Eastern Europe, International

Belarusians stare down dictatorship for a second week

Clare Lemlich, Marx21 member and summer cultural studies tour guide in Belarus, reports on the pro-democracy movement in the streets, where ordinary Belarusians are rising up to demand the fall of their decades-long dictatorship.

Belarusians are now entering their second week of daily mass protests against the 26-year dictatorship of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The scale of resistance is unprecedented in contemporary Belarusian history. Thousands have been detained, at least two people have been killed, and the protests show no signs of slowing down. 

Election fraud

The protests were sparked by widespread election fraud leading up to the August 9 presidential elections. Lukashenka claims to have democratically won 80% of the vote, a statistical impossibility which is hotly contested on the streets. Opposition polls earlier this year revealed that Lukashenka had just a 3% approval rating. 

Lukashenka’s main electoral rival is former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose popular blogger husband originally planned to run in the election but was arrested before he could get on the ballot. With backing from other exiled and detained opposition candidates, Tsikhanouskaya ran as a liberal candidate against the dictatorship and against closer ties with Russia, which has propped up Lukashenka’s regime for many years. Now in exile in neighboring Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya has insisted throughout the campaign that she is not interested in governing Belarus, but is instead using her campaign to call for new free and fair elections in the next six months.

Prelude to the rebellion

Undemocratic elections are nothing new for Belarusians, where opposition movements and leaders are heavily repressed. But the balance of forces has shifted.

Ordinarily Lukashenka could rely on support from neighboring Russia to help put down a rebellion from below. He has appealed vaguely for Russian assistance, but the close relationship between Lukashenka and Putin has soured recently — in fact Lukashenka tried to blame Russian mercenaries for election disruptions two weeks ago. 

Last year Belarus entered new diplomatic talks with Russia, with aims to deepen economic and political integration between the two countries. The talks stalled, with Lukashenka unwilling to meet Putin’s demands, including folding Belarus into a province of greater Russia. Belarus is strategically important to Russia, since it is one of the last former Soviet countries to remain in Russia’s sphere of geopolitical influence and works as a buffer zone between Russia and the West.

The pandemic has also spurred the rebellion. Lukashenka claimed the virus was not a serious threat and encouraged Belarusians to drink vodka and visit the sauna. Instead of imposing restrictions to curb infections, he went ahead with the annual May 9 marches that commemorate the surrender of the Nazis during the Second World War. 

From marches to workplace actions

Despite police violence including stun grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons — as well as grizzly reports of beatings, torture, and sexual violence inside detention — Belarusians report a celebratory mood at the marches and demonstrations. Although there is support for Tsikhanouskaya on the streets, the protests represent more than just anger at rigged elections or support for any single opposition candidate.

Teachers, museum workers, doctors, airline workers, musicians, trolleybus drivers, tech workers, miners, and factory workers have joined the demonstrations in Minsk. Belarusians have self-organized food, medical care, and counseling for people recently released from detention.

Due to the way the Belarusian post-Soviet economy is organized, nearly half of the economy is still in state hands. This is in contrast to the crash privatizations most other former Soviet states went through in the 1990s. This means that strike action in state-run industries not only has economic ramifications, but also brings these workplaces into direct political conflict with the Belarusian state. 

Labor researcher in the region Volodymyr Artiukh reports in Left East that there is little central coordination in the movement yet. The traditional opposition leaders are not playing a leadership role and new organizations capable of leading and coordinating the rebellion are small and dispersed.

In addition to the mass marches in all major cities and several small towns, workers have begun organizing protests, walk-outs, and even sporadic work stoppages. The strikes are nascent and yet to be generalized across workplaces and industries. But it is important to understand that most labor unions in Belarus are state-controlled and independent labor activity is extremely difficult to organize. The level of class participation — not only as Belarusian citizens, but as working people — in this context is impressive.

The regime has dismissed the protests as small and instigated by foreign provocateurs, but their mass, popular character is undeniable. On August 16 there were up to a quarter of a million protestors in the capital Minsk, this time with hardly any police presence.

It is unlikely Lukashenka can rule in the old way anymore. Huge questions remain regarding what kind of political and economic system could replace the current regime. Although opposition leaders have helped galvanize the rebellion, they are generally pro-Western candidates who would likely carry out neoliberal reforms in Belarus if they take power, as we saw in most post-Soviet states during the 1990s. Although a break with Lukashenka’s authoritarianism would be a crucial victory, true power and the possibility for liberation lie in the workplace actions and self-organization of ordinary Belarusians.

Clare Lemlich