Despite a threat by the government to use live ammunition against demonstrators, some 50,000 marched in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Oct. 18. Many thousands more rallied in cities across the country demanding President Alexander Lukashenko step down, and in support of calls by bourgeois opposition leaders for a general strike.
Weekly Sunday demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers and others determined to be rid of the dictatorial regime have taken place since Lukashenko declared himself the winner in blatantly rigged presidential elections Aug. 9.
Protesters on the Minsk march chanted, “The workers are with the people!” “Strike!” and “You and your riot police get out!”
This is in response to a “people’s ultimatum” issued from exile in neighboring Lithuania by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Oct. 13. She set an Oct. 25 deadline for Lukashenko to resign, for an end to cop violence and for the release of all political prisoners — otherwise, there would be “a full national strike” to paralyze the country.
Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher, is the opposition candidate widely believed to have won the elections. She stood after her husband, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, a journalist who had covered the growing social crisis in the country, was imprisoned to prevent him from running. Amid an economic crisis sharpened by the withdrawal of subsidies on gas imported from Russia, working people seized on the opportunity to vote to rid themselves of 26 years of Lukashenko’s increasingly iron-fisted rule and gain broader political rights.
The regime has responded to the mass protests and strike actions in many of the country’s largest factories and mines with repression, killing seven people, disappearing dozens and torturing hundreds.
“Although we are not naive, we understand now that ‘the authorities have no bottom,’ as we say in Russian. It means they don’t have any ethical scruples,” Hanna Varsotskaya, a protest activist in Minsk, told the Militant in an Oct. 18 email. “Belarusians have read a lot about the experience of other countries. The story goes that violence won’t help them.”
Call for general strike
Two months after an initial wave of protest strikes by factory workers and miners pushed back the regime’s thugs, the stakes are higher this time with the opposition call for industrial workers to respond with a general strike.
Vitaly Dyadyuk, a member of the strike committee at the state-owned Belaruskali potash mines and processing plant, sent a message Oct. 18 to the Militant. In response to the protests and beating of demonstrators after the election, thousands of miners walked out. Then a combination of arrests of strike leaders and threats that miners will lose their jobs has led most miners to return to work, he said, where they have continued to fight boss attacks. Strike committee leaders continue to face frame-up prosecutions.
The Belaruskali complex produces a third of the country’s economic output, Dyadyuk said. “That’s why the government especially oppresses the strikers. They want to scare others who think to join the strike.” But he noted that there are work-to-rule actions, “an ‘Italian strike,’ in many places in the mining complex. The production figures have dropped significantly.”
On the call for a national strike on Oct. 26, Dyadyuk said, “Nobody expects that Lukashenko will leave the office by this date. So workers and protesters need to mobilize their resources.”
International working-class solidarity
Dyadyuk concluded with an appeal for unionists around the world to send messages of support to the Belaruskali strikers. He asked the Militant to get the word out and relay any expressions of solidarity they receive.
Lukashenko has now either imprisoned or exiled the leaders of the opposition Coordination Council, including Svetlana Alexievich, the well-known and prize-winning author of Voices from Chernobyl. She is in Germany for medical treatment, but says she plans to return to Belarus.
The last member who was at large, Siarhei Dyleuski, leader of the strike committee at the huge MTZ Tractor Works in Minsk, was forced into exile Oct. 12. He had previously been detained and then released. The management at MTZ forced him to leave his job of 12 years by threatening to fire his parents, who also work there. He and his family left for Poland after agents of the KGB, the secret police, threatened further moves against them.
Workers solidarity with the popular struggle is spreading abroad. Lufthansa Technik maintenance workers at Hamburg airport in Germany refused to service Lukashenko’s plane when it landed there Oct. 14. Their union issued a statement saying they had a “long tradition of international solidarity and stand side by side with Belarusian workers.”