Tax on “social parasites” stirs up public angst in Belarus
On April 2, 2015, President Alexander Lukashenka signed Decree No. 3 “on preventing social dependency”, otherwise known as the “idleness decree” or the “social parasite tax.”
The new law requires nearly half a million jobless Belarusians who did not pay taxes for more than six months, to pay an annual fee of approximately $245 (as of January 1, 2017).
This fee is quite high, particularly for a jobless person, considering the average monthly salary in Belarus is roughly $380. Those listed as officially unemployed are exempt from the decree, as they must do work on behalf of the state to receive their benefits (such as street cleaning).
The presidential press service of Belarus describes the tax as targeting those who “do not live within their means and use all amenities such as free education and healthcare services.”
This resistance appears genuinely broad based and domestic in nature.
Over the past two months, as the tax has come due, resistance to the decree has grown from small critiques and online chatter, to public discussions organised by the democratic political opposition and the authorities, to public protests in Minsk and the regions. This resistance appears genuinely broad based and domestic in nature. As of the end of February, at least ten protests have occurred across the country with total participation estimated at nearly 9,000. Some of these protests have been organised by the democratic opposition, while others have been self-organised by citizens.
Frustration with the parasite tax has served to awaken public interest in political life. It also creates a rare opportunity for democratic parties and movements to connect with ordinary people on a large scale. Elements of the democratic opposition have long been opposed to the decree. Their efforts to connect with and organise citizens frustrated with Decree No. 3 demonstrates the opposition’s growing capacity to look beyond a protest only approach.
Instead, opposition parties and movements have sought opportunities to facilitate public conversations, demonstrate their responsiveness and relevance to citizens affected by the decree, and to engage authorities on behalf of the citizenry at public meetings.
The authorities have thus far pursued a public relations strategy to defend the decree and emphasise that the Presidential administration will implement it fairly.
In the short term, it seems organised efforts to oppose the decree, public frustration, and opportunities to engage people in civic-political action will grow. The Belarusian authorities have taken note of the dissatisfaction. While unlikely to overtly abandon the decree in the face of opposition, they have begun efforts to mitigate negative perceptions through nuanced public engagement efforts of their own.
The authorities have thus far pursued a public relations strategy to defend the decree and emphasise that the Presidential administration will implement it fairly. This public relations defence on state media and at “citizen receptions” organised by the presidential administration has been coupled with targeted pressure against local activists, largely in the form of hefty fines for participating in unsanctioned rallies. The number of activists facing charges still remains low, but these kinds of stifling measures may grow if protests continue.
Opposition to decree No. 3 activates the public
President Lukashenka’s Decree No. 3 was criticised by democratic parties, human rights organisations, independent unions and the International Labor Organisation (ILO) immediately after it was signed in 2015. The decree and its critics were largely ignored by the broader public until recently.
Ultimately, over 470,000 people (approximately 10 percent of the working age population) were told they are subject to the parasite tax.
Public interest in the decree began to increase in late 2016 and early 2017 as citizens began receiving notices that they were subject to the social parasite tax. Ultimately, over 470,000 people (approximately 10 percent of the working age population) were told they are subject to the parasite tax. As of February 2017, 54,000 people have paid the fee amounting to a total of 16.3 million rubles (approx. 8.69 million US dollars).
As the number of Belarusians receiving parasite tax notices increased and the payment deadline of February 20, 2017, approached, popular interest and outrage regarding the decree grew. Increasing dissatisfaction with the decree has also been fuelled by a sharp decline in Belarusian income over the past two years (-7.3 percent in 2016, -5.9 percent in 2015). As frustrations have grown, long time advocates against the decree found new audiences for their critiques and ordinary citizens took to social networks and video blogs to express their opposition to the idleness decree.
In the beginning of 2017, organised efforts to oppose Decree No. 3 took the form of petition drives, public or legal hearings, appeals to the government and street protests. Online action stimulating discussion has largely taken the form of memes and video blogs. For example, “Belsat” TV gained over 180,000 likes through its meme on Odnoklassniki against the Decree. The highest level of video blog attention was achieved by Maxim Filipovič, who accumulated over 3,000,000 views (mostly on Odnoklassniki) of his videos discussing the “idleness tax.”
Anti-decree petitions were the first form of organised opposition. In January and February 2017, activists from the Belarusian Radio and Electronics Workers’ Union (REP), United Civil Party (UCP), Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD), and the For Freedom Movement (FFM) collected 75,000 signatures against the parasite tax. Over 25,000 of the signatures were collected via the online petition platform Zvarot.by.
Public hearings and discussions on the decree were organised in Minsk and a variety of Belarusian regions by FFM, REP, Belarus Social Democratic Party Hramada (BSDP-H), and Tell the Truth (TTT). During some of the hearings, legal assistance was offered to those subjected to the parasite tax. For example, during TTT hearings, activists helped affected citizens to file individual appeals to parliament and the President. Legal tutorials were also organised online by several organisations and individuals.
