March 24, 2017
Belarusian government cracks down on writers protesting “parasite tax”
by Kait Howard
Last month, we wrote about Ukrainian writer and dissident Serhiy Zhadan’s ordeal being arrested and detained in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, where he was attending a poetry festival.
The situation for writers and journalists in Belarus appears to have taken a turn for the worse this week, with the government cracking down on widespread demonstrations against a new tax that seems designed to punish them for their work.
The Guardian’s John Kennan, citing a figure from the Committee to Protect Journalists, reports that Belarusian security forces “had detained or otherwise obstructed at least 32 people in recent weeks,” apparently over demonstrations against the so-called “parasite tax” on citizens who aren’t employed and haven’t been seeking work through government employment centers. As PEN America’s Polina Kovaleva explains in an article for the Huffington Post, the annual new tax of $240 on anyone who “works less than 183 days a year and who fails to register as officially unemployed” has been viewed as a form of “social control,” unfairly penalizing “independent writers and other creative workers who do not belong to official unions.” (The average monthly salary in Belarus is $370). Protests have erupted in cities across the country in the past few weeks, as people,“including independent writers, artists, and tutors,” began receiving notices ordering them to pay up.
According to a PEN America report, the wave of arrests “followed a statement by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday claiming that a group of militants seeking to fuel unrest in the country had been identified,” a claim that has been widely read as an empty excuse to crack down on dissidents. Among those arrested were publisher Miroslav Lozovsky, activist Dmitry Dashkevich, and bookseller Ales Evdaho, who was arrested after attending an award ceremony organized by PEN Belarus and was still unaccounted for as of Wednesday night. Lozovsky’s wife told the Guardian that police had brought him home “bloody and beaten” before taking him away again.
According to Kovaleva, a major demonstration against the tax is planned for this Saturday. Also according to Kovaleva, though it seems almost too poetic to be real, Lukashekno has “already ordered security forces to ‘pluck out all the dissatisfied from the streets like raisins from a roll.’”
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.