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Can Market Vendors Become Force of Influence in Belarus?

In their struggle for favorable economic conditions and decent living standards — for business directly depends on the population’s purchasing power — Belarusian market vendors use different methods, from strikes to appeals directly to the head of state and other officials. However neither protest campaigns nor appeals have so far brought about the desired result. The government is reluctant to embrace private business with its numerous problems.

Business environment in Belarus continues to be unfavorable, since government declarations on the upcoming economic liberalization were not followed by real actions. With an unbearable tax burden, all-out fiscal checkups and the pressure to donate money for state-run projects, small and medium-sized businesses are going through bad times. In addition, the state propaganda machine instigated by Belarusian ruler, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, is labeling market vendors as black marketeers and swindlers.

Yet virtually the whole Belarusian population, including blue-collar workers and officials with the Economy Ministry, buy clothes and foodstuffs at markets which offer a wider and cheaper range of goods than state-run shops. This detail alone evidences that market vendors, no matter how badly they are criticized, are an important element of the Belarusian economy.

The negative attitude of the government to small and medium-sized businesses is well understandable. It cannot be otherwise when the country’s economy is run by command methods and few market tools are used only as a cover or as a forced measure in industries in complete decline. At the same time, the authorities fear that businesspeople may turn into a developed social class and an influential political force, i.e. tycoons or national bourgeoisie that will fund political parties and thus lobby their interests.

Repressive economic conditions should galvanize the formation of an active position among market vendors, but this process is undermined by civil non-freedoms and harassment of trade union leaders of small and medium-sized businesses. Suffice it to say that most protest campaigns of Belarusian market vendors in the past were one-day “token” events without any effect. Strikes that were proclaimed as open-ended did not last more than two weeks and stopped, the organizers said, in a gesture of goodwill toward consumers.

However, the market vendors’ plans to stage a mass open-ended strike this fall should make the authorities anxious. On July 31, market vendors staged a one-day strike nationwide that involved 150,000 people. Besides, they are going to use other means too. Valery Levaneuski, leader of the unregistered strike committee, sent letters to Lukashenka and his aide for economic matters, Siarhej Tkachou, urging them to discuss problems of small and medium-sized businesses. According to Levaneuski, it depends on the Presidential Administration whether their problems will be discussed at the government level. The Council of Ministers, in particular, the Economy and Trade Ministries, he said, are ready for a dialog but are waiting for a go-ahead from the Administration.

Levaneuski stressed in his letters that a number of amendments to business regulations that have been passed or are planned are very discouraging for small businesses. The amendments, such as the introduction of settlement accounts, cash registers and sales account documents, as well as the double increase in the fixed monthly tax amounts (a single tax), will badly hit vendors. More than a half of them, the letter says, will have to close down as a result. They called on the government to “abolish all planned amendments to regulations that deteriorate business conditions and to hold an open discussion on the problems.”

According to the strike committee, 80 percent of Belarusian vendors are ready to go on a national strike with suspending tax payments and demand Lukashenka’s resignation unless the government takes measures to resolve the conflict. September 1 was named in the letters to Lukashenka and his aide as a date for the open-ended strike in case the government continues to ignore vendors’ demands and refuses to talk. The strike was later postponed to October 1 (but part of market vendors were on a strike on September 1). The organizing committee is planning to stage a one-day token strike on September 11 with demands of resignation of Lukashenka and some ministers and officials who hinder the development of small and medium-sized businesses in Belarus. The date was chosen on purpose as vendors qualify the government actions as “economic terrorism.”

According to the organizers, the strike was postponed after government officials promised that “there would be no changes to the single tax decree and that the tax increase scheduled for September 1 was abolished.” These, they said, were the “major reasons of the upcoming strike.” Besides, the government is allegedly ready to consider a number of other vendors’ proposals.

It is not unlikely that the government who branded market vendors as “crooks” and “lousy fleas” really decided to start a dialog. If market vendors do stage an open-ended strike as planned, i.e. with tax payments suspended, this can do considerable harm to the state. Changes to the business regulations will force many of them to shut up and join the army of the unemployed.

An even greater concern for the authorities is that the protest campaign scheduled for October 1 will have not only economic but also political slogans. It means that despite persecution Belarusian business is shaping into an organized and menacing force.


По русски


The additional information

Valery Levaneuski (Russian: Левоневский Валерий Станиславович, Belarusian: Валеры Станіслававіч Леване́ўскі, Polish: Walery Lewoniewski) - Belarussian political and social activist, former political prisoner. Amnesty International recognizes him as a prisoner of conscience

On 7 September 2004, he was sentenced to two years in prison for publicly insulting the president of Belarus (A.Lukashenko). The judge decreed that a leaflet which Levaneuski had distributed prior to demonstrations on 1 May 2004 in particular contained a text:

“come and say that you are against ’somebody’ going on holiday skiing in Austria and having a good time at your cost”

Since Alexander Lukashenko is known to have spent his holidays in Austria, the judge decide that leaflet contains a public insult to the President.

On 16 September 2004 European Parliament calls on the Belarus authorities to release immediately Valery Levaneuski and all other imprisoned political opponents of the regime.

Valery Levaneuski - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Official Site 2 (Russian and English)

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