Significantly, the majority of those in attendance were not part of the opposition movements
In late January, several opposition organisations called for protests to advocate for repealing the idleness decree. The first protest, the “March of Angry Belarusians,” was organised in Minsk by REP and Mikalaj Statkievič’s Belarusian National Congress on 17 February. The unsanctioned rally attracted over 2,000 people, exceeding most expectations. Significantly, the majority of those in attendance were not part of the opposition movements, but ordinary citizens attracted to the event because of their personal antipathy to the idleness decree.
The divide between the event’s organisers and audience was evident by the audiences muted response to speeches and chants that veered away from the idleness decree and towards political and personal critiques of the president. The protest was covered by the Belarusian independent media, foreign media, and, surprisingly, Belarusian state media. Live broadcasts of Belarusian independent media gained approximately 1,000,000 views within a day of the rally.
Two days later, on 19 February, UCP, BCD and other political forces organised a series of protests against the decree in Homiel, Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Brest, and Hrodna. Over three thousand people are estimated to have participated in these regional events. A week later, on February 26, protests continued as four more rallies against the decree were organised in Viciebsk, Babrujsk, Baranavičy, and Brest.
It is noteworthy that protests in Viciebsk and Brest were mostly self-organised through social network groups (e.g. Typical Viciebsk or Parasites of Brest on Vkontakte). At the same time, Babrujsk and Baranavičy rallies were headed by BCD and UCP leaders correspondingly. Over three thousand people are estimated to have participated in 26 February protests.
Topics discussed at regional gatherings often morphed from idleness to broader socio-economic frustrations
Regional rallies have been notable because of their scale and scope. Public participation appears to be broader than traditional opposition circles, and the majority of participants will not be directly affected by the parasite tax themselves. Topics discussed at regional gatherings often morphed from idleness to broader socio-economic frustrations. For example, a 22 year old man who had just returned from working in Russia said he couldn’t find a job in Belarus and added that “Lukashenka has made us [Belarusians] regular guest workers.”
In Babrujsk, another young man demanded that a local road repair project should be supervised and accepted not by officials but city residents. Another young man blamed members of parliament for “not lobbying the interests of Baranavičy and its citizens to attract foreign investments to the city.” Public speeches at the events are as likely to include frustrated citizens as they are opposition activists.
In Viciebsk, for instance, one of the social media stars of the event was a 38 year old janitor of a local kindergarten nick-named the “Viciebsk Joan of Arc” by the independent media. This was her first time at a protest and in her remarks she said the people are tired of living as they do now and that the authorities enjoy luxurious life while people suffer injustice.
Regional rallies will continue between now and the end of March in Brest, Pinsk, Babrujsk, Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Hrodna, Orša, Maladechna, Homiel, and other regional cities. On 15 March, UCP, BCD, BSDP-H, the Green Party, Fair World, FFM and others are planning to hold a protest in Minsk, which will coincide with Constitution Day. Opposition organisations are also poised to continue promoting the abolishment of the idleness decree by organising public meetings and, legal consultations, as well as through an ongoing dialogue on social media.
Government responds to public discontent
The Belarusian government has positioned the decree as an effort to punish those who are hiding their money and failing to contribute to society. Given the wide array of people impacted by the decree and the deteriorating economic situation, these arguments have not been received well.
As public dissatisfaction over the idleness decree increased, the President made the unprecedented move of ordering senior members of the Presidential Administration to hold citizen receptions
In late 2016 and early 2017, when discontent was largely online, the Belarusian authorities rejected the idea of abolishing the decree, but did amend the list of those affected. For example, members of national sports teams, men completing alternative military service, and people living in difficult circumstances were excluded from the decree. The vague concept of difficult circumstances gives the government great flexibility when interpreting the law, thus allowing them to show and promote their clemency in individual cases.
As public dissatisfaction over the idleness decree increased, the President made the unprecedented move of ordering senior members of the Presidential Administration to hold citizen receptions. Such events have been held over the course of the past week and are likely to continue in the coming weeks. The public greeted these citizen receptions with interest.
Opposition political activists attended some of the receptions, and a number of them used to broadcast the meeting live, or their gave their impressions afterwards. The receptions were covered on state TV and utilised by the authorities to demonstrate the presidential administration’s closeness to the people, and their willingness to listen and solve problems. State media covered the February 17 protest against the decree.
The state TV coverage was critical of the protesters and presented Decree No. 3 as a positive law to prevent tax evasion and fight the shadow economy, rather than to hurt the poor or unemployed. The TV coverage emphasised the importance of paying taxes to fund infrastructure and social services. A similar narrative emerged from comments made the following week by Valer Kavalkoŭ, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Labour and Social Protection, who described social justice as “when all able citizens of working age pay taxes.”
He also stressed those with “difficult living situations” would be exempted from the tax. The Presidential Administration highlighted that the purpose of the decree is to incentivise citizens to secure legal employment. On February 28, Lukashenko weighed into the discussion deemphasising popular frustrations and attributing the protests to external (Russian) forces seeking to destroy Belarus:
“Some people are trying to shake this boat under the guise of ‘freeloading’ or something else. They are trying to prove that these are not our lands. Therefore, it is very important for us. ‘Freeloaders’ should know that they are used for someone else’s benefit, they are used to destroy what we have, to ruin the things that we have restored, to impede our development.”
