Workers' Voice mailing list
August 20, 2020
Re: The people take to the streets in Belarus!
by Joseph Green, Detroit Workers' Voice
Huge crowds have taken to the streets in Belarus against the President Lukashenko's fraudulent reelection on August 9. Prior to the election the government arrested or disqualified candidates, invented spurious criminal cases, claimed to discover foreign conspiracies, and terrorized the opposition. Nevertheless thousands upon thousands of people took part in opposition rallies that spread through the country. After the election the government made the brazen claim that Lukoshenko had won a landslide of 80% of the vote, but no one was buying that. More and more people came into the streets denouncing the electoral fraud, and also the brutality with which the police had been attacking unarmed demonstrators and beating up people whether they are part of the demonstrations or not. Some demonstrators displayed posters showing the bruises and scars of people who had been arrested and tortured. The widespread arrests have only infuriated the country more, and there are now hundreds of thousands of protesters.
Belarus is a country of close to 10 million people. Formerly in the USSR, it is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. It became independent of the USSR in August 1991, a few months before the USSR dissolved. Alexander Lukashanko was elected in the first presidential elections, which were in 1994, and has been reelected repeatedly since then, the constitution being revised to eliminate presidential term limits. Under Lukashenko, Belarus retained state industry, didn't carry out the anti-worker shock therapy that ravaged Russia and Eastern Europe, and maintained a certain economic stability. As a result, it still has substantial industry, which employs a large section of the workforce. And Lukashenko retained a certain support.
But his presidency has been notable for repression, the falsification of elections, and the lack of democratic rights. Critics, demonstrators, and people in independent organizations are all targets for suppression. Some oppositional leaders have disappeared, presumably murdered. He is bigoted against women, gays, foreigners, etc. His attitude towards facts and science is shown by his touting home remedies, such as drinking vodka, to deal with COVID-19.
Nor has Lukashenko's authoritarianism been able to provide needed economic progress. Under him, the state-sector is state-capitalism, as it was in the Soviet Union, and not a step towards socialism. As a result, over the years, faced with economic difficulties, Lukashenko has implemented austerity, cut social benefits, and implemented some privatization. The retirement age was raised three years, although it is still less than the American retirement age. Another example was the introduction in 2015 of the "social parasite" tax. Instead of helping the unemployed, the government regards them as criminals. People are fined for having worked less than 183 days in a year. If they can't pay the fine, they are subject to arrest or a further fine. One change after another is being introduced to the disadvantage of the working class, such as major changes in 2019 to the Labor Code to increase the power of the employers,
There haves been protests against Lukashenko in the past, but since the falsified election, they are being accompanied by workplace actions, showing a collapse of Lukashenko's support even in state industry. This is taking place despite the opposition of the official, regime-linked section of trade unions. Although only a section of the workers might participate at various factories, partial shutdowns or strikes have spread from one major plant to another. Reports claim that this includes the Minsk (capital of Belarus) Electrotechnical Plant, the Belarusian Steel Works, the Minsk Tractor Works, the Minsk Engine Plant, Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant, the potash-maker Belaruskali, the Minsk Margarine Plant, the Zhabino Sugar Factory, the Belshina tire factory, and others. This includes factories responsible for 8-10% of the world production of wheeled tractors, one-fifth of the world production of postash, etc. Lukashenko was filmed addressing the workers at one of these plants, declaring that there would never be a rerun of the last election until he was dead, and the workers chanted in response "Leave, Leave, Leave" until he turned away and left. Besides the factory actions, there have also been actions at the Minsk subway and at Minsk's main cable TV facility, resignations at the Janka Kupala National Theater, etc.
This is the most serious challenge yet to Lukashenko, and embraces more people than ever before. The people of Belarus are seeking to have a voice in what happens to them. They are not so much backing the main opposition leader in the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as opposing Lukashenko. Nor do they seem to be particularly anti-Russian or pro-EU; they are mostly just anti-Lukashenko.
Meanwhile the outside big powers are fighting over how to influence Belarus. Russia regards Belarus as its property, part of its sphere of influence, and is backing Lukashenko for now, while the European Union seeks to extend market fundamentalism into Belarus, and it is preparing sanctions against the Lukashenko government. Moreover, the situation is complex. Lukashenko has kept Belarus from being absorbed by Russia, and has had rocky political relations with Putin. If Putin intervenes to preserve authoritarianism, he may well install a replacement for Lukashenko.
Ironically, both of the major forces, Russia and the EU, would be putting pressure on Belarus for one form or other of privatization. The economy of Belarus is closely tied to the Russian economy, and Belarus even owes a good deal of money to Russia, but the Belarus economy isn't privatized like the Russian economy. Nor has Belarus taken part in the economic prescriptions of the EU.
Thus if the protesters can bring down Lukashenko, they will be faced with what economic policy to follow. If they give in to privatization and neo-liberal reforms, the interests of the working masses will be sacrificed. The economic and industrial base of Belarus will suffer greatly. But there is no clear direction being put forward in the mass struggle other than opposition to the horrible anti-democratic measures of Lukashenko.
The democratic movement in Belarus is essential if the working class is ever to stand up in its own right. Moreover, if the democratic movement succeeds in overthrowing Lukashenko's authoritarianism, it may encourage movements elsewhere and echo throughout the region. But democratic reforms will be the start of a new struggle, with workers immediately faced with the need to defend their living conditions. <>
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