Belarusian ruler Aleksander Lukashenko is trying to wear down the opposition movement through arrests, sackings and intimidation.
But the democracy movement remains determined. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the eastern European country last weekend.
It marked the third weekend of protest in the wake of a rigged presidential election.
Leader for 26 years, Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote against 10 percent for liberal challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
More than 100,000 people came out in the capital Minsk on Sunday in the face of Lukashenko’s threat to crack down on protesters.
Lines of riot cops and security barriers blocked off parts of central Minsk. They were backed up by riot vans disguised as ambulances, water cannons, buses of soldiers and armoured personnel carriers.
The state tried to discourage people from taking part with “preventative arrests” the day before.
Riot cops didn’t go on the rampage as they had done in the direct aftermath of the election. Horror at their violence had boosted numbers supporting the opposition. But police tried to snatch individuals and detained at least 125 protesters in the first two hours of the rally.
An exuberant mood prevailed on the streets. To mark Lukashenko’s 66th official birthday on Sunday chants of, “Tribunal”, and, “resign” rang out near the presidential palace.
And in Freedom Square an orchestra played Changes, which had been taken up as a protest song during the dying days of Stalinist Russia.
The previous day several thousand people joined a March of Women in Minsk, chanting, “This is our city.”
Lukashenko hopes to ride out the crisis through repression.
At the start of this week he had stalled a strike wave that was previously taking place at more than 70 state-owned companies across the country. His thugs arrested leading figures of the strike committees for taking part in “unauthorised gatherings”.
Miners’ leader at the Belaruskali company, Dmitry Kudelevich, said the KGB secret police “dragged me out of my car, handcuffed me, put me in a van”.
He escaped by climbing out of a window at a lavatory in the local KGB offices.
Strikes at the Belaruskali potash ore mines sent fear through the regime. It is one of the regime’s most important exporters, controlling around 20 percent of world potash production.
Stoppages slashed production by up to 40 percent.
The authorities arrested MTZ tractor factory strike committee chair Sergey Dylevsky and MTAZ vehicle factory strike committee member Anatoly Lavrinovich.
They also detained Liza Merliak, the international secretary of the independent trade union, on Sunday. Merliak had been part of organising stoppages at the Grodno Azot chemicals complex, another important company for the regime.
Outrage forced her release, but she will still face trial.
Some workers are still refusing to go back to work. Others are undertaking passive resistance to slow down output—while organising for future stoppages.
One Grodno Azot worker said, “We know that we have to stop working so they lose government revenue because they use this money to buy sticks to beat us with.
“We also know that we cannot stop now.”
More unofficial walkouts—but on a much bigger and sustained scale—have the power to break the Lukashenko regime.
Care for capital drives Lukashenko’s policies
Both the West and Russia want to push neoliberal policies in Belarus.
Lukashenko didn’t pursue free market policies after the collapse of Stalinist Russia and the Eastern Bloc in 1989.
These regimes claimed to be “socialist” but they were state capitalist. The ruling class—the state bureaucracy—exploited workers to compete with international rivals.
Lukashenko retained a lot of the state capitalism infrastructure, unlike Russia and other former Eastern Bloc states. He feared the free market could destabilise his rule, and staving off mass unemployment helped him build a popular base.
But his concern was the stability of Belarusian capitalism, not ordinary people.
From the 2000s Lukashenko began some free market reforms, such as wage restraint, and changes to contracts. This culminated in the “parasite tax”—a sort of workfare—that triggered protests in 2017.
The reforms were part of Lukashenko’s balancing act between rival imperialisms the US, European Union and Russia. He hoped market reforms would attract Western investment, reducing dependence on Russia.
But Russian capital also wants to get its hands on state‑owned companies in Belarus.
And if the Russian state helps Lukashenko survive, its oligarchs will demand policies that allow them to loot state assets.