A woman argues with Belarus police officers blocking a street during an opposition rally. Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2017. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

In March, Belarus witnessed large-scale protests against a controversial “social parasite law” that targeted the unemployed. Dissatisfaction with the country’s oppressive regime and ongoing economic crisis is high. After more than two decades in power, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be testing the limits of the social contract with his people. Until now, promises to keep Belarus safe have pacified most of the population, particularly in light of the fate of nearby Ukraine. Yet the inability to embrace structural reform, and a dependence on Russian subsidies and loans for economic wellbeing, is likely to prove unsustainable in the long run.

The controversial Presidential Decree #3, levying high taxes on the unemployed, should have been introduced this year after being postponed several times. It was stalled when tens of thousands took to the streets, young and old, “parasites” and “non-parasites” alike. President Lukashenka deemed the protesters a “fifth column” paid by foreign powers. Events reached their climax on Freedom Day, March 25, when the government clamped down and arrested 700 protesters. State media further announced that police and KGB (the Belarusian intelligence service still bears its Soviet name) arrested organizers and seized weapons caches. The government claimed that weapons had been smuggled in from Lithuania and Poland, and that individuals had received training in Ukraine for an armed uprising—claims that were vehemently denied by the governments of these countries. Read more