Belarus Exit Fee: The Authorities Back Down
On 6 September many Belarusian families were vigorously discussing Alexander Lukashenka's proposal of a new charge for those who shop abroad. Additional fees would certainly end their shopping trips to the EU countries.
But last week Lukashenka himself unexpectedly backed away from this idea, making a number of Belarusians breathe a sigh of relief.
The main thrust of this additional tax was to discourage Belarusians from spending money abroad and encourage them to purchase domestically produced goods. Today thousands travel from Belarus to shop in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania. These shopping trips bring benefits not only to Belarusian customers, but also the local economies of the bordering regions, such as the Podlasie region, in Poland.
Belarusian civil society and independent media did not wait long to show its disapproval for the suggested tax. It launched an Internet petition to the authorities and collected almost 27,000 signatures of dissatisfied Belarusians who openly contested the new tax which was briefly mentioned by Lukashenka on 6 September.
Exit Fee: Because You Can Buy Stuff in Belarus
Lukashenka suggested introducing an additional system of taxation during his working visit to the Minsk company "Motovelo". Soon after the Belarusian media reported that he had already ordered Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prokopovich to prepare a bill. Prokopovich subsequently announced that he needed around 1.5 month to complete the work.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities kept underscoring that it would apply such a tax only to Belarusian citizens going abroad to shop, not foreign tourists leaving Belarus. This, in turn, gave everyone the impression that the authorities had already made a decision and a bill on the tax was only a matter of time.
Lukashenka’s rationale was fairly clear: Belarusians spend too much money in the West instead of supporting the Belarusian economy. Around the same time the Belarusian Ministry of Trade published statistics showing that fewer people were purchasing Belarusian goods. This, de facto, aids the EU economy, as Lukashenka emphasised. In his words, Belarusians spent around $2bn on goods, most often making their purchases in Poland or Lithuania.
However, on 28 September, at the harvest festival, Dazhynki, Lukashenka tuned down his rhetoric and was much calmer on the topic. He not only explained his arguments, but also withdrew his support for an exit fee in the form that he had previously suggested.
Instead of imposing the previously suggested tax, the authorities now plan to introduce a special departure tax – it will be much lower and of a different character than the previously mentioned exit fee. He emphasised that the welfare of the nation is as important as the welfare of the state. He was presumably referring to the clear dissatisfaction voiced by a large swathe of society to the exit fee.
Would $100 stop Belarusians from shopping abroad?
Mikola, a 27-year old man from Baranovichy, for a number of years has been visiting Bialystok in Eastern Poland. There he buys food, building materials and various things for his household. He finds many goods for much cheaper in Bialystok or Bielsk Podlaski, than in his hometown, Baranovichy, located about a 2 hour drive from Poland. He did not hide his frustration when found out about Lukashenkas proposal.
In the opinion of Mikola, only those who want to purchase cars or have serious business would still be prepared to pay the $100 fee. Otherwise, shopping in Poland would no longer make sense. He could not come up with any idea on how one could avoid the tax. "People could not bribe the border officers. For sure, they could not bribe them. This tax would rather stop them from travelling and buying stuff there", he told Belarus Digest.
On the list of most desired items among the Belarusian customers remain goods such as food, electronics, building materials and clothes. Mikola said that usually he just bought everything he could that was cheaper than in Belarus. The tax return service already available most stores make shopping in Poland all the more attractive. People can claim up to 23% pf the price they paid if they use the tax return system. It is particularly visible on Saturdays when Belarusians almost "invade" Polish shops, something which brings joy both to themselves and the local businesses.
The Belarusian State Border Committee made public its data on the number of Belarusians who traveled abroad and its figures are worth considering. It shows that Belarusian citizens travel most frequently to Poland and Lithuania. In 3.33 million out of 5 million overall trips Belarusians went to Poland. 1.3 million people went to Lithuania. These destinations are not surprising given their proximity and their well-stocked shopping centres.
