The onus lies on the workers of Belarus to seek their own solution outside of the futile battle to refurbish the shabby window dressing of democracy.
Alexander Lukashenko1 has been President of Belarus uninterrupted since 1994; in those 26 years of rule, only his first victorious election was declared by observers as “fair and lawful”. Each and every election since then has been tampered with and falsified in Lukashenko’s favour. No surprise then that he has managed to keep an iron grip on his power in a country which has often been referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, the only globally recognised post-Soviet republic where the intelligence agency retained its old notorious name and acronym – the KGB. However, in the lead-up to the most recent election held on 9 August 2020, Belarus has seen more political opposition and unrest than it has in decades. According to the “Viasna” Human Rights Centre, upwards of 2,000 people have been detained since the beginning of the election campaign in May. Now that the election’s exit poll gave Lukashenko almost 80% of the vote, the number of detainees is set to rise drastically as Belarusians take to the streets in the thousands to protest yet another falsified result.
What led to this outcome, besides the obviously increasing frustration of the Belarusian working class with its dictator? Belarus has been profiting from generous trade deals for resources from Russia, paying half as much as Western European countries do for natural gas from its giant eastern neighbour as well as having reduced prices for crude oil, but this model is unsustainable. The main reason for this is that the Russian Federation, whose economy has been hit by the fall in the price of oil triggered by the world economic crisis, is now withdrawing such energy subsidies that Belarus previously benefited from through a “tax manoeuvre”, which is set to eliminate the exemption that aided Belarus’ largely successful maintenance of jobs, factories, and social services from the USSR times that it has managed to mostly keep alive up until now. The state’s leader Lukashenko is thus faced with a dilemma: cut more deals with Putin, which will only be seen as further limiting the country’s sovereignty in favour of closer relations with the former occupier, or begin a restructuring of Belarusian heavy industry and look to the European Union and other potential partners for backing – risking penalties from the Russian side. In fact, Belarus exports much of its industrial goods to Russia, whereas the petroleum products it sells to European buyers are wholly dependent on the discounted crude oil it gets from the East; if Russia was to shut this exchange down, the Belarusian economy would collapse.2 Over a decade ago, the Belarusian dictator played on the nostalgia of the nation (the majority of whom voted in the 1991 referendum to preserve the Soviet Union), but years of despotic rule and gradually increasing instability resulting from the world capitalist crisis have done much to change Belarusian public opinion, with unprecedented resistance springing up in this year’s election.
For a person to legally register as a candidate in Belarusian presidential elections, one must collect 100,000 signatures (in a country of less than 9 and a half million residents). Initially, the three main candidates of the political opposition who had gathered enough signatures were: Viktar Babaryka, a “philanthropist” banker; Valery Tsepkala, entrepreneur and founder of the Belarusian analogue of Silicon Valley; and Siarhei Tsikhanouski, activist and YouTuber who became known for his channel’s interviews dedicated to everyday problems of Belarusian citizens. What happened next? Tsikhanouski was apprehended in Grodno after Lukashenko called for his arrest, with fabricated accusations of attacking the militia, on 29 May. Despite holding his banking position for 20 years prior, in June Babaryka was suddenly detained for irregularities in submitted income and property declarations; he and his son – as well as a number of people associated with his campaign – were then arrested on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Of the more than 160,000 signatures that Tsepkala managed to collect, only a little over 75,000 were considered “valid” by the Central Election Commission of Belarus and thus he was barred from running in the election. Frightened by threats from the prosecutor’s office and not willing to share the jailed fate of Lukashenko’s other political opponents, Tsepkala fled to Russia with his two sons.
Lukashenko attempted to secure his position as his three main opponents in the election were taken care of and stopped from running as candidates, along with the repression and incarceration of some smaller-scale politicians3 and many grassroots activists. These actions sparked dissent from the public, with protests in various towns, but the biggest gatherings have been in the most populous and largest city of the country – the capital Minsk, which saw thousands united in solidarity actions. Other than the numbers seen at these demonstrations and events, what is also notable is the resistance of citizens to the militia; whereas in the past, in Belarus’ post-Soviet history, most confrontations with the OMON riot police and plain-clothes militiamen ended in brutal imprisonment of dissidents, Belarusians now strike back, even resulting in the hospitalisation of some of the law enforcement officers, though protests remain primarily peaceful until the militia escalate and attack each time.
