able-bodied citizens to engage in labour activity and fulfil their constitutional obligation to participate in financing state expenditures.” Critics however view it as a way of criminalizing unemployment, as the law states that adults who don’t work at least 183 days a year will have to pay a fine of $250 to compensate for lost taxes. Only students, parents caring for three or more children and people over the retirement age are exempted.
The punishment of unemployment, or ‘parasitism’, can be traced back to the Soviet Union as it was considered a criminal offence in the communist state.
Though the law, which effects about 430,000 people, was signed nearly two years ago protests are arising now as the authorities demanded the tax to be payed before the deadline of the 20th of February. This request comes amidst a time of economic downturn, Belarus has been in a recession since 2015. The demonstrations are therefore also seen as a reaction to the country’s dire economic situation and policies.