The authorities are simultaneously defending the law, demonstrating flexibility in its implementation, and presenting the presidential administration as responsive to citizen concerns
The authorities’ citizen receptions, comments of government officials, and active state news coverage of events surrounding the idleness decree point to a three-pronged public relations strategy. The authorities are simultaneously defending the law, demonstrating flexibility in its implementation, and presenting the presidential administration as responsive to citizen concerns.
This public campaign also credits the president’s representatives with reining in overzealous local officials. For example, the coverage on “Belarus 1” highlighted situations in which fines were rescinded after the presiding official of the presidential administration determined the tax had been applied “unfairly” by local officials.
The governmental response to public protests has also included targeted pressure against activists. None of the previously scheduled rallies or upcoming events have been officially authorised. Some events were held without requesting permission and others were held despite official denial. The police did not disrupt events. Following the rallies, however, local police opened investigations on at least two opposition leaders from BCD and a number of democratic activists from Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Hrodna and Homiel.
What is most notable about the public receptions, official commentary, and TV coverage is that the authorities felt the need to actively engage with citizens and take an assertive media posture to defend themselves and the decree. The implementation of this decree seems to have hit a nerve in society that the authorities recognise and hope to calm.
If the presidential administration sees its “citizen receptions” as useful, perhaps such events will become a regular part of the authorities’ tension reduction tool box. This would create a new opportunity for citizens and social-political activists to engage and pressure the authorities to increase their responsiveness.
Between a rock and hard place. Potential paths forward
To cancel the decree in the face of public opposition could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a victory for civil society and the political opposition
Given that the authorities, including Lukashenka, have stood behind the decree for the past two years it is unlikely that they will fully abandon it regardless of how unpopular it is. Whatever the original purpose behind the decree or its actual value, at this stage to cancel the decree in the face of public opposition could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a victory for civil society and the political opposition.
In the short term, it is likely the authorities will continue to defend the decree as a means of fighting tax evasion, along with promoting the fairness of the appeals process for those who believe they are exempt. They may continue to use citizen receptions and other outreach to improve public perception of the law. This communications approach drives a public perception wedge between “bad” parasites who remain subject to the decree and the “good” victims subjected to this through the failure of the local authorities, but saved by the long arm of the president.
Outside of the public eye, the authorities are likely to continue to demand payment of fees, but may do so carefully and with an eye toward avoiding controversy or protest. It is worth noting that the authorities have limited capacity to punish or persuade over 400,000 people. Should this approach work, the protest mood in the general public may dissipate if the population begins to perceive the president as a fair arbiter of the situation.
Should public discontent grow, however, and manifest itself in increasing street activism, it is likely the authorities would further increase the risk of public participation by expanding their targeted repressive measures. Based on the government’s response to protests against the idleness decree thus far, and their approach to unauthorised gatherings over the past two years, the most likely form of pressure would be levying of fines on individuals participating in protests.
A fine of a few hundred dollars, often exceeding the average monthly salary in Belarus, can significantly reduce an individual’s interest in public participation, while also bypassing significant international media attention.
While a violent crackdown on protesters is always an option, it is unlikely the authorities would take this route, except as a last resort
If further escalation is required, past precedent suggests certain activists and their families will be targeted and threatened with loss of employment or other very personal and impactful consequences. While a violent crackdown on protesters is always an option, it is unlikely the authorities would take this route, except as a last resort in the face of a truly unanticipated level of protest. A violent crackdown would undermine the authorities’ efforts to engage with western nations, and it would isolate Belarus at a time of a major dispute with Russia.
The widespread disapproval of this decree is bridging a long-standing gap between broad public concerns and what is perceived to be the agenda of the organised opposition. Regardless the actions of the Belarusian authorities, opposition to the decree is unlikely to stop in the short term (at least not before the March 15 rally in Minsk, and potentially beyond). There will be continued efforts, including by established opposition forces and politically unaffiliated activists, to collect signatures, hold public hearings, and mobilise people for new organised protests in Minsk and in the regions.
Within the next six months a new batch of parasite notices are scheduled to be sent out and this whole process may start again
The challenge for the authorities is that the idleness decree is a long term issue. While the strategies described above may be help to weather the current wave of discontent, within the next six months a new batch of parasite notices are scheduled to be sent out and this whole process may start again. Abandoning the decree in the face of protest seems unlikely, but perhaps once things have settled down the long term approach could be to quietly cancel, or simply stop implementing the decree. This would save short term face and remove a potential long term public irritant.
Only time will reveal the government’s strategy related to the idleness decree or the long term implications of the movement against it. For the moment, we can say that the engagement and activism of society and opposition against the parasite tax shows political life yet lives in Belarus, and the president has taken notice.
Michael P Murphy - Resident Director, NDI Belarus Program