Belarus: Neo-liberalism with populist slogans

Authoritarian regime plans catastrophic abolition of social benefits

Following his recent visit to Belarus, Moscow Socialist Resistance member, Denis, looks at life for the working class in Belarus under the dictatorial regime of President Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko, and the catastrophic consequences of the regime’s plans to abolish social benefits in 2008.

Neo-liberalism with populist slogans

"We need democracy, when a person can work and get some sort of wage, enough at least to buy bread, milk, yogurt and even sometimes meat to feed the children. Well at least as far as meat is concerned, let’s not eat too much meat in the summer!" Belarus president, Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko.

The transition from a bureaucratically-mismanaged but state-owned economy to capitalism was a social and economic catastrophe for Belarus. A deep economic and social crisis at the beginning of the 1990s, was, in part, provoked by the outgoing ruling bureaucratic elite that believed they could use the transition to the market economy and, in particular, privatisation of the various industrial sectors, to grab the wealth of society for themselves. The crisis affected every part of society and left the demoralised and confused working class in a catastrophic situation.

President of the Republic of Belarus
Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko

Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko was elected as the first president of Belarus in 1994, after promising to re-establish "order" to the economy and, in particular, to fight corruption. His temporary suspension of the privatisation process severely annoyed not only the newly developing Belarus capitalist elite, but also international capitalism. Nevertheless, by the time Lukashenko came to power, 30% of industry was privatised already.

Immediately following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, and the declaration of Belarussian independence, a new national flag and state crest were adopted. These emblems are today used by Belarussian nationalists and by the capitalist ’democratic’ opposition to Lukashenko. President Lukashenko reversed the decision to get rid of the old Soviet emblems, used by the Stalinists by organising a referendum on national symbols. The result of which was to replace the new national flag and state crest with those of the former soviet regime, with some minor changes.

The controversial Belarus national flag,
adopted in the early 1990s and
later scrapped by Lukashenko

Lukashenko did this to curry favour with the Belarussian people, who, in general, did not want the break-up of the Soviet Union. Today, many people associate the early 1990s Belarussian flag (white-red-white colours) with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting capitalist ’shock therapy’ and desperate poverty of the early 1990s.

For several years, Lukashenko maintained a working relationship with Russia, based on the idea that a close union between the two countries would be formed, with maybe just one president. Until recently, this meant Russia was prepared to provide some economic support to the Belarussian economy. This, together with the maintenance of the bulk of the Belarussian economy in state hands, enabled Belarus to avoid the economic collapse and chaos that affected neighbouring former Stalinist countries.

Cheap energy from Russia meant Belarussian industry was relatively competitive, exports grew, and workers, at least, usually got a stable wage. Part of the income from state enterprises was put into maintaining social benefits and guarantees, which other countries in the region were unable to do. And while Russia was gripped by economic crises, by war in the south (Chechnya) and by growing oppositionist terrorism, Belarus remained relatively stable. This situation is still referred to in Lukashenko’s demagogy, by his use of the slogan, "For a stable Belarus".

Nevertheless, ’market reforms’ never completely stopped in Belarus and in different sectors continued, at different speeds. Even though the government promised the transition to the "regulated" market, the logic of capitalism is pushing towards privatisation, which may not be moving at full speed but is sufficiently quick to satisfy the appetites of those international capitalists interested in exploiting the resources and working class of Belarus. For workers, however, things are not good. Almost everyone now works on a temporary contract, making exploitation very easy.

The lack of real trade unions makes Belarus very attractive for capitalists, whether small or large. Those ’trade unions’ that exist on paper are inherited from the old soviet system; they see their role as defending the state and the employers and do nothing to defend workers. The small numbers of independent democratic trade unions operate under unbearable ’legal’ conditions, facing constant repression from the state, and face continuous obstacles from state bureaucratic structures.

As a result, the working class, not having a political force representing its interests, desperately hopes things "do not get worse". Many workers look to false hopes, even to the populism of Lukashenko. In the absence of a clear class opposition, many workers vote for Lukashenko, notwithstanding his openly anti-working class policies.

The 2006 election crisis

"What matters is not whether you elect me or not. What else can you do, elect me! And if that suits you, then I will carry on working," President Lukashenko.

