World News

Belarus suspends 'parasite' tax after record protests

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday a tax on those not in full-time employment should not be enforced this year, after widespread public opposition to the levy led to the biggest protests in years.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a news conference in Minsk, Belarus February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nikolai Petrov/BelTA/Pool

Popularly known as the “law against social parasites” it requires those who work less than 183 days per year to pay the government $250 in compensation for lost taxes.

It has gone down badly with the Belarussian public at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet after more than two years of economic recession.

A protest against the tax in Minsk last month drew around 2,000 people, the largest demonstration in the country for six years. Similar protests have since been held beyond the capital and more were planned by the opposition for March.

“We will not collect this money for 2016 from those who were meant to pay it,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by state news agency Belta in a rare concession to public outcry.

Lukashenko, who once described himself as the “last dictator in Europe,” has run the Belarussian economy along Soviet-style command lines since 1994.

He said the authorities could make amendments to the tax, but would not scrap it entirely.

Seeking to improve ties with the European Union and lessen Belarus’s dependence on Russia, Lukashenko has over the past year heeded calls from the West to show greater lenience towards political opposition.

Lukashenko said those who have already paid the ‘parasite’ tax for 2016 would be reimbursed if they find a job in 2017.

According to the last tax inspection, 470,000 people should have paid the tax, but only 50,000 have done so, generating just $8 million in extra revenue for the government.

The country has been in recession since 2015 due to a slump in oil prices and contagion from an economic crisis in neighboring Russia, with which its economy is closely tied and where many Belarussians work in order to send money home.

The average monthly salary has fallen from an all-time high of $630 in mid-2014 to $380 as of the start of 2017.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Toby Davis