Belarus president feels the squeeze from citizens and from former friend Russia
Attempt to tax social 'parasites' prompts protests while concern over Crimea angers Putin
Once again the "parasites" were in the streets. They were angry, and they were demonstrating. This was Sunday, March 19, almost a month after the first protests.
The author of the "anti-parasite" decree they were protesting against seemed very unsure how to respond.
He likes power, dictatorial power, he likes insults, and he likes to play hockey.
He's not Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, but Alexander Lukashenko, the president — for the past 23 years — of neighbouring Belarus.
Belarus is small — 10 million people — and poor, and once was Russia's closest ally. But things recently have been going very wrong.
The latest blow was self-induced. In January, Lukashenko signed a draconian decree levying a tax of $330 on anyone who hasn't worked half the year and is not officially registered as unemployed, which covers an estimated 470,000 people.
These people were labelled social "parasites," a term borrowed from the Soviet era for which Lukashenko is nostalgic.
That was the trigger for the demonstrations, not just in the capital Minsk but around the country. In the city of Gomel, 83-year-old Maria Venediktovna, a tiny woman in a large coat, her head wrapped in a scarf, stood on a platform and spoke angrily through a loudspeaker.
She ekes out her existence on a tiny pension. Taxing people for not finding work in a country where the economy is plunging was an outrage she said.
In the crowds, people held up signs saying, "We are not slaves."
Venediktovna, who as a retiree is exempt from the law, represented the conservative heartland, long Lukashenko's political pillar. And now that pillar was crumbling.
It's no coincidence that the economy is also crumbling. In 2016, according to the official statistics, incomes dropped by more than seven per cent.
The average monthly income is just $490, and in the countryside only $260. A "parasite" tax would swallow a large chunk of a month's earnings, indeed far more than a month's earnings for farm workers.
Which explains the regime's hesitation to crack down on the demonstrators. Local officials tried to reason with the crowds, with little success.
Then, on March 9, Lukashenko said the government would not implement the decree for a year. The crowds weren't pacified. The demonstrations continued.
Finally, he resorted to his usual methods. On March 15, at a big demonstration in the capital, 150 demonstrators were arrested. More protest leaders were picked up on March 19.
Better to be a dictator than a gay.— Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko
But some of the old swagger of the 62-year-old hockey-playing president is missing. Gone are the days, just five years ago, when, in response to the German foreign minister's labelling of him as the last dictator in Europe, he replied: "Better to be a dictator than a gay."
Guido Westerwelle, the German minister, was openly gay.
Now, Lukashenko is trying to cosy up to the European Union, a move born of fear.
The spectre that haunts him is the Kremlin. The once-tight political friendship between its boss, Putin, and the Belarus boss began to sour badly when Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Lukashenko refused to recognize that takeover. It would, he feared, open the door to a swallowing-up of his own state. That fear seemed to take concrete shape when Russia pushed to open a Russian air base in Belarus itself.
But the Russian squeeze is getting tighter. For decades, Russia subsidized the Belarus economy with cheap oil. And Russia was Belarus's biggest export market.
The huge drop in world prices and the open quarrel over Russia's military moves in Ukraine have radically altered the relationship. Russia wants higher prices for its oil and, to get them, is limiting oil supplies.
The Kremlin wants more than that. Lukashenko himself said in February that Moscow is pushing for control of oil and gas pipelines running through Belarus. He is resisting.
While he resists Russia has reinstated border controls, long abolished, between the two countries. It has also moved two mechanized army brigades next to the Belarus border. These are not friendly moves.
And so, in some desperation, Lukashenko welcomed a European Union delegation in the midst of street demonstrations in March. He had prepared the ground by releasing several human rights activists from prison in 2016. The EU, in turn, lifted its sanctions against his country.
At the meeting the self-declared dictator declared his love of his western neighbours.
"The European Union is a strong pillar of support for the planet and, if it disappears, there will be trouble," he said. "That is why I do not appreciate your Brexits and nationalistic movements."
Such strenuous praise flows from the concern that the neo-Soviet social model — poor but equal, in a heavily subsidized state — is disintegrating. Belarus, and Lukashenko, will need new friends, particularly since the old one is showing its big teeth.
He shoots, he scores!
Just months ago things seemed, if not great, at least containable for the boss. For the 13th time in January he had organized and was playing in his annual amateur hockey tournament.
Lukashenko suited up with men 30 and even 40 years younger and waited, like Putin, for his teammates to pass him the puck. Then, unchallenged, he would shoot and score.
Not surprisingly his "Belarusians" team won the tournament for the 10th time, and Lukashenko was its top scorer.
His son Kolya, the product of an extramarital relationship with Lukashenko's doctor, was coming up to 13. He accompanied his father on most of his political trips, from Beijing to New York, perhaps being groomed to take over in 12 or 15 years.
Other Belarus doctors were doing well, too. Belarus had become a thriving centre of medical tourism with thousands, mostly from Russia, coming for cheap and good plastic surgery and dentistry. The nip-and-tuck centres were raking in millions.
But plastic surgery for a sagging state may prove more difficult.
- A previous version of this story mistakenly said that Belarusian retiree Svetlana Alexievich, 68, was subject to the decree levying fines against those who hadn't officially worked half the year. In fact, retirees are not subject to the new levy.Mar 21, 2017 11:20 AM ET