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Belarus introduces slavery

Here’s the latest news from what Hugo Chavez called the “model social state” of Belarus:

Vladimir Dodonov wants to flee Belarus for neighboring Russia before it becomes illegal to leave his job at a wood-processing plant.

Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has decided to stem an exodus of qualified workers to Russia, starting by banning those who work in wood-processing industries from quitting. Critics have compared the measure to serfdom and warned that it would only deepen the former Soviet republic’s economic troubles and fuel protests against Lukashenko.

Dodonov, 37, who earns the equivalent of $140 a month at the Borisovdrev plant, says he could make several times as much in Russia and would have left earlier if he hadn’t had to care for his ailing mother. “How can you survive on such a miserable salary?” he said this week. “Naturally, I’m thinking about leaving for Russia before they turn me into a slave.”

It could be too late.

“You will be sentenced to compulsory labor and sent back here if you leave,” Lukashenko warned Friday during a visit to the plant, located in the industrial city of Borisov, about 70 kilometers (some 45 miles) east of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

I’ll bet that visit was a real morale booster for the workers.

The president said his decree would apply to more than 13,000 employees of nine state-run wood-processing plants and 2,000-3,000 construction workers involved in modernizing them. Lukashenko said on a visit to the plant that his decree would become effective on Dec. 1. Even though he hasn’t signed it yet, Borisovdrev workers who tried to quit this week were barred from doing so by the administration under various pretexts.

Lukashenko promised to raise an average worker’s salary at the plant from the current $150 a month to $400-$500, roughly what it would be in Russia. He pledged to increase it further to $1,000 by 2015, but some of the workers were skeptical.

I can’t imagine why.

Nikolai Pokhabov, the leader of an independent union in Borisov, warned that Lukashenko’s order could spark protests. “The government is trying to solve problems with a stick at the workers’ expense,” the union leader said. “But it fails to understand that threats and reliance on the stick will only push workers to flee the country or stage protests.”

Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based analyst, said that Lukashenko may later try to expand the measure to other sectors of the economy. “Amid a severe economic crisis, Lukashenko is launching a risky experiment that could later be spread to the entire economy,” Klaskovsky said. “It amounts to Lukashenko introducing elements of slavery in 21st century Europe.”

About one million people in the nation of 10 million are estimated to be working abroad, most of them in neighboring Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. One of the ironies of the situation is that Russia, which is seen as a prized destination by Belarusian workers, itself prevented its people from working abroad during Soviet times, through tight restrictions on exit visas.

In the 19th century United States, slavery was outlawed after a civil war that led to passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which barred forced labor outside of punishment for a crime.

Lukashenko doesn’t strike me as the scholarly type, but I hope he’s familiar with that piece of American history.