Another round of mass protests dominated the streets of Belarus this weekend. A ‘March for a New Belarus’ brought hundreds of thousands to Minsk and smaller demonstrations took place across the rest of the country. Protests were also held by Belarusian emigrant communities, worldwide.
After Sunday’s events, rumours began to swirl of a possible peaceful exit for President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, and new elections to be held. Power would probably be taken by the so-called “Coordination Council” which has united Belarus’s opposition.
New elections, as part of the apparent deal, would almost certainly not be free and fair, like the presidential election which triggered the unrest in the country. Candidates would only be allowed to stand who did not present a threat to Lukashenko’s assets or well-being.
The Coordination Council, if indeed it has won the ousting of Lukashenko, will not represent the real interests of the mass of workers and young people who have been on the streets, defying police and army, for more than two weeks. At every turn, they pursued a strategy of looking “respectable” to Western business interests rather than mobilising the power of the Belarusian people they say they represent. In their latest proposals, they quickly backed away from plans for a general strike. Instead, they suggest the best way for Belarusians to protest against Lukashenko is to stop buying alcohol and tobacco, to deprive the state of its revenue!
This response is totally inadequate in the face of the increasing repression carried out by Lukashenko’s state forces. In the past, protestors would be arrested, sentenced to a few days in prison or given a modest fine. Some were held for long periods and suffered various degrees of physical and psychological torture. Since the election on 9 August, three people have been killed and nearly eighty have disappeared. Pavel Katarzheuski, a leading member of one of Belarus’s left parties, described how one protestor’s mobile phone data showed he had been taken to a hospital after being arrested. That protestor’s body was found days later in a forest, with no official explanation for his death.
None of the Belarusian activists in contact with socialistworld.net has any confidence in the self-selected Coordination Council. They see it as weak and representing the interests of the middle class, the EU and neo-liberal economics, rather than the interests of Belarusian workers. Fears are widespread that their coming to power would lead to a sell-off of state-owned industries to would-be oligarchs and the dismantling of the social welfare system.
But both Lukashenko and the Coordination Council know that it is Belarus’s working class who hold the key to the future of the country. Since the week-long industrial strikes erupted demanding a new election, the secret police, OMON, have focused their activities on threatening workers and conducting intimidatory patrols in factory districts. The initial wave of labour activity shocked the regime, forcing a pause in the state’s violence against protestors.
Dressed in military fatigues, Lukashenko looked down at Sunday’s demonstration from a helicopter, denouncing the protesters as “rats” and then had himself filmed holding an assault rifle. He is said to have told army representatives that Nato troops were preparing to invade the country, which Nato denies. One of the anti-Lukashenko team in the elections, Maria Kolesnikova, who has remained in Belarus, says that whatever happens with the protests, the processes underway cannot be reversed.
The Coordination Council and spokespeople for the European Union, meanwhile, seek to co-opt the nascent labour movement into their plans for the future. The international press has hailed one strike leader – Sergei Dylevsky from a giant tractor factory – as “Belarus’s Lech Walesa” in reference to the Polish Solidarnosc leader of the 1980s. Walesa started out as a popular strike organiser but became a pro-capitalist leader and, in 1990, became a right-wing President of Poland.
Dylevsky could well go through the same trajectory and represent a step backwards for Belarusian workers. Rather than representing an independent working class voice, Dylevsky has already been calling for a de-escalation of labour action. He urged reconciliation between workers who back the Coordination Council and those who still support Lukashenko, many of whom are fearful of privatisation and massive job losses.
But on the morning of Monday 24 August, Dylevsky was arrested along with another representative of the opposition, Olga Kovalkova. It is unlikely now that there will be a lull in the movement for negotiations to take place.
Working class fighters need to keep up the pressure on Lukashenko to resign. A major focus of protests in Belarus could also be the universities, when students return on 1 September. They could provide a new spark of radicalism rather than remain passive allies of either the working class or the regime.
The ad hoc unions that have emerged in the factories to carry out the strikes are still not legal entities and Belarusian workers are having to quickly re-learn the lessons of revolutionary movements of the past. They need to elect direct representatives from their workplaces, as workers did in Russia at the beginning of the last century, to local regional and national bodies that can organise the movement and challenge for power. The main missing element is a revolutionary, socialist leadership for the working class.
A clear call needs to be made, for a general strike of at least 48 hours, to force the resignation of the government. Fresh elections need to be organised under the supervision of representatives from the workplaces and neighbourhood committees in towns and rural areas.
A workers’ voice
Ivan Brylevski (not his real name) – is a leading member of ZabastovskaVY (StrikeBY) – a group of industrial, office and information technology workers in Belarus, who hold Marxist ideas. We asked Ivan to comment on reports of the demands from strikers in factories and other workplaces that include freedom for political prisoners and a new election. What did Ivan think about these demands and what else should factory workers be doing?
Brylevski replied: “It is important to note that these demands have a general democratic appeal. They are based on a commonly shared disdain for the falsifications that happened during the elections, disapproval of state policies and, of course, the arbitrary viciousness of the law enforcement agencies.
At the same time, the regime is pressuring workers, citing laws, which are, of course, made by the regime, which intend strikes to have no political connotations. Still, some of the strike committees have already made demands to abolish the employment contract system which prevents workers from resigning from jobs, instead of only calling for collective bargaining agreements and so forth.
We support the aim of democratising the political system but in order to get a successful strike, economic demands are necessary, as then the administration of the enterprises cannot block them so easily.
The workers, despite the pressure and prosecution of activists, are organising themselves. We must carry on the fight.”