Modern slavery in belarus: those who quit pay back their salary

Workers are emigrating in droves to neighboring countries. Belarusian dictator Lukashenko responds with bizarre punitive measures.

"A flawless democrat": Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: dpa

In Belarus, life is taking on increasingly absurd features. In the former Soviet republic, it is now not even possible to freely choose a job. "This is serfdom," criticizes trade unionist Alexander Yaroshuk in the capital Minsk.

Head of state Alexander Lukashenko wants to use a decree to stop the exodus of citizens, especially to neighboring Russia, where wages are significantly higher. Whether computer specialists or construction workers: with monthly wages averaging 230 euros, many Belarusians are trying their luck abroad. "In Russia, I not only get more pay, but also a serviced apartment," says architect Alexander Romashchenko.

There are no credible figures on how many of the almost ten million Belarusians have already turned their backs on their homeland. Most emigrants do not inform the authorities. Moreover, there are hardly any border controls between Belarus and Russia, which are linked by a customs union. Trade unions in Minsk estimate that about 150,000 Belarusians leave their homeland every year. "Eighty-five percent emigrate to Russia, the rest to nearby EU countries, especially Poland," Yaroshuk says.

Since 1994, Lukashenko has run the country with a hard hand and in the style of a communist command economy. For years, Belarus has been fighting against the threat of national bankruptcy. Although Lukashenko has negotiated loans with China and Iran, and Russia is also pumping billions into the brother state, the population is still suffering – from inflation of more than 30 percent, among other things.

No chance for self-realization

Even in the capital, teachers earn only about 250 euros a month. "But the low salaries are not the only reason for the exodus," says Minsk journalist Irina Buraga. Young people and qualified workers would no longer see an opportunity for self-realization in Belarus, which is extremely tightly regulated.

"Even top Belarusian officials admit behind closed doors that the current economic model has had its day," says Yaroshuk. But no one dares to openly contradict Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko.

The 20,000 workers in the strategically important timber industry play a special role in the president’s decree. A new clause in their employment contracts obligates them in the future to repay all salaries in the event of termination.

"A well-designed system"

To collect the money, the authorities automatically deduct the penalty from a worker’s wages when he takes a new job. If he doesn’t have a new job, he must return to his old work – and still pay the penalty. "This is a well-designed system," Lukashenko said during a recent visit to a sawmill. Critics, on the other hand, accuse him of keeping citizens like slaves.

"The exodus of labor is the biggest problem for the Belarusian agricultural industry," Mikhail Russy, the vice-government head in charge of agriculture, also admits. The Lukashenko decree will do little to change this, says Buraga: "It’s no longer just about skilled workers. The situation in our country is so bad that even farmers are fleeing. Incidentally, head of state Lukashenko once studied agronomy himself and used to work on a sovkhoz.