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The authoritarian president of Belarus signed a decree Friday banning some industrial workers in the ex-Soviet nation from leaving their jobs, threatening them with draconian fines if they do.
Alexander Lukashenko's decree follows a statement he made a week ago on a visit to a wood processing plant. The measure is intended to stem the exodus of workers to neighboring Russia, where salaries are higher.
About 1 million people in the nation of 10 million are estimated to be working abroad, most of them in neighboring Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania.
The decree refers to about 13,000 employees of nine state-controlled wood-processing plants and about 3,000 construction workers involved in their modernization. The workers would be required to sign new labor contracts containing a provision that would force those who quit to pay back the entire wage they received since signing the contract.
Authorities will deduct the money from a worker's salary at a new job. Those who don't have new jobs would be sent back to their plants and will still have to pay the fine.
Critics compare the measure to serfdom and warn that it will only deepen the ex-Soviet nation's economic woes.
"Lukashenko had to turn to slavery," said Yevgeny Preigerman, the head of the Liberal Club independent discussion forum. "The terrible economic situation and workers' flight to other countries has forced Lukashenko to take up a stick and try to solve the problems in this barbarian way."
Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in the West, has led the nation since 1994, extending his rule through elections the West have criticized as undemocratic. The Belarusian leader, who admires the Soviet Union, has kept most of the economy in state hands and relentlessly cracked down on the opposition and independent media.