Belarus President Suspends Collection Of 'Parasite' Tax On Jobless People

MINSK -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has announced that collection of a tax on unemployed people will be suspended for one year, stepping back from a policy that has prompted widespread protests in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Lukashenka told a government meeting in Minsk on March 9 that the law imposing the tax will not be revoked, but said payments "will not be collected for the tax year of 2017."

He berated local authorities over implementation of the law and suggested many people had been unfairly targeted to pay the tax.

But an opposition leader told RFE/RL that a fresh rally against the tax would go ahead as planned on March 15, calling Lukashenka's move a "carrot" aimed at quashing protests he had failed to halt by the use of force.

The 2015 law -- reminiscent of legislation in the Soviet Union, where jobless people undermined the state's portrayal of a "workers' paradise" -- is aimed at combating what Lukashenka has called “social parasitism.”

The law imposes a special tax on Belarusians who work less than half of a calendar year and do not register at the country's labor bureaus. It exempts registered job-seekers, homemakers, subsistence farmers, and Belarusians working in Russia.

It has sparked protests in cities across the nation of 10 million, where the authoritarian Lukashenka has held power since 1994 and tolerates little dissent.

Lukashenka defended the legislation, casting it as an "ideological and moral" measure rather than an effort to boost government revenue.

"The state will not get any big money [from the tax]," he said. "The law's goal is to force those who should and can work to work."

Lukashenka blamed local authorities for what he said was "bad implementation" of the law.

He said that demonstrators who protested across Belarus were in fact "not parasites," and that they protested because local authorities had added them to the list of "parasites" by mistake.

Lukashenka said he had ordered local authorities to prepare "lists of real parasites" by April 1.

"God forbid we abuse a single person again," Lukashenka said.

The deadline for payment of the tax for 2016 was February 20. According to the law, those who fail to pay the "parasite" taxes in time may face a fine and up to 15 days in jail.

The Belarusian Tax Ministry said in February that of 470,000 citizens who were officially informed that they must pay "parasite" taxes, some 54,000 had paid 16.3 million Belarusian rubles ($8.5 million) for the 2016 taxation year.

Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the opposition United Civic Party, told RFE/RL that a protest called the March of Non-Parasites scheduled for March 15 in Minsk, the capital, would not be canceled.

"The authorities saw that after they dispersed two public protests with 300 participants each in the city of Brest and brought some of the protesters to trial, more than 1,500 people gathered for the third such protest in the same western city," Lyabedska said. "They saw that repressions do not work and decided to use the method of a carrot to resolve the situation."

Lukashenka's announcement was an attempt to "calm down the protest wave" but was insufficient, he said.

"It will never do to be satisfied with a scrap thrown by the authorities," Lyzbedzka said.

"We have to continue demanding a completely different situation.... It is necessary to change a large number of laws, to create different opportunities for the people, to give them a right to choose," Lyabedzka added.

With reporting by BelTA and BelaPAN