MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, who aims to extend his 26-year rule in a presidential election next month, said on Friday that private firms should pay a higher minimum wage – an apparent strike at his opponents in the non-state sector.
Lukashenko faces the strongest challenge in years to his hold on power as frustration mounts over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grievances grow over the economy and human rights.
He has accused private business owners of campaigning against him and forcing their employees to back opposition candidates.
On Friday, visiting state-run firm Atlant in the capital Minsk, he said the minimum wage in any private company should be no lower than the average wage of the 10 most successful state-owned enterprises.
“In this way, we will control the wages of those who consider themselves free from everything,” the state agency Belta quoted Lukashenko as saying.
According to surveys, the average salary in car giant MAZ in 2019 was about $500 per month, while small businesses in Minsk offer salaries starting from $200.
The private sector employs about a third of all employed in Belarus and their workers are less controlled by the authorities than the remaining 70 percent in the state sector.
Analysts said many private firms could be closed if new rules come in force.
“If they start trying to implement this idea, then a large part of private enterprises will not be able to follow it and will have to either reduce the number of employees or simply close,” said Vadim Iossub, Alpari Eurasia’s senior analyst.
Police have arrested hundreds of people in an effort to quell anti-government protests before the Aug. 9 election, according to the government and human rights groups. Almost all of Lukashenko’s main rivals are either arrested or under investigation.
Viktor Babariko, who is widely seen as his main challenger in the election, was detained after being accused of crimes including taking $430 million out of the country in money-laundering schemes. He denies any wrongdoing.
Another election candidate said she was pressing on with her campaign despite receiving a threat to have her children taken away. Svetlana Tikhanouskaya launched her campaign in place of her husband, an anti-Lukashenko blogger who was arrested in May for threatening public order.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, Writing by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Angus MacSwan)