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“This was the last straw” – Interview with Michael Strelchyk about “social parasite” tax and the limits of Belarusian patience

In February, a wave of grassroots protests rocked Belarus prompted by the introduction of a “social parasite” tax by the Belarusian government. The government argued that, since most social services are free in Belarus, everyone must contribute to financing them, including the unemployed and those, who do not look for a job and live off their own or their family’s savings, such as housewives or people recovering from surgery. People took to the streets all across Belarus, a country famous (or notorious, depending on who you ask) for the tranquillity of its social and political life. This makes the current wave of protests ever more significant. Beyond the EU (BtEU) sat down with Michael Strelchyk (MS), social activist and outspoken critic of the tax, to discuss recent developments.

MS

BtEU: Michael, you became famous all over the country because of your fiery speech during the protest against “social parasite” tax. What made you join the protest?

MS: If we consider all the media coverage we received, then you are right: more than 100,000 people got to know about our Baranavichy [town in Belarus] protest, both in Belarus and abroad. I had three reasons to go out on the streets that day: hopelessness, unemployment and supporting humiliated Belarusians. The authorities wonder who’s behind these protests; these three reasons are.

BtEU: The term “social parasite” was not heard of since Soviet era, when it was a crime to be unemployed. This tax was also often described as direct or indirect coercion to labour. Is it feasible for the government to collect this tax and punish those, who refuse to pay it?

MS: It is absolutely unfeasible. The government spent many times more money looking for the unemployed to tax than what they actually managed to collect. Their estimate for this tax was $85 million a year (ridiculous target in itself; it is but a drop in the country’s fiscal sea), but the end result is just $8.5 million. Now we know that the government spent more than $8.5 on the implementation of this measure.

What makes it even more surreal is that the two officials who came up with the idea of “social parasite” tax could not even explain in any meaningful way why we need this tax. As far as I can see, it was introduced to coerce people to look for a job inside the country and, once employed, pay their regular income tax. But the real problem is that it’s happening when there are mass lay-offs all around the county and the unemployment rate is hitting through the roof (10% at the very least). So instead of unemployment relief and vocational training Belarusians got a humiliating tax.

BtEU: The protest you joined took place in Baranavichy, a middle-sized provincial town. Most protest actions take place in the capital, but this time people poured on the streets from all the country’s corners. In your opinion, how is this protest different from more traditional Minsk protests that usually go unnoticed in the regions?

MS: It is different because authorities are having difficult time putting blame on the “usual suspects” for this protest. People in the government think that protests in Minsk can only be organised by some foreign actors and political opposition (Minsk being the political heart of the country and the “magnet” for domestic and international financial flows). In the regions, we have neither, and there is no one to blame, but the common folks. The authorities seem to be somewhat confused at the moment.

BtEU: Authorities may be confused by the social nature of this protest, but does it mean that Belarusians, by and large, are indifferent towards political issues, and that political agenda will not draw so many people?

MS: Belarusians have rarely united around political causes. We can unite either against foreign invaders, or against abject poverty and hopelessness.

BtEU: This protest is often described as a leaderless movement. In this case, how do you see the role of the political opposition, who are usually responsible for mobilisation of protesters?

MS: Political opposition is inclined to protest around a classical set of political problems, not more than that. Right now, we face a classical set of economic problems, and their approach does not quite fit. Angry and disaffected people are the real opposition right now.

BtEU: Does it mean that protests in different towns are not coordinated?

MS: They are not.

BtEU: Then who organised the protest in your town and how did you get to know about it?

MS: Local residents themselves organised the protest, partly thanks to the social media, because they were refused an appointment with their Member of Parliament.

BtEU: Some commentators have tried to politicise this protest, calling it a preparation for a “Belarusian maidan” in particular, and “rocking the boat” in general. Is it really the case or the accusations are baseless?

MS: I can only say that these protests put forth various demands, but in no way could they be considered a preparation to “Belarusian maidan” or “rocking the boat”.

BtEU: Judging by what we have seen during the protests in different towns, the “social parasite” tax tipped the scales for many Belarusians. People’s grievances concern many other economic issues, which we can see from the articulated demands (including yours). Do you think that Belarusians finally got disaffected with the government’s economic policy or it still has some credibility?

MS: Yes, you are absolutely right. This was the last straw. Rubicon of patience, so to say. This tax is only a symptom, and we need to fight the cause of people’s misery. That is why the demands are much broader than the tax itself. I believe that the trust in government’s policies and their credibility rest at about 20-30%. This must be the lowest it has been in the last 25 years.

BtEU: When we look at the protests in other countries, we see that they often empower communities, build up solidarity and allow for conceptualising new ways to organise at the grassroots level. Can we say that something similar is happening right now in Belarus?

MS: Difficult to say. These protests are in their first stages.

BtEU: Do you think the state is going to listen to the protesters? And if not, what are your plans to fight against the “social parasite” tax?

MS: I think they are going to roll it back in March 2017. I am 100% sure about it. Afterwards we should see mobilisation of all the strength and resources to create a new political force in order to bring this country onto the next level of development.