The revolt in Belarus is at a crossroads after more than two months of mass protests and strikes against president Aleksander Lukashenko.
The regime authorised the use of live bullets against protesters on Monday. The following day opposition leaders issued an ultimatum for the eastern European ruler of 26 years to resign by 25 October.
Deputy interior minister and criminal police chief, Colonel Gennady Kazakevich, branded protesters as “radicals, anarchists and football fans”.
“Law enforcement officers and internal troops will not leave the streets and will use riot control equipment and lethal weapons if need be,” he said.
On Sunday police arrested more than 700 people and brutally beat up many, resulting in over a dozen hospitalisations.
The following day 14,000 people joined a spontaneous pensioners’ march in Minsk—which was also attacked by the police.
Meanwhile, liberal opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya issued a “people’s ultimatum” calling for Lukashenko’s resignation, an end to police repression and the release of political prisoners.
She threatened “all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked, state-owned stores will no longer have any sales” on 26 October.
Tichanovskaya called on figures in the police, military and state apparatuses to “declare publicly that you no longer support the regime”. “Everyone who has not yet made the decision to switch to the side of the people is an accessory to terror,” she said.
Increased mobilisation is what’s needed. But, underlining the tensions inside the anti-Lukashenko movement, Tichanovskaya has been courting pro-market European leaders.
There will be a battle over the way forward between workers raising social demands and the liberals.
The Belarusian democracy movement erupted after Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote over 10 percent for Tichanovskaya.
More than 100,000 people have joined marches through the capital Minsk—and towns and cities across the country—for the last ten Sundays in a row. The regime backed off from the mass police violence it used in the first days following the fraudulent result, because it broadened the opposition.
It also helped ignite a wave of strikes at dozens of state-owned enterprises that shook the Lukashenko regime to the core. But the walkouts subsided after mid-August. Instead workers turned to passive resistance inside the factories, including overtime bans and some instances of sit-ins and sabotage.
The result was a stalemate. The regime used the time to beg Russia for financial support and pick off opposition and strike leaders through arrests and sackings. But it’s not all going Lukashenko’s way.
He is increasingly relying on force to maintain his rule. The budget for 2021 includes a 31 percent increase for the military and 12 percent increases for the police and judiciary alongside steep cuts elsewhere.
Lukashenko hollowed out his social base through a series of free market reforms and mishandling of coronavirus.
This means the regime is more brutal—but also more brittle and could be broken by a return of mass strikes.
Airport workers offer solidarity
German workers could refuse to repair Aleksander Lukashenko’s presidential plane at Hamburg airport.
A statement from the Lufthansa Technik workers’ union said, “It is Lukashenko's aircraft, who at the same time is shooting at demonstrators in Belarus.
“Even while we are stuck in lengthy negotiations due to the economic crisis, we do not forget our long tradition of international solidarity and stand side by side with the Belarusian workers.
“Almost 31 years ago we had a very similar situation, Romania's head of state, Nicolae Ceaușescu, put down protests by workers while we were supposed to repair his aircraft.
“Together we put down our tools to protest against what was happening. Then and now we expect the management to reject any sanctions should colleagues refuse to work on the aircraft in question.”
Western leaders are posing as supporters of the fight for freedom in Belarus. But these same states were willing to court Lukashenko when it suited their business interests in the last decade.
Supporting the Belarusian revolt requires working class solidarity like in Hamburg, not lining up behind our own hypocritical rulers.