Recently we have written about the background and escalation of the current opposition movement in Belarus, but in the days that followed the situation has already changed by quite a bit – with various developments in the struggle against Lukashenko’s regime. Particularly interesting are the news on the industrial action front.
Although the government initiated blackout of internet connections in the country seems to be finally over, protesters are sharing information on social media that online activity is now being monitored much more closely than it was before. The best sources of news on the events taking place in Belarus continue to come primarily in the form of recordings, delivered via Telegram and YouTube channels, from ordinary people on the streets of Belarusian towns who are witnessing everything transpire in front of their eyes and just outside their homes. The few opposition and foreign media journalists left in the country are being hunted by OMON1 and other law enforcement groups, who are bent on crushing any dissent and dealing with any cameras around that could record and present to others what is happening. The state-owned television and radio programmes continue to broadcast propaganda and idyllic images of agricultural innovation, but it becomes more difficult to believe these fairy tales when all it takes is a look outside the window to see a lone pedestrian on his morning walk to work be chased and beaten by five riot-gear-clad men with batons and pepper spray.
The privately-owned Nexta channel, which is run by a team of professional journalists that verify the information sent in by random citizens as well as establishment whistleblowers, has been a key source of info for the demonstrators as well as observers from abroad. The lack of a central platform, with presence spread across multiple messengers and on YouTube, have made it easier for Nexta to remain outside of government influence. It is through channels like Nexta, and the stories of ordinary Belarusians, that we have heard about the call for a general strike in Belarus that has been circulated through these alternative media outlets. We know that the capital remains a hotspot of activity, with trolleybus drivers as well as different workers either organising walkouts or taking other forms of action at the Kozlov Electric Plant, the Minsk Tractor Works, the State Institute of Powder Metallurgy, the Minsk Margarine Plant, the RUE Belenergosetprojekt research facility, the Minsk Metro, the Belmedpreparaty pharmaceutical plant, the Minsk Automobile Plant, the Kupalausky Theatre, and the Minsk National Airport (along with many other workplaces in the city).
However, the strikes have not been limited to just Minsk, as we have also heard of workers’ action at: the Grodno Azot petrochemical enterprise, the Neman tobacco factory, and Grodnozhilstroy construction (taxi drivers, educational sector, housing company, meat processing plant, and railway workers are also taking part in Grodno); Brestgazoapparat, the Zhabinka Sugar Refinery, Kompo tools and railway workers in Brest; the Belshina tyre factory in Babruysk; the BelAZ truck plant and heavy forging plant in Zhodzina; the Belarusian Steel Works and the meat processing plant in Gomel; the Mazyr Oil Refinery; the Belaruskali fertiliser plant and miners in Salihorsk; the Nesvizh Castle; Khimvolokno artificial fibre factory in Svietlahorsk; the Polymir factory and Naftan oil refinery in Novopolotsk; Atlant machine-tool plant and the aircraft plant in Baranavichy; the locomotive depot and Lakokraska paint production in Lida; Kosvik lumber and plywood manufacturing in Zaslawye; the Pastavy forestry; the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant; as well as doctors and nurses across Belarus and employees in many smaller businesses too.
It is precisely this kind of working class action and self-organisation that has the real potential to topple Lukashenko’s dictatorship, especially since the strikes have been happening not only in small local companies but also in some of the country’s largest heavy industry factories. And we are not talking here of little initiatives by radical circles, but as many as hundreds of workers downing tools and walking out at just one factory, let alone multiple. Moreover, this is the best example of resistance from the working class that shows us the discontent has gone well beyond the urban middle class, and reached deep into demographics that have traditionally been considered supporters of the man who has ruled Belarus for the past 26 years (not just young and educated activists or recently radicalised youths, but the middle-aged industrial workers and older generations that have been raised in the USSR). At the moment, however, most of the demands put forward by the workers in many of these places have been largely in line with the limited cause of the liberal opposition with its petit-bourgeois roots: release all political prisoners, cease the state violence against protesters, investigate the electoral fraud, and respect the real results of the 2020 election (which most presume would actually put Tsikhanouskaya ahead of Lukashenko).
The moment that the Belarusian working class goes beyond these requests and sets out its own demands, based on its interests as the proletariat in opposition to the national bourgeoisie of Belarus as well as the global capitalist system, is the moment that this struggle changes from one with democratic goals to potentially one of working class liberation. And it would all have to start with the refusal of workers to accept any kind of democratic window dressing. Of course, this is not easy, and even if the Belarusian workers were to go a step further and progress their fight into a truly socialist one – devoid of liberal goals and without Stalinist dogma – then there would still be the issue of isolation. While the situation becomes more and more unstable in Belarus, the conditions in its neighbouring countries (let alone the rest of the world) are hardly revolutionary. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see so much industrial action in the country and on such a large scale. In fact, the protests outside of factories have also taken on a life of their own. With most of the original opposition candidates who ran in the presidential election either locked up or forced to leave Belarus2 , there are no proper leaders to speak of. Demonstrations are no longer held just in favour of this or that politician, but organised from the bottom and unified in their common frustration with the establishment. Thousands of women formed long chains of solidarity in towns across Belarus. Some 35,000 people gathered in Grodno on the evening of 14 August. The movement is even present in rural areas, where Lukashenko has in the past been more popular.
