Belarus pursues 'social parasites' at home and abroad
Since late 2016, Belarusian tax authorities have started sending out notifications to all unemployed Belarusians forcing them to reimburse the government for 'state expenditures.'
In other words, the Belarusian state automatically assumes that all people not reported as working are freeloaders, taking advantage of the social system without contributing to it.
For some Belarusians, the infamous tax became the straw that broke the camel's back, pushing them towards suicide. In January 2017, president Lukashenka modified the 'parasite law,' exempting the most vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, he left the notorious policy in place.
How the authorities see the tax
In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job
In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job, rather than counting on its support. Currently, the notorious 'social parasite' decree concerns all Belarusian citizens, permanent residents, and stateless people residing in Belarus. Anyone who works less than 183 calendar days in one year 'owes' the state around €220 per annum.
On 12 January 2017, the decree was slightly modified when the president approved new amendments. Meanwhile, the tax ministry set the final payment deadline for 20 February 2017.
The modified decree clarified the categories of citizens eligible for a tax waiver. These include athletes playing for national sports teams, alternative civilian servicemen, and unemployed people who are registered at job centres.
A significant difference from 2015 is that currently unemployed parents raising children from three to seven years old will be eligible for a tax waiver only if the child does not visit a daycare or pre-school facility. In the original decree, waivers were available to unemployed parents of children under seven regardless of whether or not they go to daycare.
More importantly, the new decree permits local authorities to waive the tax for individuals in 'dire circumstances.' However, authorities did not specify what constitutes 'dire circumstances' for an unemployed person.
How the tax really works
On 13 January 2017, a representative of the Belarusian tax ministry, Mikhail Rasolka, informed the media that the authorities have mailed out about 400,000 notifications to Belarusian citizens who are not participating in financing state expenditures. Out of this number, only 24,000 people have already paid the 'parasite' tax, thus contributing only €3.3 million to the budget instead of the anticipated €21.5 million.
The tax authorities were not able to comment on the number of people who managed to prove that they received these notifications by mistake, as apparently they do not have these statistics. So far, it seems that errors are abundant and the databases of various agencies are still not coordinated.
Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased.
For instance, the tax ministry waived the 'parasite' tax for Belarusians who spend less than 183 days in the country, regardless of whether they participated in the financing of the state expenditures or not. However, all Belarusians who currently reside abroad automatically received reminders to pay the new tax.
What happened is that despite having full access to the databases of the border crossing agencies, the authorities mailed out the notifications in bulk. Now, it is up to the citizens to prove their whereabouts to become eligible for the waiver.
Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. Many recipients reacted with indignation, noting that they were not obliged to provide jobs for bureaucrats or prove their status.
Harassment of the unemployed
According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, unemployment has been declining steadily, with 35,800 unemployed people, or 0.8 per cent of the working population as of December 2016. Yet official numbers do not reflect reality, as a majority of unemployed people do not register at job centres.
Currently, the perks of being officially registered as unemployed in Belarus are meagre. Financial aid ranges from €10 to €20 per month, provided the unemployed works several days a month at any job that the job centre offers them.
Moreover, the unemployed person must prove to the job centre that he or she is actively seeking employment. However, with the ongoing economic crisis, job-hunting is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in smaller towns.
According to human rights activist Viktar Sazonau from Hrodna, many people have started seeking legal help to deal with the 'parasite' tax. The overwhelming majority of them are unsuccessful job seekers. Some of them are destitute, not even able to cover the cost of their utilities.
In the most extreme cases, the tax has cost lives. After paying €173 of his 'parasite tax' in October 2016, 60-year old Ajvar Jaskevič from Asipovičy jumped from the fifth floor of his apartment building in December 2016. He quit his job one year before he was due to retire and could not find a new one. His suicide note read: 'I have never been a parasite, I have worked honestly my entire life.'
A chance for the opposition?
As the tax authorities try to squeeze money out of the most socially vulnerable citizens, popular discontent with the new tax is spreading. United Civil Party MP Hanna Kanapackaja has already declared that she would initiate a campaign against the 'parasite law' in the House of Representatives.
On 18 January 2017, activists from her party collected signatures against the notorious law. They demanded that the state 'fight unemployment instead of the unemployed.' Nine opposition parties have already announced a 'March of Non-Parasites' for 15 March 2017, and other protests are also planned for February, closer to the final payment deadline.
It is unclear how the state would react if the unemployed refuse to pay en masse by 20 February. Possible sanctions range from a fine to administrative arrest. However, the criteria for applying these punishments remain fuzzy.
If cases of non-payment are numerous, they would require considerable time and resources to deal with. At the end of the day, the costs of the parasite law implementation might outweigh the gains for the state, discrediting the current political regime, and encouraging the growth of popular discontent in society.