When Aleksander Lukashenko rigged the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020, he expected things to follow a well-practiced pattern.1 After previous elections during his 26 year rule, the Eastern European country’s liberal nationalist opposition would cry fraud at the results. Some ordinary people would take to the streets or protest in other ways. A round of arrests and police intimidation would quell the resistance until the next presidential election came along in five years time. This time round Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote, with just over 10 percent going to his liberal challenger, Svetlana Tichanovskaya. Tichanovskaya had played down talk of revolution during the election campaign, and she showed no sign of wanting to lead an opposition to oust Lukashenko in the aftermath of the fraudulent result. She fled to neighbouring Lithuania and, when people did take to the streets, made an appeal for people to “be reasonable and respect the law” and “not to resist the police, not to go to the square”.2
This all changed, decisively, on the two nights of state-orchestrated violence that followed the official results on 9 August. Revulsion at police beatings, detention and torture spurred mass protests and, crucially, a wave of workers’ action at dozens of state-owned companies in August.
The fallout from the rigged election has led to the most prolonged and bitter stand-off between Lukashenko and an opposition movement in the history of his regime. Since 16 August, tens of thousands of people have turned Minsk into a sea of red and white, the colours of the opposition’s flag, in a weekly Sunday demonstration. Thousands more have taken to the streets of towns and cities across the country, including industrial centres and rural areas that were previously supportive of the Lukashenko regime. Numbering between 100,000 and 300,000 in Minsk, these demonstrations were truly phenomenal—a huge social fact in a country of around 9.5 million. In October Lukashenko turned up for “talks” with opposition leaders being held at a KGB prison, signalling both the impact of the movement on him and his unwillingness to consider genuine negotiations.3
A sense of determination—and hope—ran through Belarusian society in the aftermath of the result. In an interview in August, a supporter of the independent trade unions who had been on the streets of Minsk described an “excited” atmosphere during the protests and strikes with people “shouting for freedom and rights”. During one protest “around the city people were just singing songs, and the philharmonic theatre had organised some concerts on the streets”. “We have not been free for 26 years and the feeling now is, ‘it’s time’,” the worker continued, “we will win this battle and we will crush Lukashenko”.4
However, the revolt reached a critical stage in October when a “people’s ultimatum” failed to break the stalemate between Lukashenko and the opposition. Tichanovskaya threatened that “all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked and state-owned stores will no longer have any sales” unless the president stepped down by Sunday 25 October.5 On the final day before this ultimatum expired, around 100,000 people took to the streets of Minsk once again and faced down increasing police violence. Some videos on social media showed police pre-emptively raiding flats and arresting people.6 The following day, Monday, thousands of people protested. Students came to the forefront of the struggle with walkouts and protests at universities in Minsk. Significantly, workers did protest at some companies, including the Minsk Tractor Factory, the Belaruskali fertiliser mines and the Grodno Azot chemicals complex, which were at the heart of the strikes in August.7 However, workers’ resistance failed to take off at dozens of state-owned companies in the same way as in August. Where workers did take action, reports suggest it was patchy, unsustained and did not significantly impact production.8
The Belarusian movement hung in the balance as this journal went to press. Nevertheless, it has already thrown up important debates for a world witnessing a global wave of revolt. What makes ordinary people rise up? What is the power of the working class in these explosions? Can workers win their own social demands? These questions are central to the rebellion in Belarus, but they are also important for all of those fighting to change the world.
Yet the revolt in Belarus also has a very specific importance for socialists. Upheavals in countries that were once part of the officially “socialist” Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc inevitably raise a fundamental question: “what is socialism?” In 1989 revolutions tore down those Stalinist regimes, which stood exposed as brutal state capitalist dictatorships rather than workers’ states. However, the legacy of Stalinism casts a long shadow in Eastern Europe and over sections of the Western left, which have taken an ambiguous and sometimes hostile attitude towards the movement in Belarus. The left’s old illusions in the Stalinist system, as socialist or at least more progressive than Western capitalism, are easy to cling onto with Belarus. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Lukashenko regime retained much of the old Communist imagery and a high degree of state ownership and control of the economy.9 Although no one would claim Russia under Vladimir Putin is socialist, many still see its influence in the region as a bulwark against the United States and NATO. This leads some to argue that the overthrow of Lukashenko would be a victory for US imperialism and inevitably lead to free market shock therapy.
During the Cold War, much of the Western left fell in line behind Stalinist Russia. In contrast, the International Socialists (IS), forerunner’s of the Socialist Workers Party, stood under the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”. IS argued for a socialism from below based on workers’ self-emancipation rather than increased state control. It unequivocally stood with workers’ and students’ struggles in the Eastern Bloc and advocated revolution on both sides of the iron curtain. Today, those politics are still vital to understanding the Belarusian revolt and supporting its workers’ movement.
