How poverty spreads across Belarus
Perhaps one of Lukashenka’s greatest achievements in Belarusian society has been his fight against poverty. In the worst years of the 1990s, half of the population of Belarus was languishing below the poverty line. This figure is now 10 times smaller.
However, poverty is once again on the rise. In some regions, the average worker earns just $100 per month, barely over the Belarusian poverty line (around $90).
The main reason people end up below the poverty line is loss of employment, as the state fails to provide any meaningful help for the unemployed. Belarusians on the dole are entitled to around $12 per month. Residents of neighbouring Poland, meanwhile, receive around $200.
It seems that poverty is doomed to continue spreading, as the authorities see no way out of the crisis other than shifting the country’s economic woes onto the backs of the poor.
There and back again: Belarus’s road to poverty
Two decades ago, Belarus was an unambiguously poor country. In the 1990s, all over the region, wages dropped dramatically as a result of the collapse of the socialist economy. At that time, about half of the population of Belarus was below the poverty line.
Thus, it is no surprise that the campaign slogan of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 was ‘take people away from the abyss’. This message proved successful, and perhaps his fight against poverty is the reason Lukashenka has remained popular for so long. Belarusian economic growth most benefited the poorest segments of society, as director of the IPM Research Center Aliaksandr Chubrik told the author.
However, much has changed since the 1990s, and the current recession has drastically affected the poor. Despite claims of the authorities that the Belarusian economy is finally resuscitating, the crisis continues in the east of the country. According to official data, during the first half of 2017 the economies of Vitsiebsk Region shrunk by 3.2% and Mahiliou Region by 2.6%.
However, even if the economy grows, the poorest of the poor will not necessarily reap the benefits. In recent years, redistribution of resources is slowly tipping in favour of the wealthiest. If in 2010 20% of the richest Belarusians owned 36.7% of the total wealth, in 2016 this figure jumped to 38.8%, according to data from the Belarusian Statistical Committee.
This figure may in fact be misleading: inequality is probably rising even more sharply. Many rich people have bank accounts abroad and find legal ways to avoid paying taxes. For instance, while people working in the ‘old economy’ pay all taxes, IT companies are asking the Belarusian authorities to prolong already existing tax benefits for IT businesses and give them even more. Exacerbating the situation, anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of the working population in Belarus operates in the shadow economy, according to the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office. The state is unable to redistribute wealth from this sector to those most in need.
In response to this crisis, foodsharing is gaining popularity in some parts of Belarusian society. People share posts on vk.com, the most popular social network in Belarus, offering food they want to give away. It usually only takes several minutes for someone to make a claim. Some people are even willing to go from one end of Minsk to another just for a meal. The largest foodsharing page on social media now has more than 8,000 followers.
Two causes of poverty
The World Bank sets out four important factors which contribute to poverty: younger age, living in the countryside, unemployment, and low education. In the case of Belarus, employment and region of residence seem to be the most important.
Unemployment certainly remains the deciding factor, as Belarus lacks a proper system of social protection for the unemployed and obscures the real unemployment rate. Welfare benefits for the unemployed range from $12 to $24, and ‘less than 10% of unemployed people actually receive them’, says economist Aliaksandr Chubrik.
Thus, this winter’s social parasite protests should come as no surprise: people are simply not making enough money to live. Protestors in 12 Belarusian towns marched against a Belarusian tax on unemployment, gathering around 20,000 demonstrators. Many people linked the end of the protests to the fact that the weather improved and people went to their ‘dachas’ in the countryside. However, summer houses are not just a place to relax when it’s hot: an IPM Research Centre study shows that the share of income from part-time farming is growing everywhere in Belarus, even in Minsk.
Place of residence is another important factor influencing the poverty rate. Roughly speaking, the more one’s place of residence looks like Minsk, the less likely one is to be very poor. According to official data, in Minsk the poor comprise 1.4% of all households; in Homiel Region the figure is 5.9%.
In most countries, residents of the capital tend to be wealthier, but it seems that many Belarusian regions, especially villages, cannot free themselves of the cycle of poverty. Although the government aims to mitigate the standard of living discrepancy between the regions and the capital, in practice, the gap between Minsk and other parts of Belarus keeps widening.
‘Let them find a second job’
Belarusian laws and the statements of officials suggest that the authorities have little empathy towards Belarusian poor people.
The Belarusian authorities’ response to the economic crisis is to shift the burden on ordinary people. For example, instead of supporting the unemployed, Belarusian authorities tax them. Recently, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stated said that a new version of the decree on social parasitism would be ready by 1 October.
Moreover, this year the authorities started incrementally raising the retirement age, and the payment of utility tariffs increased by one-third in 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy. Although these measures may be wise economically, they are not driven by a belief in liberalism. Instead, they simply reorganise the social functions of the state to hit the poorest. It is unlikely that the Belarusian authorities will introduce real free-market reforms.
More evidence of the authorities’ lack of interest in helping people is statements by government officials. For example, according to Lukashenka: ‘only the lazy in Belarus cannot earn enough money’. Mariana Shchotkina, a former Minister of Labour and Social Protection, advised Belarusians to find a second job, as ‘93% of Belarusians have only one job.’
