Belarus: labour protest as part of political revolt

The popular revolt against the autocratic regime in Belarus and its thuggish security forces is now going into its fourth month. On Sunday, mass anti-government demonstrations were staged for the 13th week in a row – and more than 1000 people were arrested.

A first-class analysis of the relationship between the street demonstrations and the Belarusian workers’ movement was published last week in English, on the Rosa Luxemburg foundation site.

The article, by two researchers of labour movements, Volodymyr Artiukh and Denys Gorbach, compares the labour protests against the Belarussian regime, which they call “state capitalist”, with those in Ukraine, where private capital dominates.

In Belarus, the falsification of results in the presidential election in August first gave rise

Medical students demonstration in Vitebsk on 20 September. Polina Nitchenko is carrying the sign, which reads: “You can’t just wash away blood like that, I can tell you”. Photo: Ales Piletsky, TUT.By

to monster street demonstrations, and then to a wave of strikes, mass meetings and other workplace actions. (I published what information I could find here, here and here.)

This was not only “the most numerous, geographically diverse, and most sustained labour unrest” since 1991, Artiukh and Gorbach write, but also “the first large-scale labour protest to happen within the context of a broader political mobilisation”.

Three months on, the unrest has “gained a more individualised, sporadic and invisible form”, they argue. The workers’ acts of defiance “have been effective, but more on the symbolic level than in material terms”.

Workers “became an inspiration for the broader protesting masses” and were greeted on the streets with banners and chants – “a significant exception in the region, for in no other Eastern European country including Ukraine, have workers gained such symbolic prestige among society at large”.

Workers, Artiukh and Gorbach argue, derive their confidence from the streets, not from their workplaces where they suffer atomisation and strict management control.

Belarusian workers protest as citizens rather than workers. This is, however, an ambivalent process: the very experience of uniting and standing up to the bosses is vital for workers to overcome atomisation and gain organisational experience, but at the same time they have not yet learned to articulate politically their demands within a broader social agenda.

In fact work-related demands have been “only sporadically articulated”. Artiukh and Gorbach see a parallel with Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1980s: “political demands take precedence over bread-and-butter grievances”.

They discuss at length the post-Soviet history of “bureaucratic despotism in the workplace” that is now being challenged. Official unions act as an arm of state control; free and independent unions are small and weak.

In the near future, they expect that the opening-up of Belarus to Russian capital will impact workers.

On the one hand, it will increase the precariousness of workers’ living conditions: wages will not rise, enterprises will slowly be sold off to Russian capitalists, ‘optimised’ or closed. On the other hand, bureaucratic control over workplaces will also increase, while the state-affiliated trade unions will prove incapable of channelling workers’ discontent. This combination of workers’ newly gained politicisation and organisational experience, combined with a deteriorating economic situation, may spark new waves of labour unrest, perhaps more autonomous from larger political protests.

I hope readers will look at the whole article.

Now that Belarus has gone out of mainstream media headlines, it is hard to find insightful reports from the protest movement.

Judging by the Belarussian news site TUT.By, the focus of much anger this week are the Minsk police officers who on Sunday forced detainees to stand for several hours facing a wall in a police station courtyard.

Residents in flats overlooking the courtyard filmed the detainees in the afternoon, and again several hours later as night fell. The videos circulated on line, provoking outrage.

The police tactic of mass arrests and detention has led to a procession of court appearances against demonstrators. One that hit the news this week was Polina

Video, circulated on line, of detainees in a police station courtyard. They were forced to stand in this position for several hours

Nitchenko, who participated in a picket of the state medical university at Vitebsk singing protest songs. She was found guilty of participation in an unsanctioned demonstration and fined; she intends to appeal.

Medical staff and students played a prominent role in the early weeks of the movement by speaking out against the savage injuries inflicted by police thugs on demonstrators. And they have not gone quiet.

The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Natalya Kochanova, said last week that there would be “no dialogue on the streets” with protesting medical staff.

Nikita Solovei, a doctor and adviser to the Minsk health authorities, shot back in a facebook post that health workers had finished with being treated like “slaves” by officials. He denounced the “unlimited violence of the security forces against peaceful citizens”, the “imitation elections”, official “lying” about the coronavirus epidemic and repressive measures against medical staff and students alike.

As for there being no dialogue on the streets, he concluded, the dialogue “would be where the people of Belarus want it to be”.

The political strike at the Belaruskalii  potash fertiliser plant, which People & Nature reported in August, led to the detention of strike committee members.

Anatoly Bokun, the committee chairman, was released last month after 55 days’ imprisonment. Sergei Cherkasov, a strike committee member and vice president of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, was released last week along with Yuri Korzun and Pavel Puchenya: they all served 45 days. The union reported that they are all at home and in good spirits.

The federation is hoping to expand its international contacts: if you are in a union, please get in touch. Another support network, Bysol, set up by Belarusians working outside the country, conveys financial support to victims of repression. GL, 12 November 2020.

Belaruskalii strike committee members Yuri Korzun, Sergei Cherkasov and Pavel Puchenya after their release. Photo: BITU

 

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