Facing protests and a nervous Russia, is Belarus the next Ukraine?
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To the surprise of many analysts, protests have broken out in politically torpid Belarus. The protests are nominally over the so-called "parasite tax" that must be paid by people who are neither formally employed or registered as officially unemployed.

The stakes, however, are actually greater than they may first appear. The tax that is drawing the ire of protesters is actually just one of several policies that the regime of President Alexander Lukashenka uses to keep its citizens in line.

By outward appearances, Belarus does not appear to be a dictatorship. Official political prisoners don't exist and there are no posters of the strongman lording over the streets of Belarusian cities.

But this is deceptive. Lukashenka prefers to employ a system of economic coercion to dissuade people from engaging in political activity that may shake his rule. Most Belarusians work for state-owned enterprises or for the government itself. Services such as healthcare, universities and railroads are all managed by the state. There is some private enterprise, mostly in the tech industry.

Belarusians who work for a state-run enterprise must sign an employment contract that can be either renewed or terminated after just one year. This gives employers the enormous power to coerce employees to engage in pro-Lukashenka political activities or to take part in elections work where they can be made to falsify results.

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In my conversations with Belarusians, I was told that bosses don't necessarily have to threaten to fire employees for failing to obey political orders. The fear of a contract not being renewed after a year is sufficient reason for an employee to do as they are told. If their contract is not renewed, there will always be some nonpolitical rational for the termination.

 

Also, should an employee stat gathering signatures for an anti-Lukashenka candidate, his boss can just send him out of town on business trips for a few weeks until the candidate filing deadline ends. The anti-parasite laws are meant to make it difficult for citizens to escape this coercive power of the state.

The system, however, is currently showing cracks. The Belarusian economy is sputtering with rising inflation and rising energy prices as Russia has been putting the squeeze on the country to keep it in the Russian political orbit. Some industries, such as dairy and food processing, fertilizers, chemicals, and tractors, continue to be competitive globally. However, Soviet-style inefficiency in other sectors and high debt burdens on industry continue to hobble the country economically.

Belarus's economy has contracted over the past two years and household income contracted by 7.5 percent in 2016 alone. The only real way the struggling state enterprises can be modernized and reshaped is for Belarus to open up its economy to the West and reform its government accordingly.

For now, the government is taking some small measures. Recently, the government made it possible for citizens of 39 countries to travel to Belarus for brief periods without a visa in an attempt to lure tourists and their hard currency. But even this modest move angered Russia, which began erecting checkpoints on its border with Belarus in response.

As the economy slides more and more, Belarusians are finding it more financially rewarding to become self-employed. This is especially true for those with certain intellectual skills, such as translators, writers, editors, some software developers, artists, designers and musicians. Additionally, Belarusian workers who may have previously gone to Russia for seasonal employment are now finding that those options are drying up due to sanctions on Russia and declining Russian salaries.

However, the tax, which amounts to roughly $250 per year in a country where the official average income is $4,000 per year, comes into play. Becoming officially unemployed means performing community service work at a rate of only $10 per month. The tax also applies to spouses who are caregivers. Even citizens who may sell produce from their gardens are subject to the tax. Belarusians working overseas also have to pay the tax.

The tax serves as a way to essentially punish people for their independence. It also punishes the very entrepreneurship that Belarus needs. Nevertheless, anti-Lukashenka activists often purposely take informal jobs in order to avoid being financially dependent on the state.

The Lukashenka government now faces a dilemma: It must either loosen its economic and political grip on the populace in order to increase productivity and improve economic growth, or it continues its current economic slide.

Pursuing reforms, though, risks incurring the wrath of Moscow, whose propaganda organs are already talking of a new "Maidan" in Belarus and menacingly warning against a tilt to the West. Notably, the joint military exercises that are about to take place with Russia are considerably larger on the Russian side this year than they have been in previous years.

For now, the Belarusian government is mostly ignoring the protesters, but if the movement grows in a serious way, the state will either have to reform, employ violence or be toppled. Even the threat of toppling may result in intervention on Moscow's part.

So, while Belarus may not currently rank high on the list of potential foreign policy crises, it may very well be the Trump administration's first big test in Russian relations.

Mitchell Polman, a consultant who specializes in the post-Soviet space, is a veteran international election observer who has observed Belarusian parliamentary elections. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The Daily Beast and other outlets.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.