Forced landing of Ryanair plane illustrates Lukashenko’s desperate attempt to silence opposition

Roman Protasevich (Photo: Creative Commons)

Dramatic events a week ago (Sunday 23 May) saw a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania forced to land in Belarus. The military operation has been described as an unprecedented ‘hijacking’ and has seen European Union leaders move quickly to impose serious sanctions against Belarus and its clearly illegitimate president – Alexander Lukashenko. The US government under Biden has also condemned the ‘escalating actions’ of both the Minsk and Moscow regimes.

The ‘kidnapping’, arrest and alleged blatant torture of a Belarusian opposition blogger, Roman Protasevich, living in exile, and his Russian companion, Sofia Sapega, is a sharp reminder of the nature of Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Defeated in elections last August, he continues to hold hundreds of oppositionists in prison. Many are tortured and a number have died. A brutal state machine enables Lukashenko to remain in power, still maintaining that he won majority support. The whole team of oppositionists who stood against him in the election, headed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now lives in exile.

But, as a statement by CWI supporters in neighbouring Ukraine explains, there is a side to the struggle against the Lukashenko dictatorship that is a closed book to most journalists and commentators – the struggle of the working class. The statement points clearly to the need to fight privatisation and class oppression, as well as for an end to the brutal rule of one man and a clique of henchmen.

“The outcry of the world’s capitalist press about the capture of the well-known Belarus opposition leader, Roman Protasevitch, is perfectly understandable. The Lukashenko regime has once again demonstrated its dictatorial character to the whole world. However, we must point out that we did not see such a sympathetic reaction on the part of the world’s media and international governments when workers and trade union activists were suffering brutal repression at the hands of the regime.

“We have always campaigned for the establishment of a workers’ alternative to the regime of Lukashenko. However, in doing so, we have always made clear and continue to make clear that our socialist alternative has nothing in common with the capitalist, pro-Western position of the main opposition groups, aiming to step up the privatisation processes in Belarus.

“We demand not only the immediate release by the Lukashenko regime of the opposition leader, Protasevich, but also the cancellation of all the illegal sentences meted out against hundreds of workers and trade union activists.”

Unfinished struggle

Articles on this site last year explained that elements of a revolutionary situation existed in Belarus, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators turning out, time and again, and facing Lukashenko’s brutal state machine. The middle layer in society, including artists, musicians and media workers, were in revolt. Famous critics like Protasevitch, as the Ukrainian message above points out, were clearly against the Lukashenko dictatorship, which is still based on large elements of state ownership. But he, like the main opposition leaders, imagined they could replace it with a clean form of capitalism…something which actually never exists.

At the height of the movement, workers began to take strike action, telling Lukashenko at mass meetings to “Get out!”. Without a clear call for all-out general strike action to bring the country to a halt, workers bent again to the yoke. The lack of a party based on the working class and fighting for a truly socialist alternative meant the workers’ efforts came to nothing.

The unresolved struggle continues against the Lukashenko dictatorship backed, so far, by that of Vladimir Putin in Russia. The Financial Times reports how Lukashenko was targeting dissidents abroad back in April, with the help of Russia’s FSB agents who arrested two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to Belarus. The Kremlin came to the defence of Minsk’s mid-air antics last week by referring to planes being diverted in the past by western nations. Specific reference was made to the case in 2013 of President Obama sending orders to a plane carrying Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, from Moscow, to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna. Other European countries had refused to let it land on suspicion that Edward Snowden was on board!

The FT also reports that last week, in an “apparent attempt to intimidate political opponents”, the Belarusian authorities deliberately released footage of the final hours in a prison cell, just days before the Ryanair hi-jacking, of another of the country’s dissidents – Vitold Ashurak.

How much backing Lukashenko continues to get from Vladimir Putin after talks in Sochi on 29 May is unpredictable. The so-called democracies of Europe and the US are forced to condemn the actions of both dictators. But it is also uncertain how far they will go in imposing sanctions and risking their own interests in terms of trade and energy supplies. But if significant sanctions are imposed by the western powers, it will be because of larger strategic competition with Putin’s Russia, not any genuine defence of democratic rights. This is shown by their sweet-talking with the murderous Saudi dictatorship.

Even if Lukashenko’s days as supreme ruler in Belarus are numbered, the workers and young people need a fight to the finish. They need to demand the freedom to assemble and protest, to speak, write and broadcast, without fear of reprisal, to organise political parties and unions, to strike and to stand in elections. All these must be inscribed on the socialists’ banner.

The CWI has consistently argued that a fight against dictatorship in Belarus or anywhere else against tyrannic rule means not only a struggle for basic democratic rights. It also requires a programme to take into public ownership the commanding heights of the economy, to be democratically controlled and managed by elected representatives of working people, to build a socialist society in which human rights are guaranteed. This means building a revolutionary and socialist party and international organisation.

Update

It has come to light that Raman Patrasevich has or had strong links with far right militia organisations in the Ukraine. Whatever this says about the nature of some of the opposition to Vladimir Lukashenko, it does not mean that the whole opposition movement is reactionary. The arrest of one far rightist does not mean the Lukashenko regime is somehow ‘progressive’, or that all of its opponents are far rightists or that socialists do not challenge the Belarus regime’s brutality in suppressing opposition and seizing opponents.

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