The streets and the workplaces
Fury erupted on the day of the presidential election, 9 August, after an exit poll gave Lukashenko an overwhelming victory. Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk and other cities in spontaneous protests encouraged by opposition news channels on the Telegram app. Riot police from the Special Purpose Police Detachment (OMON), backed up by paramilitary units from the KGB, unleashed a wave of repression. In the days that followed, state forces used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon, stormed blocks of flats and hunted down protesters. They murdered three people, put 200 in hospital and detained up to 7,000 across the country.10 At one protest in Brest, a city in western Belarus, an ambulance arrived and people carried the badly injured towards it, only for riot police to jump out from it and beat up protesters.11 The following morning queues lined up outside prisons, with people demanding to know what had happened to friends and relatives while others milled around the streets. Rather than deterring people, the state’s violent reaction brought in new layers of people who would not have previously opposed the regime or been involved in politics at all.
Three opposition Telegram channels—Nexta Live, Belamova and MK Belarus—had put out a call for a general strike from noon on Tuesday 11 August. There were plenty of reasons to be sceptical as to whether a “general strike” would involve workers’ collective action. Often in movements against authoritarianism and corruption, a “strike” involves businesses closing for the day in support of protests or workers joining in as individuals. For instance, during the Euromaidan protests in neighbouring Ukraine in 2014, opposition figures made calls for a “general strike” but organised labour played no role.12 In Slovakia’s movement in 2018, which brought down a social-democratic prime minister after a mafia corruption scandal and the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak, some protesters described themselves as “strikers”. Again though, this did not involve organised workers.
In Belarus the workers’ movement has been severely repressed under the Lukashenko regime. The last strike had been on the Minsk metro network in 1995. There is the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB), which was the successor of the state-run unions from Stalinist Russia. However, this is not a real trade union—a workers’ organisation that fights for better conditions—but rather an appendage to the regime. Indeed, FPB president Mikhail Orda was Lukashenko’s campaign chief during the presidential election. The independent unions, organised through the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), came out of the strikes that precipitated the fall of Stalinism in Belarus in 1991. Although the BKDP is legal, trade unionists face “considerable harassment and intimidation” and regular spells in and out of jail.13
Despite these weaknesses, the call for a general strike in Belarus turned out to be different to those made in countries such as Ukraine.14 On the Tuesday after the election, 11 August, workers at the VI Kozlov electrical engineering factory in Minsk put their demands to management. These included to “immediately end violence against unarmed civilians”, the “release of people detained during the peaceful demonstrations” and to “turn on the internet”. Some passers-by gathered to support the Kozlov workers.15 Two sections at the Grodno Azot petrochemicals complex, which is one of the regime’s largest firms, also struck. Workers at the Minsk Margarine Works food company walked out, with passing cars beeping their horns in support. Staff at the Institute of Chemistry of New Materials at the National Academy of Sciences, a sort of state-run think-tank, also protested as part of the general strike call. Trolleybus drivers on one of Minsk’s fleets refused to work after they found out a driver had been injured during protests. There were also reports that workers downed tools after an “uneasy” atmosphere at the RUE Belenergosetprojekt scientific research facility in the capital. Outside Minsk, Belshina tyre factory workers in the industrial city of Babrusyk walked out to demand free elections. A statement from one worker read: “We, the workers of Belshina, are in solidarity with the people of Belarus. We have declared a strike.” The Zabinka sugar refinery in Brest gathered and demanded a meeting with the chairman of the district executive committee, a local appointee of the regime.16
Many of the workers’ actions did not resemble a traditional strike—a vote for action, a walkout and a picket line outside the factory.17 Often workers would gather in the morning or at lunchtime, then put demands to management that centred around free elections, police violence and the release of prisoners. There are crucial differences between workers holding a mass meeting and then returning to work, and a strike that aims to shut down production. However, we should not be dismissive of action that falls short of a full walkout. The workers’ action was important in forcing the regime to back off from widespread police violence against protesters. Moreover, when workers fight back, they begin to change their ideas about both society and themselves as they taste their potential power. Slogans at the Belaruskali mine included, “We’re Not Serfs—We’re Workers!”18 In one small sign of the regime’s loss of legitimacy, a group of workers at the Minsk tractor factory took a stand during the first day of workers’ action. Initially, the group was tiny. Out of a workforce of some 14,000, around 70 engineers and technicians from several departments walked out and rallied outside the main building. Yet when the Deputy Director for Ideological Affairs, a regime stooge at the company, came out at lunchtime and tried to frighten them back into work, they refused to listen. “No one believes ideologues anymore,” blasted the opposition Telegram channel Nexta Live.19 The strike at the factory would grow, with some strike leaders saying 4,000 workers took part at its height.20