To meet demand, travel agencies even organise special shopping trips to Bialystok. They include visits to the largest supermarkets and electronics shops.
For a small town such Baranavichy shopping and smuggling remain the most basic sources of income. Read more
Mikola told Belarus Digest that a few of his relatives and friends can live a fairly good life thank to these shopping trips. For a small town such Baranavichy shopping and smuggling remain the most basic sources of income. "People use every opportunity to take advantage of it”, he adds.
Shopping trips remain a serious benefit to the regional economy of Bialystok. A press speaker of the Customs Chamber in Bialystok, Maciej Czarnecki, told Belarus Digest that since the beginning of 2013 the regional chamber registered over 660,000 receipts for the tax free procedure in the Podlasie region. 150,000 people claimed tax free exemptions with an estimated total value of $204m.
The statistics of the Border Service in the Podlasie region show that in 2012 alone, Belarusians crossed the border with Poland 7,902.6 times. 82% of people declared that went to Poland primarily for shopping. Almost 90% of them crossed the border a few times a day.
Why is the State Taking a Step Back?
Alaksiej Shein from Minsk initiated an online petition to Lukashenka's administration raising reasons why the authorities should not introduce the fee. On the website change.org, the author reports that they have already collected 26,925 signatures from people who openly protest the tax. Shein claims that such fees would breach the Belarusian Constitution as well as other international agreements that Minsk has. In his opinion, the tax would make traveling abroad for a majority of Belarusians nearly impossible. It would seem that the 27,000 people who signed the petition agree with his position.
Taking an additional 100 dollars from their pockets could potentially have a negative impact on the domestic image of a leader who likes to portray himself as the main defender of his people's welfare.
The whole discussion on the suggested fee invigorated Belarusian society. The initiation of this petition, but also jokes on the Internet, demonstrate that the Lukashenka's proposal caused serious dissatisfaction within some social circles.The exit fee story also shows that although Belarus remains an authoritarian state, its citizens can put pressure on the authorities who have to back down.
Global Belarusian Leaders Plan to Unite Successful Emigrants
Global Belarusian Leaders organisation (GBL) came into existence at the end of August in Vilnius, Lithuania. The founders propose an alternative to the conventional Belarusian emigre networks and seek to unite immigrants who will be able to give their country a hand during the period of its political and economic transformation.
The organisation is going to recruit new members among young and perspective Belarusian professionals all over the world. Several young Belarusians living abroad are the founders of the organisation. Emigrating in the 2000s, and not being able to fulfil their potential in Belarus, they intend to influence the country of their origin by creating a network of professionals with Belarusian roots and those affiliated with Belarus.
A Belarusian project born in Lithuania
On August 31, the founding meeting of the non-commercial, non-partisan organisation Global Belarusian Leaders (GBL) took place at Vilnius City Hall. GBL aims to build a global network of accomplished professionals from Belarus and those affiliated with Belarus. The founders of the organisation claim that it seeks to connect and involve the Belarusian population living outside of Belarus in contributing to the economic, political, social and cultural development of Belarus.
When speaking about the future of GBL, Tatsiana Kulakevich, one of the founders and a local representative of the organisation in the USA, sees it as an association of professionals who will be able to give their country a hand during the period of its political and economic transformation.
According to one of the GBL founders Mikalai Tsimashenka “the idea of GBL was met with support and enthusiasm from different institutions particularly European Humanities University (EHU), German Marshall Fund of the US and Eastern Europe Studies Center (EESC). In addition to financial support EHU also offered venue for the founding meeting in Vilnius. All these organisations clearly see great potential of building a global professional network of Belarusians."
The idea of GBL came from Lithuania. The organisers followed the example of the Global Lithuanian Leaders organisation (GLL) established in 2009. GLL connects Lithuanian professionals in different fields from all over the world by organising such activities as World Lithuanian Economic Forum and Global Lithuanian Awards. GLL also offers mentoring for Lithuania’s growing businesses and Lithuanian students abroad.
