On Sunday August 9, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in office, capturing 80 percent of the vote, in a disputed election against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who has since fled to Lithuania.
Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has been accused of falsifying election results numerous times, with evidence emerging that this most recent election has continued the trend.
Anti-government protests quickly broke out, with the masses taking the streets in unprecedented demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime. Since Thursday, the labor movement in Belarus, which has strict laws restricting its activity, has also been an active part of the popular uprising with strikes and actions from transit workers, autoworkers, oil refinery workers, and workers in both state-run and private enterprises.
The power of workers:
In Belarus, where the presidential election was stolen & thousands beaten & detained, workers at a state-owned factory that produces hauling equipment are on strike, demanding Pres Lukashenka leave office.
Strikes spreading to other state-owned enterprises pic.twitter.com/Eqlougs2II
— Nina Jankowicz (@wiczipedia) August 13, 2020
The government’s response to these protests has been nothing short of brutal. In recent days, most of the world has been shocked by the terrifying police brutality that is taking place in the streets of Belarus. Slowly but surely, even the most pro-Lukashenko elements of society are turning against him. Meanwhile, the police in Belarus have truly lived up to the name: the oppressive hand of the state, terrorizing ordinary people with tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets, sometimes arbitrarily. While Belarus is known to be an authoritarian state, this is the first time in its history that security forces have employed such brutal tactics on such a large scale.
Protesters released from Lukashenko’s jails publish pictures of their injuries. Absolutely shocking — and they will change things. pic.twitter.com/zFzR0WA5hR
— Oliver Carroll (@olliecarroll) August 13, 2020
Currently, Belarus is in the midst of a social and economic crisis. To understand the reasons behind this, we have to split events into two parts, before the coronavirus pandemic and after it.
Though Lukashenko’s legitimacy has come into question, Lukashenko was considered, by post-Soviet standards, a decent or even good president. Unlike other post-Soviet states, much of the Belarusian economy remained under state-control. Thus, in exchange for democratic freedoms, Belarusians had a certain level of social security and a guarantee of employment unlike many of the other states of the former USSR.
This all changed however, after the 2008 financial crisis which led to a delayed capitulation to neoliberal policies. The current crisis triggered by coronavirus only deepened the growing problems. Lukashenko, trying to avoid mass panic or an economic crisis, downplayed the virus as a mass psychosis and much like some other ‘leaders’ promoted pseudo-cures such as vodka and bathing. However, the coronavirus doesn’t care about words or declarations, and it doesn’t even care what Mr Lukashenko thinks. If precautions are not taken the virus will spread, and the same happened in Belarus where infections skyrocketed, yet Lukashenko still refused to act. Simultaneously, despite not carrying out lockdown measures, the economy and working conditions deteriorated at a much faster speed. While firms have benefited from “support measures” from the state, workers have lost part of their wages as a result of imposed part-times and some have even lost their jobs altogether.
In this atmosphere, several otherwise peripheral liberal and populist opposition movements pounced on popular dissatisfaction. The main candidate was Viktor Babarika, a prominent banker who many Belarusians considered a possible bridge between both Europe and Russia due to his links to the Russian-Belarusian joint venture Belgazprombank. There was also Valery Tsepkalo, ex-ambassador to the United States. Another candidate was Syerhei Tihanovskiy, a popular blogger who ran a massive campaign across the country. Under pressure from the ruling class, Lukashenko barred all three of them from running, even jailing Babarika and Tihanovskiy. Tihanovskiy’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ran in his place as the main opposition candidate in last week’s election. A former English teacher and then a stay-at-home mother, during her campaign she demanded the release of political prisoners and the organization of fair elections, and ran a populist campaign to unite the working class with entrepreneurs and middle-class professionals under the slogan “We are the 97%”.
For Russia, the crisis emerging in Belarus is an opportunity to halt Lukashenko’s attempts at rapprochement, and to contain the risk of losing influence over a country with which it shares borders. Despite Putin’s strategic interest in Belarus, the protests have not expressed a strong anti-Russian sentiment thus far. Meanwhile, the EU, led by Germany, has recently greenlit sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Without a doubt, these protests and the strikes led by the working class have put a spotlight on the level of discontent toward the Lukashenko regime. While many have compared the current protests to Maidan or the other neo-liberal color revolutions and while there are similarities the protests in Belarus are still different. Unlike the other color revolutions which were obviously guided by the policies of Western powers and had a clear ideology- that being neoliberal economic reforms coupled with ultra-nationalism — the Belarusian protest, could resist the co-optation of pro-imperialist bourgeois influence. However, this most certainly does not mean supporting Lukashenko, who himself has had a hand in destroying any real socialist, working class movement from emerging in Belarus. Instead, the working class should rise up to confront both the Lukashenko regime, the capitalist class, and imperialist influence whether they be Russian or Western. By realizing its power, the working class in Belarus can build its own political organizations and set an example for the oppressed and exploited classes around the world.