Such statements, of course, do nothing for the government’s image. However, as voting in Belarus is merely a formality, officials are unlikely to suffer any consequences.
The Many Faces of Forced Labour in Belarus
On 12 July 2017, a Maladzečna District court tried two teachers for the death of 13-year old high school student Viktoryja Papčenia.
Viktoryja died tragically last September under the wheels of a truck while harvesting potatoes for a local agricultural enterprise. School No. 11 had sent Viktoryja and her classmates to work in the field without parental consent.
The practise of sending students to state agricultural enterprises to work for free during harvest time has its roots in Soviet times. This phenomenon still remains common in modern Belarus, and most Belarusians do not see it as a form of forced labour.
According to the International Labour Organisation, violations of workers’ rights in Belarus go beyond unpaid youth labour. The most notorious examples include forced labour of prisoners, soldiers, and inmates at labour therapy facilities, as well as occasional unpaid work on Saturdays and mandatory job placements for university graduates.
A deadly potato harvest
In the Papčenia case, the court found the truck driver and the two supervising teachers guilty of manslaughter. However, the officials directly responsible for sending the underage students to do heavy physical work instead of going to class still walk free and keep their jobs.
The chain of responsibility starts with the head of the Maladzečna District Executive Committee, Aliaksandr Jahnaviec, who organised assistance for the potato harvest. The Local Department of Education and the deputy head teacher of school No. 11, Dzianis Kurec, followed suit and ordered underage students to skip class to harvest potatoes.
Finally, the teachers, who taught physics and French and were not qualified for agricultural work, agreed to supervise the students. Thus, authorities had sanctioned illegal work for minors, without even bothering to ask parents’ permission or provide work contracts.
The father of the victim, Aleh Papčenia, was not able to prove that the incident constituted illegal work for the agricultural enterprise Ushod-Agra (formerly called a kolkhoz or collective farm). The court took the side of the school, which stated that harvesting potatoes was a part of the ‘educational process.’
‘Nothing to lose but your chains’
Since 1999, presidential decrees have significantly weakened workers’ rights in Belarus. For instance, Decree No. 29, signed in 1999, transformed permanent work contracts into fixed short-term contracts, endangering job security for over 90 per cent of employees. In 2014, Decree No. 5 further undermined workers’ rights, giving employers more powers to fire workers.
Discriminatory labour legislation and continuous suppression of independent trade unions leave workers at the mercy of their employers. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index, Belarus ranks 5 (the lowest possible mark: ‘no guarantee of rights’) on a scale from 1 to 5, based on the degree of respect for workers’ rights.
The continued existence of subotniki – another Soviet legacy of unpaid quasi-voluntary work on selected Saturdays of the year – is another symptom of this problem. Some workers have the option of staying at their workplace and contributing some part of their daily earnings to fund various public projects. Those less lucky have to perform menial tasks such as cleaning streets.
By law, participation in subotniki is voluntary. In practise, however, workers have no choice, as the discriminatory fixed-term contract system severely restricts their rights and impacts job security.
Should an employee refuse, the employer could decline to extend his or her contract for the next year. The teachers in the Papčenia case did not deny their guilt, but to a certain degree they were also victimised by the existing system, in which contradicting the boss could mean getting fired.
A right or an obligation?
According to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, forced labour practises affect various social groups, including soldiers, inmates of detention facilities, labour therapy centres, and even recent university graduates.
In 2011, former presidential candidate and then political prisoner Mikola Statkievič broke several ribs and his hand while working at a prison-run sawmill, due to lack of protective clothing. According to the human rights organisation Viasna, no charges were brought against those in charge of the correctional facility.
Along with Turkmenistan, Belarus remains the only post-Soviet state to preserve labour therapy centres, commonly known as LTPs. Originally designed to re-socialise alcoholics and drug addicts, this kind of occupational rehabilitation is voluntary. However, if a person has committed over three civil offences under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, the authorities can easily commit him or her to such centres.
Other groups at risk of forced labour are individuals who have lost their parental rights. According to Decree No. 18, they must reimburse the custody costs of their underage children to state childcare facilities. Should they neglect their duties due to intoxication, the authorities can place them in LTPs.
LTPs remain under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which limits access to the facilities of the public and journalists. Since 2003, the number of LTPs in Belarus has grown from two to nine. Human rights activists at Viasna estimate that the overall number of inmates exceeds 6,000.
Even recent university graduates can fall victim to a form of forced labour. Although the law guarantees free higher education, scholarship holders must submit to mandatory job placement after graduation. The Belarusian authorities are reluctant to abandon this programme, even though it has proven ineffective.
The Belarusian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to work in safe and secure conditions. Nevertheless, it appears that for many in modern Belarus, the right to work is more of an obligation. As the recent ‘social parasite’ protests have demonstrated, continuous implementation of Soviet inspired labour practises can result in unpredictable consequences for the regime, mobilising the protest potential in society.