Electoral farce, repression and strikes in Belarus
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 17; Spring 2021)
The official announcement of the victory of President Lukashenko in the 9th of August presidential election with more than 80 % of the votes – against less than 10 % to his main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – triggered several protest demonstrations all over the country, since this unbelievable result can only be the result of massive frauds. Contrary to what happened in 2011 where they were limited to the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia of the capital Minsk, the demonstrations have affected almost the whole country. The authorities replied to these demonstrations with a brutal and massive repression (nearly 7,000 arrests, two deaths, mistreatments, even torture of prisoners, use of rubber bullets, etc.), interruption of the internet, without being able to calm down the demonstrators. On the contrary, the anger of the opponents redoubled, anti-government demonstrations became widespread within a few days, reaching many factories and companies where strikes broke out, notably against repression (as for example among bus drivers in Minsk who demand the release of one of their colleagues) ; the employees of the state television stopped working etc. Calls for a general strike began to circulate last week, although initially the walkouts were apparently limited. Lukashenko’s contemptuous statements comparing strikers to sheep and claiming that their number did not exceed 200 in a large company had the opposite effect to the one he was looking for!
On Sunday 16th August a demonstration of 100 to 200 000 people took place in Minsk (as well as many others elsewhere) asking for Lukashenko’s resignation ; at the same time the demonstration in support of the latter probably gathered less than 10,000 people (60,000 people according to the enormously exaggerated official figures), being rowed from all over the country. On the 17th of August, while he came to give a speech in the city’s largest factory, MTZ (tractor construction), in front of an audience of workers supposedly chosen by the direction, Lukashenko got booed by them ; the strikers went on a demonstration in the city. On Tuesday 18th August independent trade unions, which claim to be behind strike committees in mines and in various enterprises, called for a generalization of these committees and the rapid formation of a « national strike committee ».
But after having allowed the demonstrations of the last few days to take place peacefully, Lukashenko, reinvigorated by a declaration of support from Putin, called on the police on Wednesday 19/8 to prevent “troubles” in Minsk, while there are reports that the strike movement is crumbling; for example, there would only be 2000 strikers out of 16000 workers at MTZ, where rallies in support of the strike were dispersed by the security forces. However since the 18th of August potash production in the mines of Belaruskali in Soligorsk (the world’s largest production site for this ore) is completely blocked by the striking miners and the continuation of strikes is reported in many companies despite intimidation and arrests.
THE ROOTS OF ANGER
Small country of just over 9 million inhabitants, Belarus first knew, during the 26 years of Lukashenko’s presidency, a period of significant economic growth, facilitated by the low-price petroleum supplied by Russia (partly re-exported at world market prices) which is its main economic partner (accounting for 44% of Belarusian exports and 60% of imports). This prosperity, very relative but real when we compare it to the explosion of inequalities in a country like Ukraine, explain the popularity long enjoyed by the regime.
But things have started to change in the last few years; economic growth is broken down, Belarus is having more and more problems paying for its imports of raw materials, especially after Russia raised the price of the oil it sells to it, while its exports of goods produced by an unprofitable industrial sector suffer from ever-increasing competition. Growing economic difficulties have led the authorities to multiply anti-social and anti-worker measures: collective employment contracts have been replaced by individual short-term contracts, retirement pensions have decreased, and a tax has even been introduced on unemployment benefits. Unemployment has risen (it is estimated to be close to 10%) and real wages would have fallen by more than 30% due to inflation (1), all this in a situation where workers’ freedom to organize and struggle is limited.
BELARUS AND IMPERIALISM
The importance of economic ties with Russia inevitably translates into narrow political ties between these two countries. In the last period, however, these links have become more strained. Belarus has rejected the political and economic integration project proposed by Moscow and has made various gestures towards Europe; it even turned to the United States to buy oil from them after the end of the preferential tariffs granted to it by Russia! At the end of July the Belarusian police arrested around 30 Russian mercenaries, accusing them of trying to destabilize the regime during the elections. A « democrat » opponent, in jail, Barbaryko, had already been accused of being a puppet of Moscow (2). These anti-Russian statements actually served to fuel nationalism, which is the regime’s main political card. Indeed, as soon as the demonstrations broke out, Lukashenko did a volte-face: now it is no longer Russia, but NATO and Poland that he accuses of wanting to destabilize him by being the protest organizers! Putin has therefore made declarations – albeit measured ones – of support for his reluctant ally: for the Russian leaders, faced with major demonstrations in the far-eastern part of the country (3), everything possible must be done to prevent the example of a government ceding to the street pressure.
Western imperialisms, for their part, refused to recognize the result of the elections, affirmed verbal support to the « people » of Belarus and announced economic sanctions against some of the country’s officials. In fact, they are counting on Russia to prevent Belarus from becoming a new source of instability in this region of Europe. None of these imperialisms actually cares about the fate of the proletarians and of the people in general: only the defense of their interests, whether economic or geostrategic, is important to them.
FOR THE PROLETARIAT, THE SOLUTION IS NOT THE INTERCLASSIST DEMOCRATIC UNION BUT THE PROLETARIAN STRUGGLE FOR THE DEFENSE OF ITS CLASS INTERESTS
The democratic opponents advocate « the union of all classes » to reach democracy; this cannot be an objective for the proletariat, which has a pressing need to fight in order to defend its own interests against the capitalists, the first one of which is the Belarusian state (the statist sector is still dominant in the country): state democratization would change nothing to its fate. Its entry into the struggle of the last few days has demonstrated the power it possesses; however, until now it has only been mobilized as a force led by the petty bourgeois democratic opponents. It was inevitable given the absence of any classist organization and tradition of struggle. There are certainly independent, so-called « democratic », trade unions (BKDP); if they are not inferred to the system like the main trade unions which mainly serve to discipline the labor force, they are nevertheless collaborationist organizations, foreign to class positions, and besides, recognized by the institutions. They once again demonstrated it in the current events. On the 12th of August, they published a statement asking for the end of the repression and the release of prisoners, but without calling for strikes as it could lead to « massive dismissals ». Overwhelmed by the movement, a few days later (on the 17th of August), they were calling, as we have seen, for the formation of a Strike National Committee. But it is as social firemen that they consider the formation and the role of the latter. The objective they set for themselves is indeed to bring the country out of the political crisis by putting an end to the « situation of double power » (between Lukashenko and his rival) thanks to this committee which would be the only one capable of « engaging a direct dialogue with the authorities on a transition of power » (4).
But it is not from the dialogue with the authorities that something positive can come out for the
proletarians! Only the struggle against these authorities, while waiting to have the strength to overthrow them may enable substantial concessions to be extracted from them.
The proletarians of Belarus will therefore have to emancipate themselves from interclassist union and democratic illusions to take the path of organization and class struggle. They have already taken a first step by mobilizing massively against Lukashenko; the next steps, against capitalism, whatever the form of government and the politicians in power, will be neither automatic nor easy; but, even beyond the immediate results of the current movement, the proletarians of Belarus have already given a sign that the long period of passivity and powerless resignation of the European proletarians is coming to an end.
(2) Banker, Barbaric has been arrested under the accusation of money laundering for benefit of the Russian society Gasport.
(3) For weeks, large anti-government demonstrations have been taking place in Khabarovsk to protest the arrest of the governor, an opponent of Putin.
(4) See the BKDP statement and the interview of its president, on August 8th. The latter is a member of the administration council of the ILO (UN organization responsible for promoting collaboration between classes) and is a vice-president of the ITUC (confederation of major world collaborationist unions). https://belarus partisan.by/politic/509539/
International Communist Party