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Belarusians protest against Lukashenko's 'tax on spongers'

2 min

Minsk (AFP)

Thousands of Belarusian opposition supporters rallied in Minsk on Friday against a Soviet-style "tax on spongers" imposed by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Some 2,000 people took part in the largest such rally since 2010 which was organised by veteran opposition rivals of Lukashenko in the small ex-Soviet country between Russia and the European Union.

Protestors at the unsanctioned rally called the "March of Infuriated Belarusians" attacked the tax and shouted demands for Lukashenko to step down.

The rally was organised by respected opposition leaders Mikola Statkevich -- who was released after five years in prison in 2015 -- and poet Vladimir Nekliayev, as well as independent trade union leader Gennady Fedynich.

Lukashenko has imposed an annual tax of around $200 on those who work less than six months per year that the public has nicknamed "the tax on spongers."

The president, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 introduced the controversial measure by personal decree to prevent what he called "social parasitism."

It applies to those who are officially in work for less than 183 days in a year.

Protestors carried placards with slogans including "The president is the chief freeloader" and "That's enough!" Some drummed on saucepans and set fire to tax demands.

They marched through central Minsk from the presidential administration's office to the main government buildings including the tax ministry on Independence Square.

Police prevented the column of protesters from leaving the pavement and walking in traffic lanes but did not detain anyone.

The "tax on spongers" affects all those who have not registered officially as job-seekers, including homemakers, subsistence farmers and those working without official papers in Russia.

Only around 10 percent of more than 430,000 Belarusians ordered to pay up by the tax ministry have complied so far, with a deadline of February 20.

In the Soviet era, "sponging" or living on unearned income and not seeking employment was a crime, reflecting Communist ideology that glorified labour. It was used to punish dissidents including poet Joseph Brodsky.

Russian lawmakers have also raised the possibility of introducing such a measure.

Amid a deep economic crisis, Lukashenko has initiated some unpopular reforms including from this year gradually raising the retirement age by three years from 55 for women and 60 for men.

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