On the Sunday 16 August, unprecedented crowds numbering between 100,000 and 300,000 took to the streets of Minsk. The following morning the city was already a throng of protesters and striking workers. In an attempt to assert his authority, Lukashenko prepared for a “meeting with the people” outside the MZKT heavy goods vehicle factory. He tried to strike a defiant tone, telling workers, “We held elections, and as long as you don’t kill me, there won’t be any other elections.” Workers chanted, “Go away!” A visibly shaken Lukashenko persevered but concluded by saying, “Thank you. I said everything. You may now chant, ‘Resign’”.21 His authority melted away in scenes reminiscent of the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.22 Throughout that day workers’ action spread through Minsk and other industrial centres across Belarus.23 In the capital workers marched from one company to another to show solidarity, including the Kozlov plant, the MZKT factory, the MAZ car plant and the MTZ tractor works. Media workers at the state’s STV and ONT news channels and BT radio station stopped work, and a huge rally took place outside the ONT building on Communist Street. Around 130 workers at the Belenergosetprojekt scientific research company downed tools and went to the rally. Outside the capital, there were stoppages at the Belaruskali potash mines and the Navapolatsk refinery, while workers marched through the BelAz industrial vehicle company’s departments to get people behind the protests. Elsewhere, video from the BMZ steel works in Zlobin, south eastern Belarus, showed workers rallying outside the factory.24
Emboldened by the protests and strike wave, Tichanovasksya assumed the leadership of the movement. She quickly issued a fresh statement that reneged on her earlier exhortations for people to avoid a confrontation with Lukashenko:
I am ready to take on the responsibility and serve in this period as a national leader so that the country calms down, returns to a normal rhythm, so that we free all political prisoners in the shortest possible period and prepare for new presidential elections.25
She and other opposition leaders began to look to the strikes as a powerful weapon. They encouraged strikers to set up local and national committees and to join the Coordinating Council of Belarus (CCB), the body they set up to manage the transition to democratic rule.
However, the political punch of the strikes and fears about their economic impact drove the Lukashenko regime to move against nascent forms of worker organisation.26 This was apparent at the Belaruskali potash mines, where strikes had disrupted production at one of the regime’s most profitable exporters. Authorities arrested Siarhei Charkasau, co-chair of the strike committee at the Belaruskali mines and vice president of BKDP-affiliated Belarus Independent Union, as well as workers Raman Liavonchyk and Pavel Razumovskiy. In Minsk, authorities arrested MTZ strike committee chair Sergey Dylevsky—who has now been forced to flee the country—and MTAZ strike committee member Anatoly Lavrinovich. They also detained Liza Merliak, the international secretary of the independent trade union that has been part of organising stoppages at the Grodno Azot chemicals complex. Although anger remained on the shop floor, the campaign of arrests and intimidation had successfully stalled the strike wave. In some enterprises workers turned to “go slows”, with action varying from working as slowly as possible to sabotage.
The Belarusian revolt has seen impressive self-organisation and women have taken to the fore. At the top, three women have headed the opposition movement. When Lukashenko disqualified Sergei Tichanovsky from standing in the presidential election, Tichanovskaya stepped in. Maria Kalesnikova and Veronika Tsepkala, from two other disqualified electoral campaigns, united behind her. Lukashenko dismissed Tichanovskaya’s bid in July, saying, “Society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.” The burden of the presidency, he continued, would cause her to “collapse, poor thing”.27 He was in for a rude shock as the movement took off.
Tens of thousands of women have taken to the streets in the Sunday protests and a series of Women’s Marches, facing down the police. A lot of mainstream coverage of women’s role in the movement has simply played to gender stereotypes and reinforced patronising sexist views. Al Jazeera, for example, talked about Tichanovskaya’s “transformation from a frightened housewife”. Their coverage largely misses how struggles can become festivals of the oppressed, as ideas about the way society should be run are challenged. One woman protester told Reuters:
This movement of women has been such a shock and a surprise, and all of us women are now asking where everyone has been all this time. Now this is not just about politics. If is about family life, it is about relationships with husbands. We have a very patriarchal society, but when the revolution is over that will have to change.28
Belarus and global revolt
Belarus has to be seen in the context of a global wave of revolt that was taking place before the Covid-19 pandemic.29 Each country that has experienced an uprising is unique. Yet there are also common drivers such as urbanisation and the growth of the working class, the impact of three decades of neoliberalism, high unemployment and anger against unrepresentative elites. Although the onset of the coronavirus pandemic dampened this international wave of protest, the ruling classes’ handling of the pandemic, including in Belarus, has fuelled people’s anger. The Financial Times remarked:
Long live the Belarusian revolution! But what is happening there is just part of a global protest trend, only briefly interrupted by Covid-19. The past year has seen almost unprecedentedly large protests from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Minneapolis. We are reliving 1968, but bigger: an almost invariably peaceful street is replacing parliament as the main arena of opposition. The trend encompasses rich countries and poor ones, democracies and dictatorships.30
In the former Stalinist bloc the failures flowing from the transition from state capitalism to free market capitalism have spurred unrest. To understand the revolt in this context, we need to do three things. Firstly, we need to look at Lukashenko’s rise to power after the collapse of the Stalinist bloc; secondly, examine Belarusian capitalist development after 1991; and, thirdly, analyse the development of a new opposition after 2017.