Following the incarceration of her partner, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – an English teacher by trade – became the new face of the parliamentary opposition to Lukashenko’s regime, collecting enough signatures to run in place of her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Valery Tsepkala’s wife Veronika, who had initially stayed behind in Belarus, became a key campaigner for Tsikhanouskaya (nevertheless, Veronika Tsepkala eventually also left for Moscow due to concerns regarding her safety). Maria Kolesnikova, the chief of Babaryka’s campaign, likewise threw her support and resources behind Tsikhanouskaya. Despite Tsikhanouskaya running as an independent candidate, various opposition parties (some of which had been outlawed) such as the United Civic Party of Belarus or the Belarusian Women's Party “Nadzieja”, among others, also support her. The dictator dismissed his opponent as “some poor girl” manipulated by foreign interests, stating that the country is not ready for a female president. Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya sent her kids away to live abroad with their grandmother, as taking away the children of female activists and opposition figures to place them in state-run orphanages is a known tactic of the government. Moreover, women critical of or taking part in actions against the Belarusian state have also been known to face threats of sexual violence.
Although the rapid growth in visible disapproval of the Lukashenko regime might appear to be spontaneous at first, it is not so surprising when viewed as the tipping point resulting from a series of government failures and rising frustration with the oppressive nature of the Belarusian state. Perhaps Lukashenko’s utter dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic was the final spark that set off the fire of the discontent of the Belarusian working class, when the president went as far as saying that COVID-19 is a psychological issue and jokingly suggested it is nothing that drinking vodka and sitting in the sauna would not fix. In a small country, around 70,000 cases and almost 600 deaths are worrying figures; additionally, some deaths are reportedly misattributed to other factors, leading to a loss of support even among segments of the older generations who would have traditionally been bastions of Lukashenko’s real electorate.4 With no proper guidelines or regulations regarding health precautions and social distancing from the state, Belarusians turn to alternative media and opposition news – such as various Telegram or YouTube based channels, or the Poland-based Belsat aimed at Belarusian viewers, all of which offer a more realistic look at the dire situation within the country than the image presented by government-owned television.
For the working class the choice on offer was no better than Lukashenko. Practically all of the main opposition candidates who had originally planned to run in the election come from an entrepreneurial petty-bourgeois background and were in favour of cutting state aid. Even Tsikhanouski, renowned for his focus on the problems of the average person one might meet in a Belarusian town or village, was also an entrepreneur who likewise criticised the lack of economic freedoms alongside his commentary on the restrictions of political liberty and bureaucratic absurdities of life in Belarus. When the campaigns of Tsikhanouski, Babaryka, and Tsepkala were swiftly dealt with, this gave rise to even more public support for the opposition and the ascension of an even more likeable candidate in the form of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. A mother and a wife, a reluctant politician, claiming to run in the elections “out of love” and to free her husband. Her programme is one that most of the voters dissatisfied with Lukashenko’s repressive regime would find little issue with and plenty to praise: vowing to free all political prisoners in the country, moving away from the union treaty with Russia5 , calling for a referendum on returning to the pre-1994 constitution that limited presidential terms to two, and introducing democratic reforms in Belarus (if elected, she pledged to deliver a plan for fair elections within six months of taking office).
Taking all of this into consideration, it should not be so surprising that rallies in support of Tsikhanouskaya have gathered more than 20,000 people in Brest and over 60,000 in Minsk – apparently the largest opposition gatherings in Belarus since the rallies in months leading up to the 1991 dissolution of the USSR.6 Especially since Lukashenko’s poor handling of the coronavirus situation has put pressure both on the country’s economy and on public opinion of his government. Previously the dictator managed to hold an iron grip on his rule, but now it seems as though with each measure taken to secure the balance of power he is only stirring up a hornet’s nest and causing more dissent in response.
Which Way Forward?
Among all this, the onus lies on the workers of Belarus to seek their own solution outside of the futile battle to refurbish the shabby window dressing of democracy. Ultimately this means the resurgence of a very different kind of democracy: the direct democracy of wage workers through their councils (soviets) of recallable delegates which will take control of power at its source – the means of production. But without any real political presence of a working class organisation on the streets to raise consciousness of the class war and the proletarian interest in overthrowing capitalism to secure real freedom for humanity from the constraints of wage labour, it is unlikely that we will see these protests take on a more class character. The focus will remain on entrepreneurship and criticism of bureaucracy instead of the system that creates it. In this respect Belarus shares the same picture as many parts of the world. And of course comparisons to the Ukrainian “Maidan” – where under competing nationalisms workers were mobilised behind different imperialist agendas7 – have already been made.
