Belarus: Where is the mass opposition movement going?

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August. Minsk, Belarus (Wikimedia Commons)

For the fourth Sunday in succession, on 6 September, there were mass protests across Belarus. Up to a hundred thousand poured onto the streets of Minsk, confronting water cannon, armoured vehicles and riot police wielding batons. The titanic mass struggle in Belarus against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, like those that have flared up in other parts of the world, has elements of a revolutionary situation against a reactionary regime. But lacks an organising working class leadership to carry the struggle through to a conclusion. How long will it last and where is it heading?

The man dubbed, ‘The last dictator in Europe’  – Alexander Lukashenko – is opposed by very disparate elements, united only in their opposition to him remaining as president after the fraudulent elections of August 9th. Hundreds have been arrested and detained, some tortured. Hundreds more have been badly injured, some ‘disappeared’ and at least four have died.

Many opposition bloggers, political figures and a strike organiser at Grodno Azat and others have fled abroad. A week ago, Anatoly Bokun, leader of the strike committee at Belaruskali potash factory – the country’s top cash-earner – was detained by police. Journalists have had their credentials withdrawn and some were ordered to leave the country.

On Sunday 6 June came the news that a prominent activist, Olga Kolvakova, was kidnapped and dumped in no-man’s land at the border with Poland. The following day, 7 September, it was reported that three of the Coordination Council’s leading members, including Maria Kolesnikova, were abducted in the centre of Minsk.

Two weeks ago, Lukashenko, who has been seen brandishing a Kalshnikov rifle, declared he would have to be killed before there was any re-run of the presidential election. Last week, a split in the self-appointed opposition Coordination Council was evident. Supporters of jailed presidential candidate – the wealthy banker, Babariko – announced the formation of a new political party called, ‘Together,’ and suggested a new election should go ahead with the hated Lukashenko still on the list of candidates.

This has already been rejected by the ‘defeated’ opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as a distraction. It is unlikely to be accepted as enough to quell the movement. Last Sunday’s demonstrators still shouted ‘Ychadi!’ (‘Get out!’) – just as the workers had done when Lukashenko visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor plant on 17 August.

Whichever way things go in the immediate period, it is an axiom on the lips of all that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ in Belarus.

The movement

Like all mass protest movements that explode onto the scene of history, especially against dictatorial rule, the Belarus movement has seen heroic defiance of the powers-that-be and a clear determination to scrap the old order. It has seen vicious police brutality give way to some passivity on the part of the forces of the state and then a return of at least a partial clamp-down. It has seen great bravery on the part of hundreds of thousands of citizens.

The calm and determined demonstrations of the women in white in the early days pushed the Lukashenko regime onto the back foot. Lukashenko’s denigrating comments about women only served to make them more determined to get rid of him.

The defiant walk-outs of tens of thousands of industrial workers show the potential for a fight to the finish. Even after Lukashenko’s blustering threats about mass sackings and the closure of whole factories, workers have engaged in “Italian strikes” like that at the massive Potash enterprise, or go-slows for which they cannot be sacked. Lizaveta Merliak, who is trying to build an independent trade union organisation, said that of one of the state-run mining companies, for example: “Work has slowed down to 10% of normal speed. It is partly done by following safety procedures more closely…”

It is not only industrial workers who are up in arms. Radio and TV workers have refused to put out the lies of the Lukashenko regime. Musicians and singers have demonstrated outside the Minsk Philharmonic Hall, refusing to remain unheard. The choir and performers of the National Kupola Theatre threw their resignation letters at the feet of government representatives standing on their stage.

All the Sunday demonstrations have had a festive atmosphere characteristic of the early days of many a revolutionary movement when the authorities seem to be on the back foot and people have lost their fear. A sense of pride at defying state forces has combined with excitement at the prospect of a new beginning.