The Soviet Union—state capitalism, stagnation and collapse
Lukashenko came to power in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc in 1989-91. The Soviet Union claimed to be a “socialist state”. Its constitution said that “all power belongs to the working people” and was exercised through their democratic organisations, the workers’ councils of soviets that had taken power during the Russian Revolution of 1917.31 In reality, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were state capitalist societies where workers had no control.32
The Russian Revolution was a genuine socialist revolution in which the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, had taken power and briefly ran society. However, by the 1920s, the revolution was transforming itself into a counter-revolution. To survive in backward Russia, the new workers’ state needed revolution to spread to advanced capitalist states in Europe. Unfortunately, workers’ revolution, most crucially in Germany, failed to break through. Russia was engulfed by a brutal civil war as 14 imperialist armies invaded to support the Whites, who fought for a return of the old order. Although the Red Army won the civil war, the working class was decimated. As workers who had made the revolution died on the front line and production collapsed to below pre-war levels, the soviets—the basis of workers’ power and socialism—were hollowed out.33
However, the Bolshevik party, which had given leadership to the revolution, remained in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy.34 Initially, it balanced between different class forces in Russia, as it tried to defend the gains of the revolution and stave off societal collapse. However, by the late 1920s the bureaucracy—with Stalin at its helm—developed into a new ruling class with its own set of class interests. This ruling class, the state bureaucracy, behaved in similar ways to bosses in capitalist countries. Under capitalism, bosses exploit workers to get their hands on profit, but this process is not driven forward by greed but rather by competition. Competition is a coercive force on individual capitalists that forces them to reinvest profits into the latest technology and the most efficient methods of production to get ahead of their rivals. This leads to a system, as Marx put it, of “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake”.35
The interaction of capitals through competition enforces what Marx called the operation of the “law of value”. This affects the organisation of production, the division of labour, the allocation of resources and so on. If the Soviet Union is viewed in isolation, the law of value could not apply to its economy, since the division of labour and investment were directed by the state’s Five Year Plans.36 Yet when viewed in relation to the global imperialist system, the law of value did in fact act upon the Soviet economy, because the Soviet Union was locked into international military and economic competition with capitalist states.37 Stalin argued in 1931: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or we will go under”.38
As state capitalist societies, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were marked by capitalist crisis and class struggle just as much as the West. The Soviet economy saw impressive growth rates after the Second World War. Yet beneath the surface, there were profound economic problems underlined by a lack of dynamism compared to Western capitalism. Internal growth could not overcome international pressure for more capital accumulation. Moreover, the Soviet Union’s backward position meant the pressure of the Cold War arms race placed a particularly heavy burden on the economy, subordinating other investment decisions and development. The Soviet Union continually came up against the limits of capital accumulation set by its national economy.
The Soviet economy was supposedly smoothly organised through the Five Year Plans rather than the chaos of the free market, with its waste and inefficiency. In reality though there were fits and starts between and during each plan. Huge industrial projects were “frozen”. Investment was suddenly redirected from one sector to another, causing anarchy in production and imbalances between different branches of the economy. This mayhem and waste wasn’t rooted in planning or corruption—it flowed from the drive to accumulate. The state would step in to “cool down” the national economy in order to stave off a crisis of overaccumulation, but that simply exacerbated turmoil and inefficiency.
By the 1970s, Soviet state capitalism was in the throes of profound stagnation. The Stalinist regimes faced a dilemma. State capitalist economies such as Poland, East Germany and Hungary had begun to integrate into world capitalism in order to overcome the limits to accumulation set by their national economies. This strategy was an alternative to autarky and further stagnation, but it also made these economies more vulnerable to global shocks and downturns.
The Soviet Union’s growing reliance on oil exports meant that a drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s sent shockwaves through its economy. This coincided with US president Ronald Reagan’s new arms race. Between 1981 and 1985 there was “practically no economic growth” as “production of 40 percent of all industrial goods actually fell”.39 In recognition of the scale of the crisis, Michael Gorbachev was chosen as the new Communist Party boss. From 1985 he brought in a series of reforms known as Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reconstruction). Nonetheless, the crisis was so bad it could no longer be solved by reform. When these measures proved insufficient to nurse the system back to health, it provoked further splits and opened the door to a wave of workers’ struggles in the late 1980s.
