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Workers’ strikes and protests increase pressure on regime in Belarus

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans

Workers gather outside the electrical engineering factory “VI Kozlov” (Pic: MK Belarus on Telegram)

Resistance to Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko’s regime is growing in the streets and workplaces. Thousands of people faced down riot cops and the KGB secret police in the capital Minsk for the third night in a row on Tuesday.


Earlier that day several factories and workplaces walked out as part of a general strike call in the wake of the rigged presidential election last weekend. The strike was called by three opposition blogs - 'Nexta Live', 'Belamova' and 'MK Belarus' - that urged people to take to the street.


Belarusian ruler Lukashenko claimed victory over liberal challenger Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, with 81 percent of the vote compared to her 11 percent.


Police killed one man and arrested at least 3,000 people on Monday night in the protests that erupted in the capital Minsk and other towns and cities.


Tikhanovskaya appeared in Lithuania on Tuesday, and a video emerged of her asking people “not to go to the square." She subsequently fled to Lithuania. She said this was for the sake of her children.


The police violence—and Tikhanovskaya’s seemingly forced appeal—has not deterred protesters.


Workers at the electrical engineering factory “VI Kozlov” in Minsk downed tools and put their demands to management. These included “to immediately end violence against unarmed civilians”; and the “release of people detained during the peaceful demonstrations”; and to “turn on the internet to stop the likelihood of rumours”.


Some passers-by gathered to support the Kozlov strikers.


Downing of Tools


Two sections at the Grodno Azot petrochemicals complex, one of the regime’s largest firms, also downed tools.


Workers at the Minsk Margarine Works food company walked out, with passing cars beeping their horns in support. And staff at the Institute of Chemistry of New Materials at the National Academy of Sciences (a sort of state-run think tank) also joined the general strike call.


Trolley bus drivers on one of Minsk’s fleets refused to work after they found out a driver had been injured.


And workers downed tools after an “uneasy” atmosphere at the RUE Belenergosetprojekt scientific research facility in the capital.


In a sign of how the regime is losing its grip on power, Minsk Tractor Plant workers defied threats from one of its stooges.


Around 70 engineers and technicians from several departments walked out and rallied outside the building. The Deputy Director for Ideological Affairs at the company came out at lunchtime and tried to frighten them back into work.


This failed because, reports Nexta Live, “No one believes ideologues anymore.”


Outside the capital, Belshina tyre factory workers in the industrial city of Babrusyk walked out to demand free elections. A statement from one worker said, “We, the workers of Belshina, are in solidarity with the people of Belarus. We have declared a strike.”


The Zabinka Sugar Refinery in the western district of Brest stopped production. Workers gathered and demanded a meeting with the chairman of the district executive committee, a local appointee of the regime.


It is this sort of action by workers—on a much bigger scale—that could break the Lukashenko regime.


Lukashenko

Lukashenko came to power in the chaos that followed the collapse of Stalinist Russia and the Eastern Bloc.


While these countries claimed to be “socialist”, they were in fact state capitalist societies where working class people had no control.


The ruling class—the state bureaucracy—behaved in the same way as bosses do under free market capitalism. Its aim was accumulating profit and to get ahead of international rivals, not ordinary people’s needs.


Revolutions overthrew the Eastern Bloc regimes in 1989 and Stalinist Russia broke apart into 16 republics.


They transitioned from state capitalism to a free market capitalism. Communist politicians became “democratic” politicians and the managers of state owned firms became private managers. Lukashenko, for instance, was the manager of a farming business.


Ordinary people, who had taken to the streets demanding freedom and social justice, paid the price of free market policies.


The way this played out was slightly different in Belarus to other republics.


In Belarus, the Stalinist bureaucracy was particularly conservative and had resisted any reforms. But a series of powerful workers’ protests in April 1991 shook the Communist Party to its foundation. It included a wave of strikes across more than 80 state-owned companies in Minsk, some organised through independent trade unions.


A combination of splits at the top and protests led to Belarus declaring independence in August 1991.


But after independence, the same figures retained a large degree of power. Unlike in Russia and other Eastern Bloc states, Belarus’ rulers didn’t pursue large scale free market reforms fearing it could destabilise their rule.


Lukashenko has gambled on playing off rival imperialisms, the US, Russia and the European Union (EU).


By staying within the Russian camp, his regime got huge subsidies to prop up the economy. But, for example, the failure to have mass privatisation also angered some Russian oligarchs hoping for new markets.


And more recently Lukashenko has courted investment from the West and China, both competitors of Russia, by backing some neoliberal policies.This shift has been strongly resisted by Russian president Vladimir Putin.


In a context of rising imperialist rivalry between the West and Russia, it’s no surprise that various Western leaders are posing as supporters of the fight for freedom in Belarus. They hope a new president would be firmly pro-Western and pro-market and so would weaken their competitor.


A genuine alternative to Lukashenko’s authoritarianism is not more free market capitalism, which has hammered working class people. It lies in the streets and workplaces with workers fighting for democracy, social justice and a society where they are in charge.


This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Reproduced with the author's permission.