Opposition protest in Minsk, Belarus August 2020

Opposition protest in Minsk, Belarus August 2020   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

For the fourth Sunday in succession, on September 6 there were mass protests across Belarus. Up to 100,000 people 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 has elements of a revolutionary situation against a reactionary regime, but lacks a working-class leadership to carry the struggle through to a conclusion.

The man dubbed ‘the last dictator in Europe’ is opposed by very disparate elements, united only in their opposition to him remaining as president after the fraudulent elections of 9 August.

Demonstrators at Sunday’s protest shouted ‘Ychadi!’ (‘Get out!’) – as the workers had done when Lukashenko visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor plant on 17 August.

Hundreds have been arrested and detained, some tortured. Hundreds more have been badly injured, some ‘disappeared,’ and at least four have died.

Many, including opposition bloggers, political figures and a strike organiser at Grodno Azat, have fled abroad. 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 Journalists have had their credentials withdrawn and some have been ordered to leave the country.

Maria Kolesnikova is the latest prominent oppositionist to be snatched off a street in Minsk by masked men. It’s reported that the authorities tried to expel her to neighbouring Ukraine, but she tore up her passport and was refused entry at the border crossing.

Two weeks ago Lukashenko, seen brandishing a Kalashnikov, declared he would have to be killed before there was any rerun 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.

The movement

Like all mass protest movements that explode onto the scene of history, especially against dictatorial rule, this one has seen a heroic defiance of the powers-that-be and a clear determination to scrap the old order.

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

The defiant walkouts of tens of thousands of industrial workers show the potential for a fight to the finish.

Even after Lukashenko’s threats of mass sackings and the closure of whole factories, workers have engaged in ‘Italian (spontaneous) strikes’, like that at the massive Belaruskali potash enterprise, or go-slows.

Lizaveta Merliak, who is trying to build an independent trade union organisation, said that at 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.

The entry of students into the battle, as the academic year began, presented a new challenge to the regime. Hundreds were arrested on 1 September and some badly beaten inside prison.

Clear programme

Uncertainty and confusion about what is needed in this situation comes 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, had 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 They have 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 neoliberal policies and widespread privatisation.

Belarusian society is a strange left-over from the era of Stalinism. As the USSR broke up in the early 1990s, Belarus retained a large element of state ownership of major industries, transport, banks and mineral extraction.

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!

Protests began to develop well before the presidential election. Demonstrators lined roads waving slippers to get rid of ‘the cockroach’, as Lukashenko is known. Now, Sunday demonstrations have spread across the country to the major cities – Brest, Vitebsk and Grodno.

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 almost as quickly disappeared.

Workers’ committees have been established in some factories. What’s needed are representatives 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.

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’ (action committees) 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 a 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.

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. Activists need to come together in a determined fight for basic democratic rights.

The fight is still on for free and open elections. The release of all political prisoners is a number one demand, as is the dropping of all charges against them and 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 worker’s wage.

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.

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 country of only 9.5 million people.

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

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 him. Putin has indicated he is prepared to order Russian forces into Belarus, to confront opponents of Lukashenko’s regime, but risks opposition at home and abroad for such a move.

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 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.

The Navalny poisoning affair is also a destabilising factor. Fighting on all fronts is not a good position, even for Putin.

Lukashenko recently hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. He also 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 that they “could not agree earlier”.