The entry of students into the battle, as the academic year began last week, presented a new challenge to the regime. Hundreds were arrested on Tuesday 1st September and some badly beaten inside prison. This has happened amongst students who, according to Human Rights Watch, have to endure a “climate of fear” in the universities. It could be that, as in Paris in May of 1968, police brutality against the sons and daughters of the relatively privileged layers in society can provoke workers into taking more decisive action against the regime.

A leader of the Belarusian Green Party reported in an in-depth analysis of the developing situation in Belarus that: “Following the election, several high-placed public officials resigned and law enforcement officials have also resigned”. There could be further spits in the state machine.

In the event of new elections, the proposal of the OSCE to mediate rather than observe is not what is needed to ensure free and fair voting. Elected and trusted workers’ and people’s representatives should invigilate at every polling station.

Clear programme

Uncertainty and confusion about what is needed in this situation come down to the absence of combative workers’ organisations – in the workplace and in society. Life in Belarus, as part of the USSR under Stalin and in the post-Stalin era, has been without any element of the democratic right to independently organise or of workers’ involvement in running industry and society.

The trade unions, especially in the state-owned factories and mineral-extracting enterprises, are predominantly those of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus – the state-run unions of the past that have traditionally concerned themselves with arranging holidays and health care for employees. In recent years it has been in conflict with the government over issues such as living standards and union interference.

Some independent unions have been established but without a coherent policy of building their forces on the shop floor in industry and conducting campaigns of action to improve pay and conditions. Mostly, they, like the Coordination Council, favour neo-liberal policies and widespread privatisation (Not that they talk too much about this at the moment, as the Green Party commentator notes!).

Belarusian society is a strange left-over from the era of Stalinism. As the USSR broke up in the early ’90s, Belarus retained a large element of state-ownership of major industries, transport, banks and mineral extraction. The economies of neighbouring former Stalinist states plummeted in the wake of the mass privatisation programmes of the bureaucrats-turned-businessmen. Belarus almost prospered under a form of state capitalism that developed under Lukashenko, in power since 1994.

A little like what has happened in China, while elements of capitalism have been introduced, many big concerns have remained in state hands. (This is no doubt responsible for the ‘communist’ parties of the world erroneously still backing Lukashenko!) Instead of rival oligarchs taking over state industries (stealing them) as in the rest of the former USSR, as a local commentator put it, there is just one oligarchy taking the lion’s share of the profits in Belarus, around Lukashenko himself.

As has happened throughout the former Stalinist states, however, thieves have fallen out. Indeed, two of President Lukashenko’s former allies ended up as political rivals. The banker who wanted to stand in the elections against him, Babariko is still in prison and is said to have been seriously abused in custody. Another who was arbitrarily disqualified, Valery Tsepkalo, is a former ambassador to the United States and founder of a successful hi-tech park.

Nature of opposition

The trio of women who courageously challenged Lukashenko in the presidential poll are all wives of Lukashenko’s prisoners. The candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of a popular blogger, undoubtedly got a far higher score in the election than the incumbent. (In the past, Lukashenko was known as ‘Mr. 3%’ and even by the most generous of estimates, did not receive more than 20% on August 9th). Subsequently taken in for questioning, Tikhanovskaya was almost certainly blackmailed by threats to her children into leaving the country for Lithuania.

Many Belarusians who now work in the burgeoning high tech industry look to the western borders with the Baltics, in particular. They frequently travel abroad and aspire to a more ‘western’ style of living. On the other hand, many feel an affinity with Russia, not least because of a common language and many shared experiences historically. There is also nostalgia for the simplicities and certainties of life in the Soviet Union.

But those who argue for the socialist way of organising society are very few. The Green Party leader and journalist, Yuriy Glushakov, actually describes the weaknesses of the left in Belarus with considerable sympathy. He says that the promise of making Belarus’ economy “blossom” by turning millions of workers into individual entrepreneurs as “a reactionary utopia” and underlines that, “the true interests of the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ and workers are not the same”.