The founders of GBL met at one of the annual meetings of Belarusian students studying abroad called the United Students of Belarus Rally (USB Rally). The Rally has taken place annually in Lithuania since 2007 under the auspices of the Vilnius-based Eastern European Studies Centre (EESC) which works on the promotion of civil society and democracy in Eastern Europe. Every year the USB Rally gathers dozens of students originally from Belarus who are studying abroad, mostly in Poland and Lithuania, but also in Czech Republic, Russia, Italy, USA and other countries.
USB rally is a unique meeting for Belarus. Within six years, USB Rally created a network of students involved in Belarusian activities in the countries where they study. GBL is a first joint project of the USB Rally participants, most of whom graduated from Western universities and are living abroad. They were able to attract successful young entrepreneurs from Belarus and abroad, well-known athletes and artists like the poet Valeryja Kustava and musician Zmicier Vaiciushkevich to GBL's founding meeting.
If the GBL founders would make an attempt to register the organisation in Belarus, surely, they would have problems. Officially, there is only one “Global Belarusian Leader” in the country and even the name of the organisation can raise the suspicions of the registration authorities. For that reason, same as many Belarusian NGOs, GBL would have to be registered in Lithuania. It makes the functioning of the organisation much easier. The representatives of the organisation would have an opportunity to receive financial aid from international partners circumventing restrictive Belarusian legislation on foreign aid.
Influencing Belarus from abroad
Most of the founders and local representatives of GBL live abroad. Growing up in Belarus, they left Belarus to study in the European Union and USA. It became a common phenomenon after the presidential election of 2006 when hundreds of students were subject to repression at their universities and many western schools offered scholarships for them. As a result, thousands of students left Belarus. Mostly to Poland and Lithuania, where the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile, renewed its activity in 2006.
A majority of the students after graduation do not come back to Belarus and try to find work in countries where they studied. A permanent financial crisis and the political situation in the country are not at all attractive to young people educated in the West.
Belarusians are going abroad not only to studying, but also to work. According to various estimates, from 200 thousand to 1 million Belarusian citizens are permanently living and working outside of Belarus. Moreover, according to a survey by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, 35.6% of Belarusians want to leave the country for different reasons. In these circumstances, GBL has all the opportunities to become a huge network of Belarusians abroad.
Belarusians, residing abroad and making careers in business, science or IT-industry very rarely take part in activities of conventional émigré associations that were established after the Second World War with the main idea to retain national traditions and to make a network of Belarusians throughout a particular city or a country.
GBL proposes another theory for its network. As the name implies, GBL intends to unite Belarusians all over the world with the main goal is to expand international ties and relationships, as well as establishing business contacts between Belarusians living abroad. In other words, instead of building churches and organising folk festivals, the new wave of Belarusian émigrés aims to help each other to make money and, thereby, increase their ability to promote their interests inside Belarus.
Evidence of this trend can be seen in the events the organisation plans to hold in 2013-2014. The GBL will cooperate with BelBiz in a workshop “GBL as a platform for professional connections” during the Global Entrepreneurship week in Minsk in November 2013. Lithuanian representatives plan to run the conference "Belarusian Business in Lithuania: Perspectives." Moreover, GBL will have their representatives at the Eastern Partnership Summit and the 24th Economic Forum in Krynica-Zdroj (Poland).
It is too early to predict whether GBL will succeed. The obvious fact, however, is that latest members of the Belarusian diaspora have a huge potential to become a power that can influence Belarus now and even more so in the future. Such initiatives as GBL propose alternative ways to unite Belarusian immigrants globally.
Moreover, both immigrants and the country they left can benefit from GBL. Being united on a global level can help immigrants prosper, which, in turn will make a positive image of the country and, potentially, create an opportunity to improve the economic, political, social and cultural development of the country of their origin. Maryia Anishchankava, one of the founders and a local representative in Italy is hopeful that “within 5 years GBL will become a hub for Belarusians spread around the globe who want to grow personally and professionally..”