MINSK — While Belarus’ poverty rate has decreased from nearly half the population in the 1990s to about five percent today, the causes of poverty in Belarus remain much the same, especially among the country’s vulnerable populations.
Among these vulnerable populations are large households, single-parent households, the elderly, migrants and refugees and disabled persons. While each of these groups faces a distinct set of challenges, they have one thing in common: the Belarusian government has deemed them “social parasites.”
Social Parasite Tax
In March 2017, Belarus, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, attempted to impose a “social parasite tax” on its poor population. The effort had been made into law by decree in 2015, but it wasn’t until this year that people began receiving notice of the fine. Valued at roughly $233, the tax equates to about a month’s wages for the average citizen. For the vulnerable populations, who typically make just $100 per month (barely above the Belarusian poverty line of $90 per month), this financial hit would be devastating.
The proposal was met with unprecedented protests across 13 cities, with 2,000 demonstrators protesting in Minsk alone. The effort resulted in hundreds of arrests and gained the support of many human rights groups who publicly condemned the tax.
Lukashenko defended the the fine as a way to “instill discipline in the work-shy,” implying that the effort was meant to make people less dependent on government services. However, Belarus provides hardly any assistance to the unemployed, with those receiving benefits entitled to just $12 per month. According to the World Bank, less than 10 percent of unemployed citizens receive these benefits.
Even if Belarus is able to fully overcome its recent recession, it is unlikely that the poorest population would benefit from the economic growth as it did in the 1990s. In fact, inequality, which is among the main causes of poverty in Belarus, is expected to rise as the rich get richer and continue to find legal ways to avoid paying taxes.
Civilian Pushback to the Government
This is, in part, why the effort by Lukashenko’s government to enforce the 2015 decree sparked such large protests: low wages and lack of economic opportunities are among the most significant causes of poverty in Belarus, meaning that people are simply not earning enough to live. Geographic location also plays a significant role, with rural areas housing the majority of the poorer population.
The causes of poverty in Belarus are only exacerbated by government policies such as the lack of unemployment support and efforts to raise the age of retirement. In an aging population, this would only serve to increase the number of impoverished citizens and further strain Belarus’s economy. Unfortunately, citizen participation in government often has little impact, and many view voting as no more than a formality.
However, the international community identified these issues within Belarus and works to address government functioning in the hopes of improving the lives of vulnerable populations; in fact, 80 percent of U.S. foreign assistance to the state is dedicated to moving towards governing justly and democratically.
In addition, many human rights organizations alarmed by the crackdown on the social parasite protests and those on Belarus’s Freedom Day, condemned the repressive actions of Lukashenko’s government. So, though the causes of poverty in Belarus persist, there is hope for progress in the future.
– Alena Zafonte