VORSHA, Belarus -- Police have detained a group of opposition leaders and at least three journalists during the latest in a series of charged protests over a controversial government-backed unemployment tax.
The March 12 arrests occurred in the eastern city of Vorsha, during a rally that featured several hundred people chanting antigovernment and anti-tax slogans. Paval Sevyarynets, a well-known opposition figure, was among those detained, as was a reporter with RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service.
The target of the protests, which also occurred in two other eastern cities, is a 2015 tax that authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said was needed to fight what he called "social parasitism."
The roughly $200 tax is aimed at those who work less than six months a year and fail to register in the country's labor bureaus.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Implementation of the tax had been delayed since the law passed. Once it took effect, however, it sparked weeks of protests across the nation of 10 million, in what has turned into one of the biggest challenges to Lukashenka in his more than two decades in power.
Lukashenka recently announced that he would be suspending the tax for a year in order to "correct" it, but that has failed to quell the outrage.
Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, quashing political dissent, independent media, and civil society groups.
Often dubbed "Europe’s last dictator," he has tried to seek greater engagement with the West, while also trying to avoid upsetting his country's closest ally, Russia.
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The country has seen opposition protests in the past, mainly after elections that the West deemed neither fair nor free. But those protests were limited to the capital Minsk and larger cities.
Political observers have pointed to the fact that the antitax protests are occurring in more provincial towns and cities as being indicative of larger social unrest and unhappiness with Lukashenka's government.
Belarus' economy is centralized and state-controlled, but the government earns badly needed revenue from things such as exported refined-petroleum products, using cheaper crude imports from Russia. World oil prices have helped depress those revenues.
Moreover, Belarus's economy, which is also reliant on trade with Russia, has also been pinched by the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014.