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Is Belarus really going to bring back serfdom?

CIA Wikimedia Commons

“Yesterday, I was given a decree about, let’s speak frankly, ‘serfdom.'” This awesome statement was actually uttered by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting on Tuesday. According to a June 2 Washington Post article, Belarus might revert to serfdom in an attempt to force younger people back to work at the nation's collective farms.

Under the decree, workers at collective farms would not be able to change their jobs or move to towns without a high local official's personal permission. A milder label for the policy is "tough regulation of agricultural employment." The real outcome is a return to Stalinist era policies that prevented Soviet peasants from moving around the nation. Collective farm workers were denied internal passports that would allow them to leave.

Until the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev ended the practice, there were only two ways for urban migration to happen without a high official's permission. One was to join the army. The second was to enlist in construction programs. A third option was to go to school in the cities, but that option required high official permission.

Almost a third of the Belarus population is now in Minsk. About two thirds of the people live in other towns. This represents about 7.3 million people who are most of the able bodied citizens who could work at farming collectives. Left behind are senior citizens and retirees.

This story originated in a May 29 Financial Times article, which revealed that Lukashenko was once the former chairman of a collective farm. He has a longstanding obsession with agriculture (and serfdom.) He passed a law in 2012 that prohibited timber industry workers from leaving their jobs.

His problem is with a 1957 international convention on the abolition of forced labor. Belarus is a signatory to that agreement, even though Lukashenko has already violated it with the timber worker's restrictions.

Belarus is also burdened with archaic farming practices for growing cereals and potatoes and for animal husbandry. Recent harvests apparently did not come out as well as hoped. Wages are terribly low and younger people might just fight back if he tries to force them back into serfdom and forced labor.

In other news, busy Belarus helped formed a sad version of the European Union by signing with Russia and Kazakhstan on Thursday. Ukraine would have been the big catch in a Eurasian version of the European union, but there are small odds of that happening now.

Some very dry jokes are going around about President Lutashekho's ambitions as the ruler of serfs and joint leader of a three nation Eurasian Union. In all seriousness, the situation could turn ugly, bringing another Balkan nation into disarray. The disaffected youth of Belarus could easily start a revolution of their own to throw Lukashenko out of office and go for the European model.

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