In Belarus, then part of the former Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy was particularly conservative and resisted the reforms. However, it was shaken in April 1991 when a powerful movement exploded. This included protests and strikes at around 70 important state-owned enterprises.40 A combination of splits at the top and pressure from the workers’ movement forced Belarus’s rulers to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Belarusian parliament had already passed the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on 27 July 1990, with Stalinist hardliner Lukashenko the only MP to vote against independence. Belarus’s parliament, its so-called Supreme Soviet, was made up of the Communist Party and a array of independents after elections in 1990. Under Gorbachev’s reforms, candidates who were not Communist Party members had been allowed to stand in elections to the parliaments of the Soviet Union and its constituent republics. The Belarusian Popular Front, a nationalist and conservative group, manage to form a small parliamentary faction.
In August 1991 the conservative section of the Soviet bureaucracy made a last ditch attempt to preserve the state capitalist set up. An alliance of conservative bureaucrats in Moscow, the KGB secret police and Communist Party bosses in Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan staged a putsch against Gorbachev. The coup failed after three days and precipitated the dissolution of the “Soviet Union” into 15 republics. The defeat of the putsch caused a huge crisis for the Belarusian bureaucracy. In the aftermath, the pressure became overwhelming; Belarus made its declaration of sovereignty constitutional on 25 August and became formally independent on 10 December.
Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship?
Belarus, with its huge state enterprises and Stalinist-era symbolism, can seem like a pickled society compared to the rest of Europe Europe. Liberals refer to Lukashenko as “Europe’s last dictator”, suggesting he is simply a hangover from a previous age. This obscures the fact that the Lukashenko regime is very much a product of what followed the collapse Soviet Union in 1991. Russia and Eastern Europe moved from state capitalism to Western-style capitalism. Tony Cliff, who developed the theory of bureaucratic state capitalism, argued it was a “side step”. Although the political setup changed, social relations between capital and labour remained the same. A range of political forces fought to shape the transition. They included figures from the old bureaucracy who sought to maintain control, sometimes rebranding themselves as “democratic” or as nationalists. There were also different sections of the opposition movements, including conservatives, liberals, social democrats and small groups of anti-Stalinist socialists.
The ruling class saw that, though its ruling party had lost power, it could retain its class power. Chris Harman argued in 1991:
The old people at the top…raved about betrayal and even on occasions fantasised about telling their police to open fire. But key structures below them were already run by people who, at least privately, accepted the new multinational capitalist common sense.41
Parliamentary democracy posed little threat to their rule. Communist politicians and bureaucrats became “democratic” politicians and bureaucrats. Sometimes they ended up in new democratic governments through so-called “Round Table Talks” with the opposition. The managers of state-owned firms became the owners of private companies.
The new governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, accepted the logic of global capitalism. However, the way the transition played out and how the ruling class sought to maintain its power differed from state to state. Russia and most of the states in Central Europe and the Baltic adopted free market “shock therapy” to varying degrees. This involved rapid liberalisation of trade and the economy, combined with a programme of mass privatisation.42 Neoliberal poster children such as Poland saw new private firms grow in importance.
In contrast, states within the former Soviet Union itself relied far more on the state sector or newly privatised industry after 1991. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Lithuania, for instance, new private companies accounted for around 55-65 percent of new value added, compared to just 10-20 percent in Russia and Belarus.43 Even Russia, which pursued mass privatisation, didn’t see a large growth of new private sector firms compared to Central Europe and the Baltic. Its “voucher privatisation” allowed a small number of “oligarchs” to buy up shares, concentrating wealth and ownership in their hands. They were often drawn from the old bureaucracy and state security apparatus. Although they reaped huge benefits from liberalisation, they wanted to protect their position from new competitors. The transition across the region lent itself to a “wild west capitalism” that involved widespread corruption and the growth of organised crime. Continuing neoliberal reforms in the 1990s and 2000s accentuated these problems.44
Belarus, as well as some central Asian republics, notably Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, pursued barely any liberalisation or privatisation. The state capitalist infrastructure was kept in place, as was lots of the old Communist imagery, as a way of the ruling class maintaining its power. Figures from the old bureaucracy and the nationalist opposition jockeyed for position in the new reality of the early 1990s. In 1995 Lukashenko stood on an “anti-corruption” ticket and won the presidential election overwhelmingly. He appealed to stability and sovereignty. Through keeping the state capitalist infrastructure intact and staving off mass unemployment, he was able to forge a social contract with large parts of the urban and rural working class. Nelly Bekus, a Belarusian academic at Exeter University, argues:
Lukashenko…won his popularity with the idea that a nation-state can become a continuation of Soviet development. Unlike many other former Soviet nations that dismissed their socialist past, Lukashenko’s ideology asserted the active role played by Belarusians in Soviet modernisation, presented as an important milestone on their way to becoming a modern and developed nation.45
The Lukashenko model was based on importing Russian oil at subsidised prices, refining it and then re-exporting it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s rulers sought to rebuild imperialist power in its “near abroad”, and this included fermenting or intervening in a series of ethnic conflicts and civil wars in former Soviet republics in the 1990s. It also meant that Russia was willing to subsidise the Lukashenko regime in order to keep Belarus in its orbit. In 2015 Putin strengthened his control of the “near abroad” by creating the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This built on the Eurasian Economic Community, which existed between 2000 and 2014, and was designed to compete with the European Union. Belarus has been part of this process and Lukashenko is the nominal head of the EAEU’s supreme council. However, Lukashenko was never “Russia’s man”. Although the two countries did sign a Treaty of State Union in 1999, it is not worth the paper it is written on.
