Almost two weeks have passed since a fraudulent presidential election in Belarus triggered a wave of strikes and protests. As thousands of Belarusians fight to oust their dictator of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, fresh political challenges confront the country’s largest mass mobilisations since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Historical comparisons have been made with the revolutionary wave that brought down Eastern European dictators in 1989-91, particularly the Romanian uprising that resulted in the execution of tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu just four days after he was first booed off stage by a crowd of angry workers. These comparisons are somewhat premature. Despite the breathtaking speed with which this movement has grown, it is uneven both within and between workplaces, towns and cities.
Some regional centres have surged ahead, with a relatively large cross-section of the population attending protests and a greater degree of workplace organisation. Grodno, an industrial town in the country’s west, has formed a regional strike committee involving twenty different workplaces. And 40,000 of the town’s 370,000 people attended a mass demonstration on Sunday.
Workers from the Belaruskali potash mine in Soligorsk, south of the capital, Minsk, are on indefinite strike. They have shut down one of the four mines, slowed production in the others and mass rallies are being held daily in the city centre. Some workers reportedly say that they are willing to go on hunger strike if their demands are not met. When a company manager implored workers to keep working, they reportedly yelled in response: “There is no other way out! We were deprived of our voice, elections, and then they began to kill our children! Our salary is riot police bullets!”
When Lukashenko tried on Monday to address a crowd of workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, the largest factory in the city, he was booed off stage to cries of “Go away!”, “Shoot yourself!” and “Resign, resign, resign!”. An empty newsroom was broadcast across Belarus when employees from the state television station joined the strike, demanding an end to censorship. And actors from the Kupalovksy theatre in Minsk all resigned when their director was fired for supporting the protesters.
There are reports of a national strike committee being established by the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, which before the election claimed to represent 15,000 workers. But other reports claim that the strikes are perhaps losing steam, although there is likely to be rolling strikes in coming weeks. For instance, workers at the Belarusian State University in Minsk, backed by students, have voted to strike on 1 September if their demands are not met.
Striking workers appear to be a minority in the large factories, but they have widespread support. For instance, about 20 percent of workers at the Minsk Tractor Factory have walked off the job, the rest staying but working at a slower pace. More workers might still walk out, but the authorities have been turning the screws to keep people showing up each day. Letters have been sent to state employees, threatening to take away bonuses and even sack people if strikes continue. Considering the extremely low average weekly wage, even by central European standards, it is a difficult threat to ignore.
Lukashenko is far from conceding defeat. On Wednesday, he appointed a prime minister and ministers of government. All security officials retained their posts, including the Minister of Internal Affairs, Yuri Karaev, who has been a target of the mass movement following the early crackdown on protests. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Interior Ministry’s headquarters on Wednesday night calling for his resignation. Following the appointments, Lukashenko convened a meeting of the Security Council, at which departments were ordered to again crack down and arrest protest organisers. Riot police appeared on the streets, blocking some key Minsk workplaces where mass meetings have been held.
For now, Lukashenko retains the support of the state apparatus. No government ministers have resigned, and the security forces continue to loyally follow his orders. This seems to have given him the upper hand. But the official political opposition, organised behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is trying to sew divisions among the state elite, with the hope of organising a transfer of power. This opposition was largely absent during the first week of protests when workers and students led the movement. But as it became clear that it was continuing to grow over the weekend, Tikhanovskaya and her allies have jostled to become the beneficiaries of the outpouring of anger.
Tikhanovskaya is not a career politician; she was a teacher turned stay-at-home mum who entered the presidential race after her husband was disqualified from running in May. But the rest of her electoral team is composed of the established neoliberal political opposition. They are worried about the economic management of the country and their fortunes within it, not the plight of Belarusian workers. The combined opposition’s policy platform contains a familiar collection of neoliberal attacks.
