Unprecedented numbers have been out on protests across Belarus, with reports of 200,000 on Sunday afternoon. Monday has seen a continuation of mass strikes at major workplaces, like Belarus Potash, and at the truck manufacturer, BelAz. They have been joined by journalists from the Belarusian state media declaring they are unwilling to continue lying on behalf of the regime.
Late last week, there were increasing numbers of police and other state forces resigning and making public their refusal to obey orders to attack demonstrators. Even school students have joined the revolutionary wave of protest after last week’s presidential election.
It is now a week since President Aleksandr Lukashenko declared that he was the winner, rather than his opponent, Sviatlana Tikhonovskaya , in a vote widely considered as having been totally rigged, sparking huge protests. This major upheaval has come in the context of a failing economy and collapsing confidence in Lukashenko’s thirty-year-old regime.
Mass demonstrations against Lukashenko have taken on a fearless “carnival” atmosphere. Even striking members of the State Philharmonia sing on the steps of their ‘workplace’ holding placards saying ‘They stole my voice!’ (i.e. their vote). So many strikers and demonstrators say “fear has gone”, as they express their determination to see Lukashenko go.
While rumours abound that he is preparing to seek asylum in Russia, rumours also circulate of an intervention by Russian troops. However, the scale of the popular uprising makes any such intervention much riskier for Vladimir Putin, potentially inflaming the mass protests against Putin himself developing in Russia.
Lukashenko is shouted down at mass meetings. Tikhonovskaya’s immediate demand for a re-run of the election could gain popularity. Lukashenko says he would have to be killed rather than allow another election! While a simple re-run would only pit bourgeois candidates against one another, Lukashenko being forced into granting that concession would be a concrete symbolic victory for workers that could fan the flames of a full-scale revolution.
But even as Lukashenko’s support crumbles, no credible alternative to his rule has emerged. Leading challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, like many other opposition candidates, fled the country. After Lukashenko’s henchmen ground down her resistance, using gruesome threats to her children and her imprisoned husband, she quickly departed for Lithuania.
Widely acclaimed as the winning candidate, Tikhanovskaya initially called on protestors to go home in the face of brutal police attacks. But as the demonstrations have swollen into what appears to be an unstoppable force, her running mate, Maria Kolesnikova, holds out hope of Tikhanovskaya being brought back to occupy the presidency.
Russian state media has taken the attitude that Lukashenko’s departure is a matter of time. Right-wing governments in the Baltic States have offered to “mediate” the crisis. Capitalist bosses in the EU regard Belarus in the same manner in which they preyed upon Ukraine – as another business ‘opportunity’. The country has resources they can exploit, including cheap labour. European powers and the US, and even China, all have an interest in what happens in this geopolitically important state.
Without a socialist alternative emerging from the mass movement of Belarusian workers, the country risks becoming a pawn in the struggles between the larger economic powers.
The strike in Belarus’s industries and the resignations amongst forces of the state are welcome. At first, it looked as if the industrial strike movement would limit itself to immediate demands, like “Lukashenko out!” without organising and linking up for a political alternative to address the economic issues that lie behind this crisis or posing an alternative way of running the country.
Elements of revolution
The resignations from the police and state security forces have, so far, been individual acts, weakening the state but not signifying a situation of dual power, from which the working class could take over in society. But as the workers’ put their stamp on events through bringing the country to a halt and winning over the middle layers in society, many of whom are already actively involved in protests, they will need democratically elected workplace and neighbourhood committees to link up locally, regionally and nationally. These workers’ ‘councils’ could be transformed from being instruments for conducting the struggle into the democratically elected bodies for implementing workers’ majority rule.
This is what is posed, and the almost accidental figures like Tikhanovskaya will give way to real representatives of the working people of Belarus. A revolutionary constituent assembly would be the best way of drawing up a new way of running society with democratically elected representatives and proposals coming from political representatives of workers.
Repression of the protests was settling into a horrible rhythm, with protestors beaten, arrested, and hauled away by OMON special police, and held for a few days and then released. There have been deaths. As happened in Tunisia and Egypt during the ‘Arab Spring’, this can arouse yet more anger. Steam builds up and needs an outlet. Workers anger and determination for change needs a party and leadership to act as a piston box to drive forward the struggle against capitalism and all its representatives.
These are crucial days for the Belarusian working class in getting rid of the rule of a dictator and of the oligarchs who have acquired state industries to accumulate profit for themselves. Nearly 50% of Belorusian industry is still in state hands but control should be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats by workers in the industries. There should be no illusions that privatisation would lead to more efficient, better-paying industry.
Many who look south to Ukraine may lose confidence in the power of the masses to bring change. They have seen a corrupt and violent pro-Russian government replaced by a pro-EU one in the West of the country that has worked hand-in-hand with neo-fascists. They need an independent, socialist programme and a credible means to bring it to fruition, a party of workers and a leadership with a revolutionary socialist outlook.
There is no salvation to be found in an EU that demands mass privatisation and de-industrialisation, nor in one that tolerates the increasingly autocratic regimes in Poland or Hungary. Russian capitalism nakedly exists only for the benefit of a tiny elite. One of the underlying causes of mass dissatisfaction that lies behind the Belarusian crisis was a profit-hungry increase in the price of the Russian natural gas on which Belarus depends.
The Belarusian left and unions are not only demanding that Lukashenko should “Go away!” but that there should be “Honest elections, a people’s tribunal and freedom for all political prisoners.” In addition, they need to make a clear call for an all-out general strike and for a workers’ government rather than a pro-capitalist ‘provisional government’. They need to advocate a full programme of democratic rights and for an alternative working-class running of society, along with a programme of the nationalisation of all large private industry under a democratically controlled plan of production, distribution and exchange.
Immediately what is needed is a fighting organisation to coordinate the present mass movement, advocating representatives of committees and councils across Belarus through which workers can set themselves the task of arranging a defence force against Lukashenko’s OMON and other state forces sent against them. Their fight for a coordinated, independent, socialist answer to the crisis of Belarusian capitalism should be accompanied by an appeal to the workers of Russia and elsewhere to follow their example and link up their struggles.
The bravery of Belarusians in taking to the streets and downing tools cannot be doubted. All those who see it will urge: “Trust that bravery; trust the power. Take the next step towards revolution!”