Instead, Lukashenko has balanced between rival imperialisms—the US, the EU and Russia—and there have been significant tensions with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russian oligarchs, in particular, have wanted to loot state assets through privatisation. Prior to the protests, Lukashenko and Putin were involved in a stand-off over closer ties and oil prices.46 Lukashenko rejected Putin’s demands that Belarus subordinate itself further to Russian rule through a closer state union. This stand-off reflected Lukashenko’s willingness to tilt to the West. From the early 2000s Lukashenko began to bring in some free market reforms, such as wage restraint and changes to contracts, hoping to attract foreign investment. The increasing liberalisation of Belarusian capitalism accelerated during the global financial crash in 2009. The centrepiece of its new investment strategy was the information technology sector, one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the old state-owned enterprises have been shedding workers, who have found new work in the retail and service sectors. This group of workers accounts for around 45 percent of Belarusian workers.47 However, the vast state-owned enterprises are still central to the economy. Their size, and the focal points they provide for whole area, means that workplace and community can fuse. This is a factor that helped spread the movement to the factories.
The process of free market reforms culminated in the “parasite tax” of 2017—a form of workfare dressed up in Stalinist-era rhetoric. More than half a million people, who were formally registered as unemployed, found themselves with a $230 tax bill.48 This triggered protests and hollowed out some its traditional sectors of support. The demonstrations also gave birth to new opposition figures, and the memory of them has fed into the the current democracy movement.
The parasite tax was important for setting the stage in the current president election. Although Lukashenko was hated by many, the old opposition did not have widespread support. This traditional opposition was dominated by “liberal nationalists”. This is not to say Lukashenko is an “anti-nationalist” or simply pro-Russian. Lukashenko and the traditional, liberal nationalist opposition rely on competing visions of Belarusian nationalism. Alongside support for liberal market politics, it distinguishes itself from Lukashenko by appealing to a “Golden Age” in the 17th century. They emphasise, for instance, Belarus’ ties to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the historic struggles surrounding the Belarusian language. In the context of Western and Russian imperial rivalry, this form of nationalism bolsters liberal arguments that Belarus should tilt to the West. Lukashenko has also appealed to a nationalism rooted in the Stalinism period. These competing nationalisms appeal to complex views around identity. For example, even though a majority of people declare their nationality to be Belarusian, the majority also say they speak Russian rather than Belarusian.
During this presidential election, instead of focusing on nationalist talking points such as Belarus’ historic links to Lithuania and Poland, the new opposition tapped into anger over “bread and butter” issues such as Lukashenko’s handling of the pandemic. As Bekus argues:
In place of the political opposition that challenged Lukashenko over the last two and half decades—which was traditionally preoccupied with the issues of national ideology, language, identity policy and geopolitical re-orientation towards Europe—this year Lukashenko’s opponents entered the political scene with ideas that called on Belarusians to reflect on the deteriorating conditions of their lives and appealed to their understanding of political normality.
Sergei Tikhanovsky is founder of a popular YouTube channel, in which he revealed the struggles of ordinary Belarusians and the incompetence of the authorities. His reportage contrasted this with the polished propaganda image of a Belarus full of success stories that is constantly channelled by the official media. His reports made clear that the longer Lukashenko stayed in power, the more distant his picture of Belarus became from people’s real life experience.49
The opposition candidates were supposed to be Tikhanovsky, banker Viktar Babaryka and Valeri Tsepkalo, a former diplomat and head of Lukashenko’s prized IT park. Precisely because they had a wider social base than the old opposition, Lukashenko was forced to move pre-emptively and disqualify them. This failed to stop discontent at the base of society, and the electoral commission had to allow Tichanovskaya and three other candidates onto the ballot paper. Momentum gathered behind Tichanovskaya after the Babaryka and Tsepkalo campaigns united behind her.
