Belarus plans to bring back serfdom

Alexander Lukashenko is living up to his reputation as Europe’s last remaining dictator. The president of Belarus has decided to bring back serfdom on farms in a bid to stop urban migration.

Lukashenko has announced plans to introduce legislation prohibiting farm labourers from quitting their jobs and moving to the cities. “Yesterday, a decree was put on my table concerning – we are speaking bluntly – serfdom,” the Belarus leader told a meeting on Tuesday to discuss improvements to livestock farming, reported.

The serfdom decree would beef up the power of regional governors and “teach the peasants to work more efficiently,” Lukashenko said. Governors who failed to ensure timely and efficient harvests in their regions would get the sack, he added.

Lukashenko, who was deputy chairman of a Soviet collective farm before entering politics in 1990, is famous for his obsession with agriculture. Belarus produces large amounts of potatoes and cereals as well as livestock, but farming methods have hardly been reformed since the Soviet era. Low agricultural wages and limited prospects have persuaded many farm workers to leave the countryside to seek opportunities in the cities or in neighbouring Russia.

Serfdom was abolished in the Russian empire by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 but made a comeback under a different guise in the Soviet era. Workers at the kind of collective farm that Lukashenko once ran were tied to the land by travel restrictions and laws obliging all able bodied adults to register as employed.

If Lukashenko signs the serfdom decree, Belarus will be in violation of the 1957 international convention on the abolition of forced labour to which it is a signatory. That didn’t stop him adopting a law in 2012 stopping timber industry workers from quitting their jobs and it probably won’t stop him now.

Russia may however raise objections.

Lukashenko is expected to join his Russian and Kazakhstani counterparts on Thursday in signing a treaty intended to deepen economic ties between the three former Soviet countries. Members of the new, Moscow led Eurasian Union will be obliged to guarantee, among other things, the free movement of the work force across their common frontiers. Lukashenko could be found to be breaking the law if he tries to tie agricultural labourers to the land.

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