It would be naive to expect a new revolutionary organisation simply to appear out of the current “unrest”. However, it is not unimaginable that some oppositionists may be pushed into looking beyond trying to establish a more equitable capitalism. Already we have seen the politicisation of many Belarusian youths, who previously did not display much interest in the political situation of their country. But the development of such a political reawakening demands a settling of accounts with the past. Scarred by decades of harsh life under the USSR, similarly to Poles and other Eastern Europeans, many Belarusians react to any mention of the words “communist” or “socialism” with either allergic hatred or misplaced nostalgia for the state capitalism of the Eastern Bloc. Yet unlike many of its neighbouring countries like Latvia or Poland, Belarus has never undergone so-called “decommunisation”; tanks serving as monuments to Soviet armies that delivered victory in the “Great Patriotic War” can be found in many towns, it seems as though practically every place has a statue of Lenin, even the nation’s flag and coat of arms remain almost unchanged since the days of the Iron Curtain.8 Due to this sad reality, for the Belarusian working class any kind of socialist terminology and signs remain symbols of oppression, as the current government continues to use many of them, regardless of their actually revolutionary origin. Openly organising as a communist in Belarus, even more so than in many other Eastern European countries, would be seen as either Stalinist dementia or outright provocation.
What will happen next in Belarus is unclear, though it is obvious that Lukashenko is becoming nervous about the current state of affairs. Following the announcement of exit poll results from the election that gave the dictator a landslide victory, thousands of protesters appeared on the streets of around 30 Belarusian towns (Brest, Gomel, Grodno, Mogilev, Vitebsk, and others).9 Pepper spray, stun grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets have been used by law enforcement against people gathering in opposition to Lukashenko. In Minsk a police truck rammed protesters at speed and drove over one of them. Some people have been taken to intensive care and hundreds of arrests have been made. In solidarity with the demonstrating masses, militiamen in Zhodzina and Baranavichy refused to disperse crowds and lowered their riot shields. Internet connections were limited or completely taken down across the country as all this was happening, resulting in an information blackout and making it harder for protesters to organise. This repression is likely to continue, as is the unrest, though whether the situation will escalate even further remains to be seen.
Even if these events lead to the toppling of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, and even if they result in an improvement in living conditions and increased freedoms for the Belarusian working class, Belarusians would eventually have to face the disappointment that would come with the problems of a “neoliberal” Western-style democracy: over-privatisation of previously public services, mass unemployment, a growing wealth gap, and the continuation of police brutality. These issues and those faced by Belarus at the moment are, ultimately, not problems of the Western liberal or authoritarian Belarusian styles of governing, but problems of the global capitalist system and the cyclical crises that it subjects us to. Even now, just across the western border in Poland10 – a member of the EU and a popular destination for Belarusian migrant workers – the impoverished face cruel evictions carried out through thugs hired by private landlords, and workers are fed nationalist propaganda broadcast by the state on TV and radio. Furthermore, sexual minorities are being beaten by the police on the streets for demonstrating in pursuit of equal rights and women are denied access to unrestricted abortions (something that is available even in Belarus!). As long as Belarus remains under the capitalist yoke, be it that of Lukashenko or a more liberal “European” alternative, Belarusian workers will continue to suffer.
- 1Alexander Lukashenko is the commonly used Russian transcription, but it can also be written as Alyaksandr Lukashenka when transcribed from the Belarusian language. When covering matters in Belarus, it has become customary to utilise Russian transcriptions for government and establishment figures while reserving the Belarusian transcriptions for individuals belonging to the opposition. The following is a list of Russian variants for names of opposition persons, for whom the Belarusian standards were applied to in the article above: Viktor Babariko, Valery Tsepkalo, Sergei Tikhanovsky, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
- 2More on the economic background here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-27/belarus-s-soviet-economy-has-worked-better-than-you-think
- 3The 2020 election has seen a total of 55 individuals apply as candidates for presidency, a record-breaking number since the adoption of the 1994 constitution.
- 4For an example of this, see the BBC interview at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SXnRgR9cH8 Many more cases can be found in alternative Russian-language media sources from Belarus.
- 5The Union State of Russia and Belarus, commonly known as simply the Union State, is the supranational union of the Republic of Belarus with the Russian Federation – granting the citizens of both parties the right to freely travel and reside within the territory of either state. Many oppositionists see it as an infringement of Belarusian sovereignty.
- 6As reported by Associated Press: https://apnews.com/c9ba5be40472ac02673a4d8bdec8a9ea
- 7For what we said at the time of the Ukrainian revolt of 2014, see: https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2014-02-03/ukraine-a-nationalist-dead-end
- 8Due to this, the white-red-white striped flag that was originally used by the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic in 1918-1919 has become a symbol of this and previous democratic movements in post-1994 Belarus. For several years after gaining independence it was also used as the official flag of the Republic of Belarus, before Lukashenko’s 1995 referendum introduced new state symbols based on the pre-1991 Soviet variants.
- 9As reported by Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubkova and numerous other news sources.
- 10For our report on the recent election in Poland, see: https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2020-07-16/poland-populism-strikes-back