Strikes and mass protests have erupted across Belarus following a corrupt election and days of intense state repression. When Alexander Lukashenko, the eastern European country’s dictator for the last 26 years, announced that he had received 80 percent of the votes in the presidential election on Sunday 9 August, thousands flooded into town and city centres to protest the fraudulent vote. For three days, protesters clashed with riot police: two are dead, 7,000 are imprisoned, and many more are injured.
The government appeared to have gained the upper hand when numbers dwindled after a few nights of demonstrations. But on Thursday morning, thousands of workers from state-owned industries held mass meetings outside factories, initiating a strike wave that has spread to hundreds of sites. Then, on 16 August, a demonstration of more than 200,000 took place in Minsk, the capital. In just one week, Belarus has been transformed by the largest mass movement in almost 30 years, as workers, students and a disgruntled middle class unite against the dictatorship.
Anger towards the regime has been building for months. July election rallies held by united opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became mass demonstrations of tens of thousands. Sensing the popular mood, Lukashenko toured military bases, met with the 1,500-strong riot squad, reinforced the fence around his personal residence and told the army reserves to prepare for service.
Previous elections, equally fraudulent, also provoked protests, but never on a scale like this. “The majority of people are extremely unhappy with the president”, Katya Slepneva, a 22-year-old student, says via email from Minsk. “He has completely disregarded the danger of coronavirus, there was no quarantine in Belarus, and he has said lots of offensive words against the people”. In March, the pandemic was raging across Europe, and most of the continent went into lockdown. But Lukashenko refused to follow suit, telling Belarusians that they would be okay if they drank vodka, visited a sauna and kept working. Belarus now has one of the highest infection rates in Europe.
“The generation that was raised during the reign of the president does not support him at all”, Katya says. “We have been ruled by a dictator for 26 years already, that’s more than my age, and he has absolute power. The government does whatever he says; the heads of practically everything, unions, ministers, are assigned by him. We learn that the best future you can get is to leave the country, that your opinion doesn’t matter, that everything is decided by one person. He has completely lost the feeling of what people want. These were the first elections during my life where people had hopes to change something.”
When those hopes were dashed on election night, the people refused to concede defeat. The government responded immediately with violence, deploying riot police and carrying out mass arrests. “They use flash-bang grenades, beat people with special sticks, shoot them with rubber bullets, send their trucks into the crowd”, Katya says. Lukashenko also instituted a three-day internet and mobile phone blackout. But telegram services managed to continue, publishing live updates on the protests and providing crucial organisation to the demonstrations, borrowing tactics from the heroic uprising of Hong Kong in 2019. One such post read:
Get out of your homes, meet with neighbours, and get into small groups of up to 20 people.
Do not stand at one point! Move towards the city centre in small groups, but do not go out to the central squares - the security forces are ready for this. Occupy all adjacent streets and BLOCK ROADS! PARALYZE THE CITY!
MINSK! AVOID THE AREAS ON THE AVENUE OF INDEPENDENCE, AND ALSO PUSHKINSKAYA AND RIGA ...
If there are not many of you, and the security forces go on the attack, scatter, regroup and appear in another place. There is no shame in retreating! BE LIKE WATER!
After the first few nights of violent clashes in Minsk and other towns, reports emerged from protesters released from the jails. Images appeared of bodies bruised black and blue from truncheon blows, accompanied by stories of detainees going without food for two days, unable to sleep and barely able to breathe in overcrowded cells. But if the government had hoped to intimidate the population, the images only galvanised people’s resolve and led to another wave of mass resistance.
Videos of soldiers discarding their uniforms hit the telegram sites. Thousands upon thousands of women dressed in white and carrying flowers snaked for miles through every city in defiant peaceful protest against the regime’s violence. “The protest of women is something that’s happening just every minute”, says Katya, who has been attending protests across Minsk every day. “Literally, during the whole day, in every part of the cities, you will find these chains of solidarity.”
And on 13 August, thousands of workers began to organise outside their factories. “Right now, working people are at their plants and factories formulating demands”, Anatol Matsveyenka, a socialist in Belarus, says over Zoom. “The main demands are for a new election—a free election—with international observers. They are starting to form strike committees.” The mass meetings have challenged the regime’s claims of overwhelming support. “Where workers gather together, there’s always this question: ‘Who voted for Lukashenko and who voted for Tikhanovskaya?’”, Anatol says. “The support for Tikhanovskaya is total; it’s obvious from the plenty of videos on the internet of these meetings.”
Unlike in most of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the Belarusian economy remains state owned. The old political structures also stayed in place (the intelligence agency is still called the KGB, for example). Workers from state enterprises—once considered a loyal base for Lukashenko—have been the first to spring into action. This has led to direct confrontations between workers and state functionaries who are trying to defuse the strike wave.
