The revolt against Belarusian ruler Aleksander Lukashenko is at a critical stage after opposition leaders’ call for a general strike failed to break the stalemate.
Around 100,000 people took to the streets of the eastern European country’s capital Minsk last Sunday. It came one day ahead of an ultimatum for Lukashenko to resign after the 12th week of mass protests in the wake of the rigged election in August.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya had threatened that “all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked” on Monday if he didn’t go.
The following day thousands of people bravely faced down escalating police violence and intimidation.
Students are now at the forefront of the struggle with walkouts and protests at universities in Minsk. And workers did protest at some companies, including the Minsk Tractor Factory, the Belaruskali fertiliser mines and the Grodno Azot chemicals complex.
But workers’ resistance has failed to take off at dozens of state-owned companies in the same way it did in August. Where workers did take action, reports suggest it was patchy, unsustained and had no significant impact on production.
The weaker action follows weeks of state repression targeting workers’ organisation after the walkouts in August. Some strike committee leaders remain in jail, others have been forced to flee the country.
The repression continued on Monday. At Grodno Azot, police stepped in on Monday and arrested around 100 workers who wanted to strike.
Many businesses closed and some of their workers took a holiday in solidarity with protesters. But there is a vast difference between a workers’ collective action to shut down profits and small businesses not opening for the day.
There are some signs of workers still trying to fight back collectively—and of the potential power they have.
Photographs sent out by the Belaruskali strike committee broadcast list show several workshops at VI Kozlov electro engineering works in Minsk at a standstill. One statement says, “Two workshops, the 16th and the 6th, are on strike.
“Stopping work on them means stopping the work of the entire plant—3,000 people.
“The electro engineering company receives its main profits from the sale of transformers. The transformer is designed like this—a tank case, into which a core is placed, no tanks—no transformer.
“The tanks are produced in the 16th workshop by 40 to 50 highly qualified workers who joined the strike. A similar number of key workers, 30-40, work in the 6th workshop where the situation is similar.”
The message explains that around 30 to 40 percent of workers remain in the shops while the rest “took sick leave or the day off at their own expense”. Workers “who stayed do the minimum possible” in the face of bosses’ threats of bringing in parts from Turkey and action against ringleaders.
This situation means bosses could be in trouble because “the work of the entire plant depends on how many products the 16th and 6th” workshops can churn out. But “the pressure on these workers is also the greatest” and they will need action to spread.
For now, the stalemate between Lukashenko and the opposition remains. Tichanovskaya and the liberal opposition are courting European leaders while Lukashenko hopes to ride out the protests with Russian backing.
But neither the West nor Russia are on the side of Belarusian workers, democracy or social justice.
Western leaders, who hypocritically pose as defenders of freedom in Belarus, were willing to work with the Lukashenko regime only a few months ago.
French president Emmanuel Macron denounces Belarusian state violence when he relied on brutal police violence against the Yellow Vest movement.
The neoliberal European Union backed the Spanish state when it sent paramilitary thugs to destroy ballot boxes during the Catalan independence referendum.
Meanwhile, Putin’s patience is wearing thin with his unreliable ally Lukashenko.
If the Lukashenko regime survives with Putin’s help, he will demand a restructuring of Belarusian capitalism in the interests of Russian imperialism. Russian bosses have wanted to get their hands on Belarusian state-owned assets through mass privatisation for years.
A return to mass strikes has the power to break the Lukashenko regime—and to fight for an alternative to Western and Russian interests.