Shouts of ‘fascists’ and ‘long live Belarus’ filled the streets of Minsk, Brest, Grodno, and other cities across Belarus during protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The protests occurred on 25 March during the celebration of the 99th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarus People’s Republic as a result of the president’s newest decree: a tax, charmingly referred to as the ‘decree against social parasites,’ on the unemployed and those who work part-time. Lukashenko’s tax forces those who declare less than 183 days a year to pay a tax of £185 until they find work. In a country experiencing its first ever recession, job prospects and money are hard to come by. Water cannons, police brutality, and a countrywide Internet shut down ended the peaceful protest, but left the people demanding that Lukashenko leave office. The people of Belarus demand that their president resign and free the country from its corrupt and autocratic leadership to promote equality, a stable economy, and liberty throughout the country.

Described by George W. Bush as ‘Europe’s last dictator,’ Lukashenko has mimicked the repressive Soviet ruling style since 1994 when he first took office. Within the past month, the president has arrested news reporters, opposition leaders, and protestors to quell the rise of a potential revolution and maintain power. The latest incident involved a police raid of the offices of Vensa, a human rights group, which detained 30 activists as a result. In the most recent protest alone over 700 protesters and dozens of journalists were detained all because they spoke out against the president. The most famous incident involved Alex Lahvinets, who was beaten and arrested in front of his young son for protesting the current government. Human Rights Watch argues that Lahvinets was arrested under false charges and should be released along with the other peaceful protestors stating that the police should be behind bars, not the protestors. The protest on 25 March represented not only public anger towards the new tax, but resentment towards the repressive ruling style of Lukashenko.

Isabel Sommerfeld

Image courtesy of Isabel Sommerfeld, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The newest tax was introduced due to Lukashenko desperately needing money in order to pay state bills and enhance the current economy. Before imposing the tax, Lukashenko reached out to Western Europe hoping that countries would loan his state money to help reboot the economy. He even allowed some protesting to promote a more liberal image of himself, believing that would encourage financial support from abroad. Although his tactic has gained him some support, such as when the EU lifted sanctions on the regime, European ties aren’t as close as Lukashenko would like to see them. Unable to secure funds desperately needed, Lukashenko turned to his fellow citizens who barely have the funds to pay taxes. Many citizens are also sceptical about where their money is going. Many believe that instead of their tax money being invested back into the country it will be invested into ‘Zapad-2017,’ which is an agreement between the Russian and Belarusian militaries that was designed to make citizens ‘feel more secure.’ The military initiative has already receive a lot of backlash from Belarusians because they want to minimize the country’s ties to Russia in fear of becoming a satellite state under the Kremlin’s control.

A desire to promote real change within their country prompted the Belarusians to protest against their repressive leader and take to the streets. Although the most recent protest was regarding a tax, the protest represented an overarching desire for governmental change. The Belarusians are tired of having a single leader and long for a government system in which the elected officials represent the people. They hope to create a government where corruption-free elections are held and foreign governments oversee them to ensure their legitimacy. The protests will surely grow and continue until the current leader is gone.

As one of the largest protests in the past several years, the demonstration on 25 March represented a turning point in Belarusian politics. The government’s actions of beating citizens, carrying away the elderly, and detaining opposition leaders and foreign journalists have acted as the catalyst for Belarusians to continue the fight. Lukashenko has ruled long enough that even his promises of a vast social welfare system no longer guarantee immunity. The Belarusians need a leader who will put citizens’ desires first and help foster a system of social liberty and economic success. Living through a recession and a repressive dictator has already taken a toll on both the citizens and the country; change is necessary. The Belarusians have taken matters into their own hands and made a point of wanting more from their leader. As stated by a female protestor, ‘To join is frightening, not to join is shameful.’