Thousands of Belarussians take to the streets to protest 'parasite law'


 Reuters International

Members of law enforcement state agencies, dressed in plain clothes, attempt to detain a participant (C) of a protest against new taxes and increased tariffs for communal services in Minsk, Belarus, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - About 2,000 Belarussians staged one of the country's largest protests in recent years on Friday to voice their opposition to a law that imposes a tax on those not in full-time employment.

Popularly known as the "law against social parasites" it requires those who work less than 183 days per year to pay the government $250 in compensation for lost taxes.

The legislation came into effect in 2015 and has gone down badly with the Belarussian public at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet after more than two years of economic recession.

Protests of this size are rare in the former Soviet republic, run since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has described himself as the "last dictator in Europe."

"I'm not going to pay (the tax). It's absurd, a return to the feudal system," said Mikhail Gutuyev, who has been unemployed since losing his job as a sales agent.

He and other protesters gathered in the main square in the capital Minsk and carried posters with slogans such as: "The president is the main parasite."

Seeking to improve ties with the EU and lessen Belarus's dependence on Russia, Lukashenko has over the past year heeded calls from the West to show greater lenience towards political opposition.

A Reuters witness at the protest said the police presence was minimal and that there was no sign the authorities wanted to prevent the demonstration from taking place.

"The government have stirred up a scandal," Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky told Reuters.

"There won't be a revolution out of it, but dissatisfaction with this specific decree adds to the general dissatisfaction with the economic situation," he said.

The country has been in recession since 2015 due to a slump in oil prices and contagion from an economic crisis in neighbouring Russia, with which its economy is closely tied and where many Belarussians work in order to send money home.

In Belarus, those who are officially registered as unemployed are exempt from the law but those not registered, and also freelancers, housewives or husbands, and those working abroad all have to pay the annual tax to the government.

Those who officially register as unemployed must do community service for $10 per month, so most people do not.

"The effect has been the opposite of what was expected - it caused a huge amount of unnecessary work, stirred everyone up and they got a feeble result," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of the Mizes analytical centre.

According to the last tax inspection, 470,000 people should have paid the fee, but less than 10 percent have done so, generating just $6 million in extra revenue for the government.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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