Protesters have learned from previous struggles in other parts of the world, such as the confrontations in Hong Kong and Iran. People form barricades on the streets, block roads to make transport difficult for the militia3 , and are even using lasers in an attempt to make aiming harder for armed law enforcement.4 The movement has taken on a fairly decentralised and scattered nature. When the government broke most of the larger demonstrations in the well-known parts of Minsk and other places, the protesters became even more organised in the disarray. Bypassing the recent internet lockdown where possible via VPN technology, SMS messaging, even sending videos from one device to another through Bluetooth, they met up in areas previously not used for rallies, running between neighbourhoods, tiring out the cops as they chased them between buildings. When Lukashenko continues to live in the 1990s, thinking that he can just put everyone in prison and break a movement through mass repression, the opposition uses the technology and tactics of the 21st century. On top of that add the widespread strikes and other forms of industrial action and the situation starts to look worse and worse for Lukashenko. As we wrote previously, real power lies at its source – the means of production. Those who control it will in the end hold all the cards.
As optimistic as this may sound, the situation in the country continues to be brutal for the opposition movement and anyone unlucky enough to find themselves outnumbered in the vicinity of OMON or other state-supported bandits. As we have mentioned several times, it is not just the protesters but random people targeted by law enforcement units. Videos from numerous sources show unprovoked acts of violence committed by government goons on the population across the country. Water cannons and stun grenades have become the norm in Minsk; a man was killed by vehicular slaughter when cops rammed a truck into demonstrators and ran one of them over; a passenger car was rammed elsewhere, severely injuring the young child that was sitting in the back; a 25-year-old in Gomel died after his capture and beating by the militia; on Tuesday the 11th security forces in Brest opened fire on protesters using live ammunition, wounding people in the process. Official figures of people detained since the post-election unrest started are nearing 7,000 (over a course of only four nights) – reports of overcrowding, torture, humiliation, and poor hygiene in prisons and detention centres are flowing in from those who experienced it first-hand, where they were held “in small cells with as many as 120 people in them, [given] no more than a litre of water and a loaf of bread to share” while disabled people were denied medicine and beaten when asked for help.5
The Polish government has been the first to speak out and also the most outspoken about the situation in Belarus, with Latvia and Lithuania following suit, calling for an emergency EU summit. It was ironic to see president Andrzej Duda and other Polish government officials urge Lukashenko to “respect human rights and freedoms” in Belarus, when Poland continues to see escalating protests of the LGBT+ community with numerous cases of police brutality within its own borders. Since then, the governments of Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, and Latvia have already spoken publicly in favour of sanctions against Belarus; the decision to impose sanctions was finally reached at the aforementioned summit, which took place in the evening of 14 August. Also quite ironically, the economic impact of this might push Lukashenko only further into subordination under Putin. In contrast to the outrage in neighbouring countries and those in the West, Russia and China simply congratulated Lukashenko on his victory in the election. As we mentioned in our previous article on the matter, Belarus has been sustaining its largely still state-owned economy since its time as a member of the USSR (though now also with a profitable private technology sector) primarily thanks to its dependence on reduced prices of crude oil and natural gas from Russia. While this has managed to keep Belarus afloat, it has not prevented economic stagnation. Now these benefits from the Russian side are about to end due to Russia’s own need for changes in the wake of the capitalist crisis.
Regardless of how things progress from now on, one thing is certain: Lukashenko will have a much harder time dealing with the economic obstacles facing his regime, especially now when the workers are fed up with police violence and the threat of sanctions looms on the horizon, adding even more depth to the plunge that the economy of Belarus was set to take with the end of energy subsidies from the Russian Federation. Furthermore, the loss in profits to Belarus’ IT sector by turning off internet for several days has been colossal. And the government’s authority continues to slip, with reports of not only militiamen and television presenters publicly announcing leaving their jobs, but in some cases soldiers and even members of OMON quitting also. Workers should also be wary of the calls for “independent trade unions” which are already circulating – in 1980s Poland we saw how such “independent trade unions” subordinated a massive working class movement to a new ruling class clique.6
We extend our solidarity to the working class of Belarus as well as all those who have suffered so much at the hands of Lukashenko’s tyrannical rule. We will continue to closely follow the events transpiring in Belarus, holding out hope that its workers will go further in their demands and recognise that the struggle is not about polishing up capitalist democracy but class war of the majority of exploited against their oppressors. If the present situation causes a rethink amongst a young generation who have been taught that “communism = Stalinism” and “liberal democracy + the free market = a prosperous future”, then that in itself opens the way for a reawakening of proletarian internationalism and the possibility of a revolutionary political organisation to put forward the goal that workers produce directly for the needs of the population, not for profit. Here lies the struggle for freedom for all peoples of the world, for there can be no real freedom under capitalism — be it the ruthless authoritarian style or the democratic liberal one.
14 August 2020
- 1OMON (ОМОН) stands for “Отряд Милиции Особого Назначения”, Russian for “Special Purpose Police Unit”, is the special forces of the Belarusian militia that is notorious for its brutal treatment of bystanders and demonstrators, whom they are often despatched against.
- 2Various sources have reported that even Tsikhanouskaya is now abroad, in Lithuania, with her children. Some say that her departure from Belarus was the government’s condition for the release of one of her main campaigners from prison.
- 3Of course, despite their name, the Militsiya of the Republic of Belarus has nothing in common with voluntary organisations of similar names tied to revolutionary groups in the past. It is the military police law enforcement agency of Belarus, the repressive state apparatus of the Belarusian state. The name is a leftover from the USSR.
- 4For an interview with a Belarusian activist, also available in English, see: rozbrat.org
- 5As reported by the Financial Times: ft.com
- 6See our analysis of Solidarność and the strike movement of 1980-1981: leftcom.org