As long as the Belarusian economy was going forward, Lukashenko’s authoritarianism was tolerated. But the economy slowed, unemployment increased, the pension age was put up and Lukashenko ignored the dangers of the coronavirus, saying it could be combated with vodka, saunas and hard work.

Turning point

A slowing down in the economy of Belarus, affected by the general international situation, was exacerbated by the reduction of trading concessions on the part of Putin’s Russia. The Belarus-Russia ‘Union State’ was not exactly working out!

All this lay behind the changed political situation in Belarus. Travel abroad was closed off by the coronavirus pandemic. Protests began to develop well before the presidential election. Demonstrators lined roads waving slippers to get rid of ‘the cockroach’, as President Lukashenko was known.

Sunday demonstrations have spread across the country to the major cities – Brest, Vitebsk and Grodno. They have also been taking place spontaneously in local areas on any day of the week.

The mass walk-outs of industrial workers and the call for a general strike have brought home the strength of hostility towards Lukashenko. A coordinating committee of workers’ representatives to organise strike action was formed. But they almost as quickly disappeared.

The mass media made quite a noise about a worker from the state-owned Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ), Sergei Dylevsky. They described him as a new Walesa – the workers’ leader turned president in Poland. As a spokesperson for embattled workers, he was not inevitably going to betray their interests. Dalevsky was taken onto the Coordination Council that is made up of opponents of Lukashenko. But that body was more or less self-appointed and without a perspective of changing society in favour of workers’ interests. The pressure from below on Dalevsky has not been strong enough as yet to hold him to account as a workers’ leader.

Workers’ committees in the factories are needed, where representatives are elected from the shop-floor and subject to immediate recall if they go against the wishes of those who elected them. In turn, in order to pursue a struggle against dictatorship and for a government of working people to be formed, these committees would need to elect representatives to go to a local and regional level. Such organs of struggle could become the organs of rule for a genuine majority in society. These would be analogous to the ‘soviets’ (councils) of workers thrown up in the course of the revolutionary upheavals at the beginning of the last century which were the backbone of the struggle for socialism, in Russia and beyond.

Belarus voluntarily joined what was originally a genuine ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ when it was founded in 1922.  However, the word ‘socialism’ in Belarus today is undoubtedly linked with the experience of Stalinist dictatorship in the period that followed. That is enough to alienate many workers and young people from the whole idea of socialism and communism. But Lukashenko does not even claim he heads a socialist society, but a ‘social’ one, still with free health and educational provision.

There is a very strong case, however, for carrying the movement through to a conclusion. This means not just removing a somewhat demented Bonapartist president, but fighting against misplaced ideas that privatisation offers a better future.

Lessons need to be drawn from the experience of Belarus’ co-participants in the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Russia. Growth rates plummeted and economies shrank as former Stalinist bureaucrats and KGB agents fought with each other over the spoils of privatisation, with some becoming super-rich oligarchs. The living standards of the mass of the population plummeted.  Life expectancy fell and pension ‘reform’ hit the older generation especially hard. Low rents, free education and full employment became a thing of the past.

Fighters against the regime of Lukashenko, especially those who have the power to bring the country to a halt through downing tools, need to link up through workplace and neighbourhood committees. They need to elect representatives to an all-Belarus ‘Statchkom’ to organise coordinated general strike action and to elect representatives to give a lead to the movement.

A party based on the working class, with leadership that sees socialism as the way forward, is missing. Lukashenko could be removed without one, but a new society of democratic workers’ control and management is the only alternative to a transition to the market and harsh capitalist exploitation.

Strategic position

Belarus’ location – so near to Russia and on the borders of the European Union – gives it particular geopolitical importance in world relations. Lukashenko’s dealings with the European Union have not been easy. EU leaders have taken some relatively mild sanctions against him and his cronies – asset freezes and travel bans.  Lukashenko is confident of finding alternative routes for Belarus’ exports and imports through Russia to the Baltic Sea. That would be a little more costly, he says, but he looks to his friend Vladimir Putin to allow special terms!

