WOODWORKER Vladimir Dodonov wanted to flee Belarus for better paid work in Russia, but then Alexander Lukashenko, authoritarian president of the former Soviet republic, decreed such a move illegal .
Mr Lukashenko issued his edict this month preventing skilled workers in the wood-processing industry quitting their jobs to go abroad.
Critics have condemned the new law, which came into force from 1 December, as a return to serfdom that would only harm Belarus’s already troubled economy. Mr Lukashenko claims he only wants to stop qualified workers leaving, and applied the ban on wood-processors first.
Mr Dodonov, 37, earns about £87 a month at the Borisovdrev plant but could earn much more in Russia, if he did not have to care for his ailing mother. He said: “How can you survive on such a miserable salary?”
But he may have left it too late to quit. “You will be sentenced to compulsory labour and sent back here if you leave,” Mr Lukashenko warned last week on a visit to the industrial city of Borisov, 45 miles east of Minsk.
The decree applies to more than 13,000 employees of nine state-run wood-processing plants and 2,000-3,000 construction workers involved in modernising them. .Ahead of the decree Borisovdrev workers who tried to quit were told they could not because of red tape.
Mr Lukashenko also offered the carrot of higher wages, promising to treble salaries at the Borisov plant, in line with what skilled workers would get in Russia. He pledged to raise pay to £600 a month by 2015, a pledge met by scepticism. “My children want to eat now without waiting for 2015,” said Nikolai Khmelevsky, 42, who earns about £124 a month at the Borisovdrev plant. “I have been looking for another job, and now they will tie me here.”
Managers at the plant, a set of grim-looking Soviet-era buildings, refused to comment. The plant is state owned, as are most Belarusian industries. The wood-processing plants export most of their output to Russia and Europe.
Nikolai Pokhabov, leader of an independent union in Borisov, warned that the decree could spark protests. “The government is trying to solve problems with a stick at the workers’ expense,” he said. “But it fails to understand threats and reliance on the stick will only push workers to flee or stage protests.”
Alexander Klaskovsky, a Minsk-based analyst, said Mr Lukashenko may try to expand the measure. “Lukashenko is launching a risky experiment that could later be spread to the entire economy,” he warned. “It amounts to Lukashenko introducing elements of slavery in 21st century Europe.”
About one million people in the nation of ten million are estimated to be working abroad, most of them in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. One of the ironies is that Russia, which is seen as a prized destination by Belarusian workers, itself prevented its people from working abroad during Soviet times.
Mr Lukashenko is a pariah in the West and has a tense relationship with Russia, due to his attempts to prevent Russian business buying Belarus industries. The economy depends on Russian loans and cheap energy, but last year faced a currency devaluation and inflation of more than 100 per cent after Mr Lukashenko increased state wages to ensure re-election.
Analysts warn Belarus will struggle to repay its debts. “The Soviet-style economy has exhausted its resources and the Kremlin has become increasingly reluctant to issue loans,” said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of Mises Research Centre in Minsk. “Lukashenko has to invent abnormal motives in the absence of regular economic mechanisms.”