Tikhanovskaya has put together a coordinating council to organise a transfer of power and new elections. At first glance, the membership of 51 looks like a mixed bag of notable Belarusian public figures: intellectuals, athletes, lawyers and medical professionals. But it also includes leading Belarusian capitalists, including Tatyana Marynich, the founder of the Belbiz group and Alexander Shchurko, CEO of telecommunications company Gurtam. The seven-member praesidium elected at the council’s first meeting is dominated by the united opposition’s key political apparatchiks.
For now, the coordinating council is relying on Belarusian workers to pave their way to power. Over the weekend, Tikhanovskaya backed calls for a general strike in a video address from Lithuania. Olga Kovalkova, Tikhanovskaya’s aide and co-chair of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, called on workers to organise strike committees and negotiate with managers. Maria Kolesnikova, a stand-in presidential candidate for her imprisoned boss, the banker-turned-politician Viktar Babaryka, has been touring strike rallies, asking workers to stay on strike.
Despite the common demands of the workers’ movement and the opposition—oust Lukashenko, recognise Tikhanovskaya as president and convene free elections—a gulf lies between the interests of the two groups. Years of attacks, such as tightened eligibility for welfare and precarious workplace contracts, have contributed to the groundswell of working-class opposition to Lukashenko. None of the economic problems will be resolved by the opposition, which represents a section of Belarusian industry that wants to restructure the economy in line with the European norm. That is, allow carte blanche for capitalists in all areas of society. That path in the former Soviet Union resulted in economic devastation for workers.
Divisions have not yet emerged, but points of tension might if the workers’ movement continues to grow in the coming weeks and months. At some point, workers will have to develop an alternative leadership independent of Belarusian elites for their struggle to continue. Currently, the desire for unity is exerting a moderating pressure on the strike movement to not raise “divisive” economic demands.
Both the government and the opposition are turning to foreign powers to increase their bargaining position. Lukashenko has requested military assistance from Russia to stabilise his regime. It’s not out of the question that President Putin could intervene—Belarus is home to important gas and oil pipelines linking the Russian energy industries to western Europe. Putin quickly congratulated Lukashenko for his election “victory”, and early on in the uprising pledged to defend Belarus from “external pressure”.
Yet an intervention seems very unlikely. Anti-Russian sentiment has not been a factor in the protests or strikes; Belarusians are demanding free elections, not integration with western Europe. Russia would have to suppress the entire population and would generate anti-Russian sentiment where it currently does not exist. On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that there is “currently” no need for Russian military assistance in Belarus.
Stalinists denouncing the uprising in the former Soviet state claim it is a coup orchestrated by the west to break away Russia’s closest ally. Western leaders, led by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have denounced the election and the ensuing repression (rather hypocritically in Macron’s case, considering the extreme violence his government used against French workers in recent years). The coordinating council has reached out to European leaders, asking them not to recognise the election results, and has been in touch with Putin to assure him that the opposition is not looking to undermine relations between the two countries. And some Western capitalists are no doubt eyeing off the potential spoils which would be made available to foreign investors should a regime change complete the privatisation of Belarusian state-owned industry.
Despite the political sway of the official opposition, the movement in the factories and on the streets is a spontaneous, popular uprising produced by dictatorship and economic deprivation. The strikes did not begin because workers were instructed to walk off the job; they started because the workplaces were a safe meeting place to voice objections to state repression while the riot police were grabbing people indiscriminately off the streets. Popular sentiment is neither pro-Russian nor pro-West; it is anti-Lukashenko.
Regardless of the political contradictions and unevenness of the Belarusian workers’ movement, it is still a breathtaking struggle that deserves the attention of and solidarity from the international left. Despite the absence of a mass independent trade union movement, despite no major strikes since the 1990s and despite conditions of extreme state repression, Belarusian workers have once again proved to the world that collective class struggle has the power to shake the foundations of capitalism to its core. A month ago, Belarus was a country that many could not likely point to on a map; today it is charting a new path of struggle that we have much to learn from.