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labor Belarus: A New Country on the Map of Europe

Aleksandr Lukashenko built his dictatorship by destroying trade unions but workers are fighting back, striking and protesting along with the growing democracy movement. The new Belarus is resisting, and is asking for international support.

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, IndustriAll Global union

Battles have been raging on the streets of Belarusian towns for several days now. The monstrous falsification of the presidential election results have provoked the anger of millions of peaceful citizens. The figures, announced by Aleksandr Lukashenko long before the counting was completed on 9 August, give him the chance to prolong his rule that, even without this, has already gone on for 26 years. In these years, Belarus has not achieved any great economic success, but it has made a name for itself by maintaining the death sentence; for the widespread use of forced labour; for the abolition of employment stability guarantees and for putting almost the entire workforce on temporary contracts; for one of the highest numbers of security services officers per head of population; and for the complete control of society by the State Security Committee (KGB).

The refusal to take adequate action against the Covid-19 pandemic and the costly ostentatious parades celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II, against the backdrop of a lack of PPE and medication and an increase in disease, have destroyed the last sympathy for an endless president. People actively engaged in the 2020 election campaign because they were tired of their ruler. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in pre-election events aimed at forcing Lukashenko out of the presidency. But on 9 August, he announced that he was still in office, claiming to have won 80% of the votes.

The wave of popular fury at the authorities has been met with unprecedented brutality: mass arrests and tortures; the beating of demonstrators – and chance passers-by – on the street; rounds of gunfire into the windows of residential housing. This violence is being practiced everywhere. The prisons and police stations are full to bursting with prisoners; heart-rending cries and groans can be heard from the windows of detention centres; many people have been maimed, more than 200 have been wounded and two protestors have died. In denouncing this brutality, Belarusians are calling the police “fascists” – and that word means a great deal in a country which, during the Second World War, lost one third of its population in the fight against fascism.

Aleksandr Lukashenko, like so many other authoritarian leaders and dictators, began to shape his new order by destroying trade unions. As a result of a special KGB operation in 2001 and 2002, the independent leaderships of the Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions and of industrial unions were removed. The Federation was turned into a surveillance network to monitor the moods of work forces, and since then has been used to demonstrate workers’ fictional support for the regime. Since belonging to the Federation is, in practice, compulsory, it has a formal membership of 4.5 million. The current chairperson of the Federation, Mikhail Orda, is a trusted Lukashenko loyalist – and in the name of these fictional millions, supported his candidacy during the elections.

Democratic trade unions
For 20 years, the authorities have also been trying to destroy the Belarussian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU), which continues to exist only thanks to its activists’ steadfastness and to economic pressure on the regime by the European Union. In recent years the International Labour Organisation has put Belarus on the list of countries where workers rights are in a ‘critical’ condition – and this effectively deprives the country of preferred status in trade with developed countries.

Activists of the BCDTU took part in the 2020 election campaign as independent observers, and often stood as witness to a great number of breaches of the rules and falsification. After 9 August, they took part in peaceful protests, and several of them have been detained. Among those arrested is Nikolai Zimin – a highly respect leader of the mineworkers’ union movement, who was sentenced to 25 days’ in jail.

‘This regime, which is holding on to power with a brutality that is shocking the whole world, is organising reprisals against participants in peaceful protests,’ the BCDTU said in a statement. ‘The security forces’ unthinkable ruthlessness has claimed its victims. We demand an immediate end to repression; an end to the attacks on, and murders of, citizens; the immediate release of all those illegally detained; the suspension of all criminal cases brought against participants in mass protest actions; and the release of all political prisoners.’

A turning point
From the start of the protests, the level of police brutality against peaceful participants rose rapidly. As the flow of wounded and brutally maimed people to hospitals swelled, shocked medical staff organised collective action to protest at the violence. News of strikes starting has come from chemical, transport, food manufacture and construction enterprises. At many workplaces, people are quitting the state-supported trade unions. On 13 August, the workers at a number of large enterprises downed tools in order to join the protest movement. This mass participation by workers can change the whole picture. Wider strikes would be the strongest support for a peaceful movement for change.

What has made Lukashenko so especially furious? Many believe that he has been challenged at the election by women. After the arrest of opposition candidates, and their exclusion from the ballot, their places were taken by their wives and collaborators, Svetlana, Veronika and Maria. In their election campaign speeches, they spoke a great deal about women’s role in society, and their speeches were full of personal stories that struck a chord with a huge number of people. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the main opposition candidate, and as support for her grew rapidly, it drove the incumbent president into a rage. Lukashenko tried several times to humiliate her publicly, and to insist that, in principle, a woman would not be capable of leading the country or being the president. This stirred up Belarusian society, and today it is women who are on the front lines of the protest actions, who organise their own women’s demonstrations. And their number is growing.

In the summer of 2020 the whole world, not without some surprise, is seeing a new country on the map of Europe. Not Belarus asleep with apathy, but Belarus whose people are seized by determination to win freedom and democracy. This determination is moving all who – in spite of the terror that has been unleashed across the country – are continuing the struggle each day.

Belarus will never return to what it was before. There is no way back. If Lukashenko is able to hold on to power, he will be compelled to turn to an even more repressive rule as millions of dissidents need to be forced into obedience. 

The new Belarus is resisting, and is asking for support. Students, workers and intellectuals are going on to the streets. It is the duty of the European and international workers’ movement to give them all the support we can muster.

Lizaveta Merliak is the international secretary of the Belarussian Independent Trade Union, BNP, and a Global Labour University (GLU) alumni. 

Kirill Buketov is the policy officer at the International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), a member of the Labourstart Executive board, and co-editor of the GLI Labour Politics magazin.