Belarusian authorities test people’s reaction to bizarre tax initiatives

April 22, 2016 18:41

The government proposes to introduce a fee for using private vehicles, as well as a tax on so-called ‘spongers’ (i.e. people who do not work for a living and do not contribute to society). 

The authorities’ bizarre tax initiatives are meant to measure society’s response and to find the best way to pick citizens’ pockets to replenish the budget. The authorities are seeking ways to seize people’s income so that it has the least impact on the president’s approval rating and will not result in open protests. The state plans to preserve the current economic policy in the short and medium term by reducing the welfare state.

In January – September 2013the national budget surplus was BYR 1299.2 billion. According to preliminary estimates, by the year-end, the budget deficit will be BYR 411.5 billion (about USD 44 million). The deficit will be caused by the shortage of income tax and foreign trade revenues. In January – September 2013 only 41.7% of the projected income tax were listed to the budget, and only 60.3% of foreign trade revenues. In 2013 Belarusian imports reduced and export duties on potash zeroed out, creating budget deficit by the year-end.

Budget deficit could be recovered by two means: either by cutting costs or by finding additional sources of revenues. While the government could reduce expenditure on security agencies, banks, re-compensations, and other budget items, it focuses on citizen’s pockets and additional taxes for population as the new sources of budget revenues.

The authorities said they would increase the share of cost recovery for housing and communal services in 2014, would raise the excise duties on motor fuels by circa 14.5% and came up with some other exotic initiatives to pick citizens’ pockets. 

Belarusians respond sluggishly to violations of their civil and political rights and freedoms, but are quite ready to defend their economic interests. Some previously announced bizarre initiatives, such as the introduction of new fees and taxes, were disavowed following reactions in the society. Over 25,000 people signed a petition against introduction of the USD 100 ‘exit’ fee.

It is worth noting that such bizarre initiatives have not been voiced by Lukashenko, but by other public officials. Lukashenko wants to avoid a negative impact on his approval rating before the elections. The latest initiative, regarding a tax on cars, was announced by a minor Finance Ministry official.

Simultaneously, some new tax initiatives have developed. For example, Prime Minister Myasnikovich’s proposal to tax the unemployed (up to USD 280 per annum) and the tax on using private cars have become draft laws. Neither the government nor the ministry officials are sensitive to society’s reaction, their future careers depend entirely on the president’s goodwill.

In addition, president Lukashenko demanded to complete the transition to a contract employment system. This mechanism proved effective in reducing workers’ protest moods before the 2006 presidential elections. According to Statistics Ministry, by late 2005, 92 % of workers in Belarus had been enrolled in fixed-term contracts system.

The authorities continue searching for the least painful ways to replenish the state budget at the expense of the population without changing the current policy.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.