These broader trends have been accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic and Lukashenko’s right-wing populist denial of the threat that it poses. Many will remember the Belarusian soccer team playing while other states were going into lockdown. Sociologist Volodymyr Artiukh notes:
Lukashenko was blamed for denying the threat of the virus; state agencies were accused of hiding the real scale of the pandemic and of lacking the capacity to fight it. By contrast, grassroots activism gained respect for helping Belarus’ healthcare system to cope. However, it has not been so much the epidemiological situation itself that has fuelled the current popular discontent, but rather its economic and ideological consequences.50
The politics of the workers’ movement
The Coordinating Council of Belarus (CCB) was set up by Tichanovskaya to manage a transition to democratic rule. This body brings together a whole array of political forces, including liberal opponents of the regime, bosses, some strike leaders and even a former Lukashenko culture minister. This reflects the contradictions within the opposition. Although the opposition partly flowed out of an earlier popular revolt against free market reforms, its programme is based on continuing Lukashenko’s economic policies with more vigour. Figures who favour more free market policies are ascendant in the leadership of the CCB. One member, Pavel Daneyko, was a co-founder of the Institute of Privatisation and Management in 1994, which taught the managers of state-owned companies to squeeze more out of workers. Raising social demands could cut against such forces, but such social demands are not central to the workers’ movement. There is a political question too—the independence of the working class from other social forces in the opposition. Even though there is a national strike committee, for instance, it is politically subordinate to the overall coordinating body.
Mass movements do not happen in an ideological vacuum, including those involving the organised working class. The shadow of Stalinism means that mass movements in Eastern Europe tend to be caught between defending parts of state capitalism and looking to the market as an alternative to authoritarianism, corruption and economic stagnation. These debates were evident right through the workers upsurge in Belarus. Minsk tractor works strike leader Sergei Dylevsky says that the lack of oligarchs is “far from an achievement.” “On the contrary, it means that any sound businessman, be it a millionaire or billionaire, does not want to invest in Belarus and its enterprises,” he says, deploying a classic “common sense” argument used by the right.51 Another worker says he wants “fair privatisation” and the “development of a market economy”. “I mean not full privatisation by Russian oligarchs or international companies,” he explains. “I do not mean part privatisation by businessmen and workers buying shares, and the state control of 50 percent.” One Telegram channel has raised the demand of a “ban on privatisation”, but its reach is limited. This is not an argument for writing off the movement against Lukashenko. However, it does mean that there will have to be a battle over what comes next if Lukashenko is forced out.
There were small signs that the contradictions in the opposition could develop. During struggles, economic and political demands can flow into one another. It is important not to take a mechanical view that workers begin with the economic and then build up to the political.52 During the “go slows”, many workers were using heath and safety to slow down production. One message from the Belaruskali strike committee Telegram broadcast list showed how political demands could flow into economic ones. It says complaints include “that there is practically no ventilation in the mine” and “this is most likely due to the saving of electricity and in connection with the latest events in the city”. “Thus, the management of the enterprise are trying to shift the economic problems onto the shoulders of employees,” it says, linking the political situation to the economic plight of workers. Pointing to attacks on both the political rights and economic situation of workers, it continues, “They took away the our voice, now they are trying to take away our health. Can we tolerate this any further?”53
The failure of the “people’s ultimatum”
More than three months of mass protests and workers’ action have weakened the Lukashenko regime and further hollowed out its social base. Every regime relies on a combination of force and fraud to maintain its rule. For Lukashenko, fraud has failed. He is increasingly relying on force to maintain his rule, rather than mediating organisations such as the old state trade unions. There do not appear to be any serious cracks within the military, police and security apparatus, but he will not be able to rule indefinitely with force alone. This situation means the regime is more brutal, but it is also more brittle and could be shattered by a return to mass workers’ action.
Despite the failure of the “people’s ultimatum”, there were some signs of workers still trying to fight back collectively—and of the potential power they have. On the first day after the ultimatum, photographs sent out by the Belaruskali strike committee broadcast list showed 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 in them means stopping the entire plant—a workforce of 3,000 people. The electrical 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 means no transformer. The tanks are produced in the 16th workshop by 40 to 50 highly qualified workers who have joined the strike. A similar number of key workers, 30 to 40, work in the 6th workshop, where the situation is similar.54
The message explains that around 30 to 40 percent of workers remained in the workshops 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. There are signs here of both the weakness of the working class movement and the objective power that it holds. At the time of writing, there do not seem to be many signs of a revival of mass strikes.
