Belarus Car Owners Flood Into Downtown Minsk to Protest New Tax

Belarus drivers streamed into downtown Minsk, their honking column filling the capital’s main thoroughfare as a planned tax sparked the nation’s first public protest since 2011.

Motorists organized on social network websites to slow traffic on the eight-lane Nezavisimosti Avenue to a crawl as hundreds cheered from sidewalks about 200 meters (670 feet) from President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s residence. Riot police later forced pedestrians into a nearby underground passage.

While mass protests are part of the political culture in neighboring Ukraine, demonstrations are rare under Lukashenko’s regime, called a dictatorship by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The strongman, who came to power in 1994, used a police crackdown to suppress rallies over his fourth election victory in 2010. The protests two years ago were also staged by car owners, over a fuel-price increase.

“If a part of our society is facing a problem, we all should support them, so that they would support us in return,” said Tatiana Palkhovskaya, not a car owner herself, who raised her hand in a victory sign to greet drivers.

The country is looking for foreign financing to stabilize its cash-strapped economy, having lost a fifth of its reserves this year. As the government awaits the disbursement of the final $440 million tranche from $3 billion Russia-led bailout loan, the International Monetary Fund said a new lending program isn’t under discussion.

Belarus will face payments of $2.6 billion on its external debt next year, Deputy Prime Minister Petr Prokopovich said today in Minsk. The government wants to raise 1.6 trillion rubles ($168.5 million) next year from a new tax on car owners, Finance Minister Andrei Kharkovets told lawmakers Dec. 16.

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