The legitimacy of the current president has been questioned many times. The active opposition talks about fraudulent elections, the latest of which (the third presidential election since the founding of Belarus) took place on the 19 March 2006.

It was clear the opposition would not recognise the results of the 2006 ballot, even before the results were made public. The poll, in reality, was more a plebiscite on whether Lukashenko should stay in power. But the problem the ’liberal’ capitalist opposition faces is that it is feeble and impotent, weakened by years of repression and the flood of propaganda pouring down on it from the government-controlled media. The opposition is left with no other option but to feebly complain about the falsification of all elections and referendums.

Of course, state administrative resources and repressive state organs can be used to suppress whatever the president does not like. (Throughout the former Soviet Union, the civil service is not "independent" but is blatantly used in elections as part of the ruling party’s election machine). President Lukashenko has the country’s Constitutional Court, Electoral Commission and the parliament in his pocket. However, the president and the senior bureaucrats around him are permanently worried that the opposition will eventually get its act together. The ghost of the ’colour revolutions’, in neighbouring countries, haunts the Belarussian ruling elite.

At one stage, immediately after last March’s presidential election, it looked like another ’Maidan’ could occur. (Maidan Square, in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the main focus of the 2005 ’Orange revolution’ mass protests, led by pro-Western, capitalist opposition forces). The Belarussian opposition attempted to create a "denim" revolution, in 2006. On the night of 20 March 2006, when presidential election results were announced, the opposition held a demonstration at October Square, the main public space in Minsk, the country’s capital city. This was attended by between 10,000 and 30,000 people. Several dozen tents were set up to provide a round the clock protest, similar to the opposition’s protests in Kiev, a few months earlier.

Police clash with anti-Lukashenko protesters

Police clash with
anti-Lukashenko protesters

Many students and youth brought food to the protesters in October Square, notwithstanding the threats of arrest by the police and KGB. (Lukashenko did not bother to change the name of the former Soviet Union’s repressive political police). On the night of 24 March 2006, the tents were torn down by the police and the protesters arrested. They were all later tried, and each received between 10 and 15 days in prison.

Most of the protesters were students. They wanted to win democratic rights. But, during the so-called ’colour revolutions’ across the former Soviet Union, students were often cynically used by various pro-capitalist, pro-western opposition forces.

The intelligentsia in Belarus was another social layer that protested against the regime. Dissatisfied with the pro-Russian orientation of Lukashenko, at Belarus’ isolation, the lack of freedom of speech, cultural inactivity, and fired by their hatred of old symbols associated with Stalinism, a section of the intelligentsia, fed up with constant ’kitchen debates’, was prepared to come out onto the streets.

The protesters also gained support from other layers of the middle classes and from small businessmen, who supplied the October Square camp with food, water and even ’bio-toilets’, although the latter were confiscated by the KGB. The entrepreneurs supporting the October Square demonstrators did not actually participate in the protests, apart from providing material support, but preferred to watch from the sidelines.

This mish-mash of middle class people, students, intellectuals and marginalised youth did not get significant support from the pro-capitalist opposition and were not able to carry out their own ’colour revolution’ and to overthrow Lukashenko. If, on the other hand, there had been the active participation of the working class against Lukashenko, the nature of the protest would have been very different and, with a clear lead, victory could have been achieved.

The New Year energy crisis

"To maintain calm in the country I am prepared to sacrifice my own sanity!" President Lukashenko

For much of his presidency, Lukashenko played with the idea of establishing a ’Union Republic’ – in other words, merging Belarus and Russia into a federal state. Lukashenko advocated this idea when it was politically convenient, but held back from openly agreeing to it with Russia. But this political game was fated to end. When the time came at the end of 2006 to sign a new agreement on gas supplies between Russia and Belarus, Russia decided to pose the energy issue very sharply. If we are not one state, the Russian government rhetorically asked, then why should we continue to supply gas to Belarus at the same price as we supply to our Russian regions?

