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Economic woes fuel rare public challenge to Belarus strongman

© AFP/File / by Valery Kalinovsky | Belarusian opposition supporters take part in a rally against a Soviet-style 'tax on spongers', in Minsk, on March 15, 2017

MINSK (AFP) - 

As some three thousand demonstrators marched through the centre of the Belarusian capital Minsk their anger turned to the man who has dominated their lives for 23 years: strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.

"Leave!" they began chanting. "Leave!"

The rally last week was part of the biggest wave of protests to rock isolated Belarus in years as crowds around the country took to the streets to issue a rare challenge to their authoritarian president.

While the scale of the demonstrations may still be modest -- several thousand in Minsk, several hundred in provincial towns -- the sudden outburst of public anger and its spread to usually quiet backwaters has taken Belarus by surprise.

The initial spark for the protests, which began last month, was a controversial tax of around $200 on those who work less than six months a year that Lukashenko insisted was aimed at tackling "social parasitism".

The initiative -- quickly dubbed a "tax on spongers" -- stirred deep public ire in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million where a lengthy recession has seen incomes slump and real unemployment shoot up.

Buffeted by a crisis in ties with neighbouring Russia and riddled with mismanagement, Belarus saw its economy shrink 2.8 percent in the first ten months of 2016 after a fall of 3.9 percent in 2015.

- 'Getting worse each day' -

For protester Grigory Dichkovsky in the western city of Pinsk, the new tax was one step too far.

The 50-year-old has tried and failed to find a job that matches his university degree in electronic engineering and is now making just 100 euros ($198) a month.

He has worked in Russia as well as in Belarus's European Union neighbours Poland and the Baltics but is still struggling to make ends meet.

"I have a family and two children but I can't provide for them," Dichkovsky told AFP.

"I am tired of searching for employment and now they tell me that I am a sponger. Well, give me a dignified job then!"

In an almost unprecedented concession to the protests, Lukashenko on March 9 announced that the authorities would suspend implementation of the the rule -- but refused to scrap it entirely.

The U-turn, however, failed to stop the demonstrations. Instead anger has focused more on deep-seated frustration with Lukashenko -- and the biggest round of protests so far is planned for March 25.

"Life is getting worse each day -- there are practically no jobs," Irina Veshtard, co-chair of the opposition Gramada party that helped organise the protests, told AFP.

"We understand that without free and democratic elections, economic progress in the country is impossible and that is why we have political demands."

- Fresh crackdown? -

For Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, the protests come at an awkward time.

Once accused by the United States of presiding over the "last dictatorship in Europe", the veteran leader has overseen a minor thaw during the past 18 months as he has sought warmer ties with the West.

Meanwhile tensions have risen with main ally Russia as Belarus has nervously eyed Moscow's intervention in its southern neighbour Ukraine.

In 2015 Lukashenko released several prominent opposition figures jailed during a crackdown on the previous major wave of protests that followed a disputed 2010 election, and in response the EU dropped sanctions against him.

This time around the authorities at first seemed to hold off from a tough response and even officially allowed some of the rallies, but then shifted gears and began jailing demonstrators.

So far some 190 people have been arrested and many sentenced to terms of up to 15 days in jail.

The punishments are still nothing compared to lengthy terms imposed before, but rights groups fear Lukashenko could be willing to jeopardise his better relations with the West to stamp out fresh opposition.

"The authorities are putting under threat all the advances they've made in the foreign policy sphere," Uladzimir Labkovich from the Vyasna rights centre said.

"The only way the authorities can respond and, they well know how to do this, is to throw people in prison."

by Valery Kalinovsky

© 2017 AFP