With the beautiful ironic humour that usually accompanies mass uprisings and revolutions, a video has appeared of Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko – the man known as “Europe’s last dicator” – driving a salon car being chased by a huge mining dump truck.
The truck, clearly about to crush the car, symbolises how quickly the mass movement is catching up to crush him and his rule. The workers from the ‘Belaz’ factory that makes the dump truck are amongst those that have walked out on strike against the rigged results of Belarus’s Presidential election.
Protests have spiralled rapidly since the announcement two weeks ago that Alexandr Lukashenko ‘won’ 80% of the vote in the election. This clearly fabricated figure is in complete contrast to the mood of the population, who have been growing increasingly angry at Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. Not only has a devastating economic crisis developed in the country, he is also a ‘virus denier’, claiming that a glass of vodka a day will keep the virus at bay. Consequently, infection rates are four times higher per head than in neighbouring Ukraine.
Workers coming out
In Minsk, Brest, Grodno and a dozen other cities thousands have come out onto the streets. Last weekend, in Minsk alone, up to 200,000 people gathered in the city centre. In contrast, a pro-Lukashenko rally mustered less than 10,000 despite coaching people in from around the country.
State repression, including the use of riot police and even the elite anti-terrorist troops “Almaz”, has failed to slow down the movement. Videos have shown the police violently beating protesters, whilst tear gas and stun grenades have been widely used. Many have been wounded by rubber bullets. Mass arrests took place, including of journalists. In a scene reminiscent of those in Tiananmen Square, one protester was run down by a police van.
Most significantly, workers at the Belarusian Metallurgical Factory (BMZ) declared a strike saying they want “to live, not just exist”. As soon as the announcement was made, riot police approached the factory and it was reported at least sixty workers were detained.
A call for the strikes to spread caught on like wildfire. A huge boost to the protests took place last Thursday and Friday when over a hundred factories and workplaces came out on strike. From the big industrial giants which employ thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands of workers to hospitals and the IT sector. Even the state broadcasting company has now switched to the side of the opposition. This followed a speech by Lukashenko in which he accused all demonstrators of being ‘sheep’ who work for foreign powers and ‘people with a criminal past who are now unemployed’.
These ignorant and provocative statements just poured oil onto the flames. In response workers from the giant Minsk Tractor Factory drew up a giant banner reading “We’re not sheep, not cattle, not non-persons. We are the workers of the MTF. We are not 20 but 16,000,” and on Friday marched behind it en-masse to the Parliament building in the city centre. On arrival, the OMON riot police surrounding the building lowered their shields.
Strikes force police backdown
The nature of this uprising changed during the week. At the start, there were mass demonstrations across the country which usually ended up being attacked by the riot police. Over 6,000 were arrested and those who have since been released talk of huge overcrowding in the cells and in many cases torture and threats of rape against female prisoners by the police. As news of state violence spread, overnight in the Minsk suburbs, which is where the working class tend to live, the chants went up from flats — ‘skhodi, skhodi’ — resign, resign.
Once the strikes spread, the police were no longer confident they could control the situation and the National Head of the Police announced that all those detained were to be released. As the prisoners came out, they related what happened while they were detained, further fueling the anger. On Sunday, thousands turned out to the funeral of Aleksandr Taraikovsky, a protester who was killed earlier in the week. Police claimed that an explosive device he was about to throw at them blew up — but video evidence demonstrates that he had nothing at all in his hands.
Another factor that changed the mood of the protests was the direct involvement of women who organized human chains across the country, often with young children in tow to demand an end to the violence.
Lack of real leadership
There has been a very large degree of spontaneity in the opposition protests, reflecting the lack of working class leadership and organisation. The traditional opposition parties in Belarus failed to provide any alternative in this election, claiming they were concerned about people’s safety during the pandemic. Nor in Belarus is there a significant level of trade union organization. As in other former Soviet republics, in many factories the former state trade union still exists but is completely loyal to Lukashenko.
The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, emerged almost accidentally. Her candidacy was announced only after three others were arrested or forced into exile, including a former Ambassador and a banker. They represent a liberal section of the ruling elite.
This accidental oppositionist soon saw mobilisations of thousands of people in support of her campaign, in which she simply promised that if elected she would release all political prisoners and organize new, democratic elections. Where voting figures from individual stations have been revealed, they show that it wasn’t Lukashenko that gained 80%, but Tikhanovskaya.
Despite this groundswell of electoral support Tikhanovskaya does not point a way forward. When the human chains demanding an end to the violence became more organised, Tikhonovskaya asked people to stop protesting. Last week she disappeared after entering an office to negotiate with Lukashenko. It is apparent she was threatened there — she later turned up in Lithuania, saying that things had gone too far and she had to make a priority of her children. Now she has announced she is prepared to take over as “national leader” until new elections.
The emergence of strike committees points the way forward. Demands raised by these committees, such as an end to contract working, the abolition of Decree №3 (the so-called ‘law against parasites’ to tax the unemployed) and reversing the pension reforms articulate the interests of workers, in conflict with the liberal opposition and European powers who are clearly looking for a compromise with Lukashenko’s regime.
What is now needed
Socialist Action, and our international organisation International Socialist Alternative, stands in full solidarity with the demonstrations and strikes in Belarus. We have no confidence that bankers and former diplomats, who were themselves part of the Lukashenko regime for many years should determine the fate of the country. In particular, both Western imperialist powers and Russia should keep out of Belarusian affairs.
The strikes should be extended and run by elected strike committees until Lukashenko goes and all political prisoners are released. The strike committees should be linked up and include student and resident representatives to organise a revolutionary constituent assembly to decide how the country should be run in the interests of the working class.
In the past days the opposition ‘troika’ around Tikhonovskaya have proposed organising a transitional Coordination committee and inviting workers to send representatives to oversee the transition of power. But this is not the same as a constituent assembly.
Changing who heads the system will not change the system itself. In fighting for political change, the economic situation needs to be changed — Decree No 3 and the contract system should be immediately repealed and the pension reforms reversed. The state budget changed to finance education and health care instead of the police and state bureaucracy.
To ensure this, a workers’ political party is clearly needed. In taking power a workers’ party needs to reorganise the economy under democratic workers control and establish a socialist government as part of a socialist federation of democratic socialist states.
By Rob Jones, Socialisticheskaya Alternative (Russian sister section of Socialist Action)
This article is an edited version of two articles that appeared on internationalsocialist.net.