Tut.By, one of Belarus’ few independent media sites, reported from a meeting at the Grodnozhilstroy construction company in the western town of Grodno. Building workers confronted their regional manager, demanding answers and an apology for the preceding days of repression. “We built this city, and we are afraid to leave the house after 6pm”, one of the workers said. The Grodno mayor and other local officials attended a meeting at the Khimvolokno polyester factory and were grilled by hundreds of workers, all of whom had a friend or relative injured during protests. Disappointed with the officials’ responses, they passed a motion demanding another presidential election and the release of detainees.
Similar scenes are taking place at hundreds of workplaces as protests continue in every town and province. Eight of the ten largest Belarusian companies are on strike. And it’s not just factory workers. Anatol reports that subway workers in Minsk have walked out, as have doctors from several hospitals. “There was also a very nice protest of the Minsk Philharmonic Orchestra, where they went out of the building and were singing with big signs saying, ‘They have taken my voice’. In Russian, voice and vote are the same word, so they’ve taken my voice is like saying they’ve taken my vote.”
While the fraudulent election and the extreme state repression sparked this wave of strikes, economic grievances have been building for some time. One is the system of short-term labour contracts that cover 90 percent of the Belarusian workforce. Anatol describes it as “basically a labour slavery system”. The bosses “are making contracts of one year only, so every year they have to be re-signed, and obviously in order to get a contract for the next year, you have to be loyal to the authority of the factory or company”, he says.
The Belarusian economy has also been racked by waves of recession since 2014. A brief recovery in 2017 was soon stymied by changes to trading relations with Russia, which have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Russian and Belarusian ruling classes remained close following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, signing a union state treaty in 1999. The treaty aimed to integrate the countries’ economic and social policies and called for close cooperation in foreign and defence policies, while retaining aspects of independent statehood for both. But the union state never fully materialised because of ongoing disputes over decision-making: if Belarus agrees to be a junior partner in the union, it will likely lose sovereignty, and Russia won’t agree to equality with a far smaller state. Despite this, the two countries remain politically and economically close: 48 percent of Belarus’ foreign trade is with Russia.
For years, Belarus has been granted foreign tax exemptions on crude oil imports. Oil is refined in Belarusian plants and then sold on world markets far above its cost price. But Russia has now ended the tax exemption, probably as a negotiating tactic in its latest push for a more formal integration of Belarus into Russia.
As the economic problems have grown, so too have the state’s attacks on workers. In addition to the short-term contracts, the government has imposed an unemployment tax on the 500,000 Belarusians without a job and formalised strict workplace policies in a new labour code signed last year. This has all helped fuel the historic response to what authorities assumed would be a regular corrupt election cycle.
As in previous years, Lukashenko began the election campaign by jailing his three opponents. But shortly after the arrests, their partners took over the leadership of their campaigns. Popular support swelled behind Tikhanovskaya—a former teacher turned stay-at-home mum and the wife of popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky—and the other two contenders dropped out and endorsed her campaign. The united opposition is far from radical—two of the three teams were previously part of the state administration, but their slogan “I/we are the 97 percent” captured the mood of Belarusian society.
As protests grew to the tens of thousands in the lead-up to the election, Lukashenko turned to propaganda to deny the mass opposition. In July, he arrested 30 Russian mercenaries travelling through Belarus, claiming that they were in the country to interfere in the election. In an interview a few weeks before polling day, he insisted that while 20 percent of the population might be against him, they were only a vocal minority—an indication that the 80 percent vote announced on election night had been decided some time in advance. None of these tactics worked. Nor did compelling Tikhanovskaya, while in detention on election night, to ask her supporters to stay off the streets. She has now fled to Lithuania.
The movement is the biggest in Belarus since the strike wave that brought down the USSR, and it is still growing. Mass rallies of industrial workers have flooded city centres for the past days. However, the movement faces difficulties. Independent organisations of the working class are almost non-existent. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus is in effect a subsidiary of the state; Mikhail Orda, the federation’s president, is Lukashenko’s campaign chief. There is an independent trade union federation—a legacy of the movement of the 1990s—which has backed the wave of resistance, but its membership is limited to around 7,000 workers.
The state has changed tactics in recent days, pulling back on repression and releasing prisoners, providing space for further mass demonstrations across the country. And there are reports that workers from state enterprises were forced to join a smaller mobilisation in Minsk to support the president on 16 August. It’s not yet clear exactly where the movement will go, but so far, the confidence of protesters has only grown. “What we know for sure”, Anatol says, “is that society has changed in these past days and weeks and months. And it will never be the same again”.