Putin’s relations with the maverick Lukashenko, however, have not always been easy. Recent decreases in subsidised fuel and energy supplies have made things more difficult for the Belarus regime. Putin has indicated he is prepared to order Russian forces into Belarus to confront opponents of Lukashenko’s regime. But in doing so, Putin risks opposition at home and abroad.

Belarus is not Ukraine. Putin ‘reclaiming’ Crimea and leaving troops in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine had some popular support in Russia. There is no equivalent in Belarus of that national conflict and, as yet, no signs of ultra-right forces on the streets.

Russian troops being deployed in Belarus could lead to opposition within Russia, adding to unrest already seen on the streets of the country’s Far East. Putin has apparently survived a referendum on staying in power almost indefinitely (a la Xi Jinping). But the Navalny poisoning affair is also a destabilising factor. Fighting on all fronts is not a good position, even for the most cavalier of national leaders!

Al Jazeera comments that “Lukashenko has in the past ruled out outright unification and sought to play Moscow against the West, but his options now are limited”. Last Thursday, 3 September, Lukashenko hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. He then replaced his own chief of the KGB security service, probably under pressure from Moscow. Lukashenko was quoted as saying that Russia and Belarus had agreed on issues they “could not agree earlier”. He is expected to fly to Moscow soon.

The way ahead

The battle for genuine democracy in Belarus is not over. Even if Lukashenko survives the challenge to his power of the recent weeks, things will indeed never be the same. The mass movement can continue for some time, without a party based in the working class that has a leadership that is clear on how to take the movement forward to a successful workers’ socialist revolution, it will fade. Even then, that is not the end of upheavals in Belarus. The Financial Times (London) pointed to a contraction in the economy this year and economic difficulties which can cause a further upsurge of unrest.

Activists need to come together in a determined fight for basic democratic rights. The fight is still on for free and open elections, in which candidates from all persuasions, except outright reaction, can freely participate without fear of repression. The release of all political prisoners is a number one demand, as is the dropping of all charges against those detained and against all those who have participated in demonstrations and strikes.

A campaign is needed to establish in Belarus the freedom of all parties and trade unions to organise without state interference. Freedom of assembly, of speech and of the media must be won.

The demand for a totally new democratic way of running society should include the proposal for the convening of a thoroughly representative constituent assembly. This would need to be made up of representatives from workplaces and neighbourhoods, linked up through elected spokespeople on a regional and national level – at first, as a fighting body and then as a truly representative, revolutionary government. All the representatives would be accountable to those who elect them, subject to immediate recall and receiving no more than a workers’ wage for the time they carry out these functions.

Workers’ party

Workers and activists involved in the movement need to strive for an end to rule by a wealthy clique. The call for a workers’ candidate for president would need to be accompanied by a programme of democratic public ownership of all the major means of production, distribution and exchange. It would need to advocate democratic government control over imports and exports of capital as well as raw materials, manufactured products and information technology.

A workers’ government would need to be thoroughly democratic, establishing workers’ control and management like that which existed in the early days after the victory of the October revolution in Russia. An appeal to workers in neighbouring countries and beyond, to follow suit immediately, would be vital, especially in a land-locked country of nine and a half million people.

Activists who have studied the experience of the Russian revolution and the political counter-revolution which followed under Stalin would need to explain clearly what happened: “Explain, explain and once more explain!” as Lenin, co-leader of the revolution with Trotsky, so often advised the adherents of his party.

The ideas of socialism do, indeed, need to be rehabilitated. A revolutionary socialist transformation in Belarus could indeed be a spark for spontaneous movements across the globe, to forge parties with a socialist programme and leadership and to link up internationally. This is the music of the future, but, hopefully, the not too distant future.


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September 2020