At literally two minutes to midnight, on 31 December 2006, the Belarus government was forced to concede to Russia’s demands and signed a new energy supply contract at a price that was catastrophic for the Belarus economy. At the press conference announcing the deal, Belarussian Prime Minister Sidorskii declared that even at the transitional price agreed for gas the "government and all who work in the real economy will now have to work extremely hard to make a profit". Under the agreement, by 2011 the price of gas to Belarus will rise to European levels, i.e. to $250 per 1000 cubic metres. If Belarus’ current economic conditions continue, this huge price rise could lead to the collapse of the Belarus economy.

The effect of the gas price increase has already been felt; social benefits were cut, a new wave of privatisation started, and the neo-liberal ’reform’ of education and housing was speeded up.

Alexander Lukashenko, in a speech to the Belarus national parliament earlier this year declared: "The strategy of the state should change from social support to social development; this means that from now on there will be no dependence". He proposed the ’reform’ of the social benefits system. What this means was recently spelt out by the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration, Natalia Petkevich, who, during a meeting with parliamentarians and social organisations, stated: "We have to find the strength to act radically, to cancel all social benefits to the very last!" This was against the background of the past couple of years, when there was a whittling away of social benefits. Now the system of social benefits is to be officially scrapped and replaced by a system of "directed help". The experience of Russia shows this means a disastrous drop in living standards for the majority of people. The Belarus regime even claims the benefits were to be abolished "at the request of the workers"!

And this is not just words. On 23rd May 2007, a law was proposed to implement these promises – it went through two readings, with just one vote against. (The old Stalinist-run USSR would have been proud of such unanimity!)

But not everyone agreed. On the same day, students gathered in Independence Square, opposite the national parliament, intending to organise a protest. As was to be expected, they were not allowed to do so by the police. Plain clothed cops warned the students that their protest was ’unsanctioned’ and the organisers faced arrest. The students went to the nearby Law Faculty of the University. There they unfurled a banner reading "No to the abolition of benefits". But the banner was seized by police. The students dispersed, and two were arrested on their way to a metro station. A female protester only managed to escape arrest after catching the attention of journalists.

From January 1, 2008, the new law abolishing benefits will be felt by wide sections of the population. For example, up until now students, pensioners and ’veterans of labour’ were entitled to half-price fares on public transport. Children under three years old got free medical care. Former inmates of German WW2 concentration camp were given free medical and dental treatment and free public transport. Victims of the 1980s Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, which affected Belarus more than any other of the then republics in the USSR, were granted free medical care, 50% lower rents and cheap housing credit. Military and police personnel got free medical attention and annual holidays. All these benefits will be abolished in 2008. The only part of the population to maintain their benefits are the parliamentary deputies!

What is happening in Belarus is the natural result of the logic of the capitalist system. And if, until now, the working class in Belarus was relatively quiet, in the near future they are likely to start actively opposing the consequences of these vicious neo-liberal attacks, which are like a noose around the neck of an entire population.

Socialist Resistance

There is no viable left opposition in Belarus with widespread support. The current so-called ’left’ opposition is made up of social democrats with a right wing programme, inactive ’communists’ who are even more loyal to the Lukashenko regime than Russia’s ’communist’ party is to the Putin regime and a small number of anarchists which are not capable of serious resistance. The creation of a mass workers’ party, who can resist the coming social attacks and which could be a real alternative to the autocratic regime will be one of the key aims of a newly awakening working class in Belarus.

However, Socialist Resistance (SR – the CWI in the former Soviet Union) is active in Belarus. SR members participate in campaigns against social benefits cuts.

Socialist Resistance fights for the establishment of a strong political alternative, capable of leading struggles against the neo-liberal reforms of the authoritarian government and to fight for a genuine socialist Belarus.

Socialist Resistance (CWI in Belarus) says:

  • Abolish the temporary labour ’contract system’
  • Stop the abolition of social benefits
  • No to privatisation
  • Down with the dictatorial Lukashenko regime
  • Release all political prisoners
  • For full democratic rights, including the right to organise and to protest
  • For the establishment of fighting, independent trade unions
  • For the establishment of a workers’ party, with mass support, to fight the cuts and dictatorship
  • Bring the economy into public ownership – nationalise the main industries and public utilities, under workers’ control and management
  • For a socialist Belarus, as part of a voluntary federation of socialist states throughout the region

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July 2007