Neither West nor East—but Belarusian workers
In the context of the stalemate, both Lukashenko and the opposition are looking to outside help. Western states are scrambling to pose as supporters of the fight for democracy in Belarus, but those same states were willing to court the regime when it suited their interests. Britain trained Belarusian troops—including in “urban warfare tactics”—before condemning the regime’s crackdown on protesters. Meanwhile, Russia is biding its time, seeking to safeguard its interests in its “near abroad”. Putin is backing Lukashenko to stop Belarus tilting explicitly towards the West, but he could be willing to court another figure with more legitimacy. If Lukashenko clings on with Russian help, Putin will demand privatisation and a broader neoliberal restricting of the Belarusian economy in the interests of Russian imperialism.
The left should reject both imperialist sides and back the Belarusian protests, pointing to our common cause against those at the top of society. During the summer of 1968 there were important risings in both the capitalist West and state capitalist East. Chris Harman, writing in Socialist Worker, reported:
In Chicago, police supported by troops with fixed bayonets mercilessly beat up peaceful and unprotected demonstrators. In Prague, Russian tanks patrol the streets. There are important differences between American and Russian society. But both have in common this much: they are controlled by small ruling classes that will use all the resources of modern technology to keep down the workers who may threaten their rule.55
This past year, US police have meted out baton blows, bullets and tear gas to put down an uprising against racism and police murder. At the same time in Minsk, military vehicles patrolled the streets and riot police beat up protesters. Supporting the Belarusian movement requires internationalism and solidarity. A real alternative to Lukashenko’s authoritarianism is not Western-style capitalism, but workers fighting for democracy, social justice and a society where they really are in charge.
Tomáš Tengely-Evans has worked as a journalist on Socialist Worker and is a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in North London.
1 Manenkov and Litvinova, 2020. Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly and Martin Upchurch for comments on an earlier draft of this article.
2 Roth, 2020
3 Belarus’s national intelligence agency has retained the name of the Soviet Union secret police force, the Committee for State Security (KGB).
4 Tengely-Evans, 2020a.
5 Tengely-Evans, 2020b.
7 Walker, 2020.
8 Tengely-Evans, 2020c.
9 Carter, 2020.
10 Glushakov, 2020.
12 Glasse, 2014. For a general analysis of the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, see Ferguson, 2014.
13 International Centre for Trade Union Rights, 2018.
14 For a round up of the workers’ action on the first day, see Tengely-Evans, 2020d.
15 Nexta Live Telegram channel, 11 August 2020.
16 Nexta Live Telegram channel, 11 August 2020.
17 Edwards, 2020.
18 Kassabov, 2020.
19 Nexta Live Telegram channel, 11 August 2020.
20 Walker and Roth, 2020.
21 Kalinovskaya, 2020.
22 During the 1989 revolutions in Eastern European, Romania’s Stalinist ruler Ceaușescu called a huge rally in support of the regime on 21 December. As he started speaking from the balcony of his palace in Bucharest, dissent spread through the crowd. He was whisked away in a helicopter. By 25 December he lay in a pool of blood. See Nicolae Ceaușescu’s last speech with English subtitles—www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWIbCtz_Xwk
23 For a round-up of the strikes between 11 and 17 August, see Tengely-Evans, 2020e.
24 Nexta Live Telegram channel, 17 August 2020.
25 Walker and Roth, 2020.
26 For example of economic impact, see Charter 77, 2020.
27 Makhovsky, 2020.
28 Goldsmith, 2020.
29 For a general analysis of these international revolts, see Choonara, 2019.
30 Kuper, 2020.
31 Fundamental Law of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1936.
32 Cliff, 1974.
33 For a thorough explanation, see Harman, 1967.
34 For a discussion on the problems, see Lenin, 1922.
35 Marx, 1976, p742.
36 Cliff, 1974, pp202-212.
37 For a more detailed explanation of how state capitalism operated, see Tengely-Evans, 2018.
38 Stalin, 1931.
39 Crouch, 1997.
40 Charter 77, 2016.
41 Harman, 1990.
42 With the advice of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, Poland adopted the Balcerowicz Plan in 1989. Again, with the advice of Sachs, Russia undertook the largest programme of privatisation in history. Finance minister Anatoly Chubais sold off 800 companies a month. By the end of the programme in the 1990s, 77 percent of Russia’s large and medium-sized companies and 82 percent of small companies were private.
43 World Bank, 2002, p39.
44 Upchurch, 2012
45 Bekus, 2020.
46 Lemlich, 2020.
47 Glushakov, 2020.
48 Liasheva, 2017.
49 Bekus, 2020.
50 Artiukh, 2020
51 Nechepurenko, 2020.
52 Luxemburg, 1906.
53 From the Belaruskali strike committee’s Telegram channel, September 2020.
54 From the Belaruskali strike committee’s Telegram channel, September 2020.
55 Harman, 1968.