Pavel Katarzheuski explains how Belarus went from a popular uprising to counter-revolution
In May 2020, a huge protest mobilisation against the authoritarian-bourgeois regime of Alexander Lukashenko began in Belarus. The reason for the popular uprising was the start of a special operation to give the dictator a new presidential term, which the Belarusian regime calls ‘elections’. However, the people, who had been alienated from the political decision-making process for more than 25 years and were actually deprived of all democratic rights and freedoms, this time put up a resolute resistance to the dictatorship.
People used both legal mechanisms and street protests for this. Usually protests in Belarus continue for several days after the elections, but this time people were ready to respond with protests even against the refusal to register the most popular opposition candidates long before the voting began.
After the main voting day on August 9th – there is also a five day early voting period in Belarus – the protests reached an acute phase. Police violence began and thousands of people were detained and tortured. Many election commissions announced the victory of the most popular opposition candidate – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Such a thing has not happened in Belarus since 1994, which is when Lukashenka himself was in opposition to the government.
The murder and torture of protesters sparked the movement of the working class and employees of public sector organisations, including teachers and doctors. It is worth noting that these public sector employees have always been considered the main support of the Lukashenka regime. After the threat of workers’ protests on August 14th, the regime was forced to release all the detainees, except those who were convicted under criminal articles. On August 15th even employees of the state television went on strike. There is no other one in Belarus.
On August 16th, probably the largest protest actions in the history of Belarus took place. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people took to the streets. According to various estimates, from 300,000 to 400,000 people came out in Minsk alone – the population of Minsk is about 2 million people. Protest actions were held even in the smallest cities.
After that, for several weeks daily decentralised protest actions took place in Minsk. People with opposition symbols walked along the streets and gathered and sang protest songs on the main square of the city. Groups of volunteers worked around the clock near prisons.
The organisation of independent trade unions continued at enterprises and universities, and self-organised bodies of people’s self-government –‘neighborhood committees’ – were formed in the courtyards. However, over time, the protests acquired the format of weekly marches, which molilised hundreds of thousands of people and, of course, made the dictator nervous. The government was even forced to promise constitutional reform in October 2020, and Lukashenka met with political prisoners in prison.
But it is worth saying that this was the beginning of the end. No matter how numerous the protest actions were, a large concentration of people in one place and, as a rule, a standard route made the protesters an easy target and the protest lost its main strength – decentralization. The labour struggle also faded into the background.
In November, Lukashenka announced the creation of paramilitary detachments – ‘people’s squads’ – to fight the protesters. Just a few days after that, an opposition supporter, Roman Bondarenko, was killed by unknown people in uniform and without identification marks. He had simply asked that the protest symbols in his yard not be torn down.
A people’s memorial was created at the site of Bonadrenko’s death and a rally was held which was dispersed with the help of non-lethal weapons and stun grenades. Many protesters were forced to hide in the basements of nearby houses for about a day, and security forces broke down the doors of those residents who were hiding the protesters. After that, the police began raids in the most protest-minded areas, breaking down doors without legal grounds and turning off lights and water in these areas.
In winter, the actions acquired a hyper-local character and resembled, rather, meetings of neighbours in their yards. But the turning point was the ‘All-Belarusian People’s Assembly’ which was convened by the authorities from representatives of the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies. Its main message was the words of Lukashenka: “We have won.” This ‘victory’ meant unleashing the hands of law enforcement agencies and the beginning of unprecedented repression against all those who in one way or another were involved in the protests.
The reasons for the political explosion
Many analysts and political scientists who are not familiar with the recent history of Belarus claim that in 2020 Belarusians ‘for the first time’ dared to resist the dictatorship, but this is completely untrue. Since the establishment of authoritarianism, protest actions have been taking place constantly. First there was the ‘Minsk spring’ in 1999, then a series of strikes in 2002, protests after the presidential elections in 2006 with a march on the prison demanding the release of political prisoners, the ‘bloody sunrise’ on December 19th 2010, several months of street actions in 2011, social protests against the tax on the unemployed in 2017 and, finally in 2020, the protests which fixed the eyes of the whole world on Belarus. The Belarusian ‘stability’ was never very stable.
But what did lead to 2020? Of course, the lack of democratic mechanisms to exert influence on the government was significant. But it was the dismantling of social guarantees that was of decisive importance.
During Lukashenka’s time in power, progressive taxation was eliminated, benefits for students, pensioners and Chernobyl liquidators were destroyed, and a system of short-term employment contracts was introduced everywhere. This system allowed the employer to refuse to extend a contract and dismiss an employee without explaining the reasons, even if he wanted to. At the same time, the trade unions in the early 2000s were forced to submit to the executive power and began to perform the functions of monitoring employees in the enterprise administration. Meanwhile, the commercialization of the social sphere was taking place and the number of paid private services in education and medicine was steadily growing.
The lack of freedom of assembly and democratic elections, and restrictions on freedom of speech and the press for a quarter of a century also prepared the foundations for the social explosion that occurred in 2020.
It is quite correct to say that through these years a regime resembling the regimes of Pinochet or Franco was formed in Belarus, but it operated under symbols that vaguely resemble the state symbols of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
We should not turn a blind eye to the class character of the Belarusian regime, which can be described as ‘post-Soviet bonapartism’. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a contradiction arose between the nascent bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy which did not want to give up power. But both of them had a common enemy – the working class which was disappointed in the Stalinist-Brezhnev model of socialism but did not want to give up the social guarantees inherited from the USSR.
In the 1990s, there was a powerful labour and trade union movement in Belarus which posed a threat to the old and new masters of life. As a result they called for the help of the dictator who retained privileges for the bureaucracy and guaranteed development for the bourgeoisie in exchange for loyalty.
By 2019 there were about 7,400 dollar millionaires in Belarus. ‘Soft’ privatisations and the dismantling of social guarantees began in Belarus, in an attempt not to cause sharp discontent among the working class while at the same time destroying the opposition and democratic rights. But eventually the Bonapartist ruler loses the ground under his feet and in trying to express the interests of everyone begins to express only his own interests – to stay in power. And the contradictions break out again. Something like this happened in Belarus.
What is happening in Belarus at the moment?
It is an incredibly hot and very beautiful summer in Belarus, but at the same time, there is a terribly cold political landscape. At least seven people were killed or died under strange circumstances during the hot phase of the protests. Under unclear circumstances Witold Ashurok died in a prison of political prisoners, 17-year-old Dmitry Stakhovsky was driven to suicide under threats of torture, political prisoner Stepan Latypov cut his throat in the courtroom and declared torture was being used.
According to the UN, more than 400 cases of torture have been recorded and in total more than 30,000 people have passed through prisons since the beginning of the protests. At the moment there are 546 political prisoners in prisons, and their number is growing every day. At the same time not a single employee of the law enforcement agencies has been brought to justice.
Most independent information resources are blocked or dubbed ‘extremist’ and journalists are subjected to searches. The authorities are talking about holding a referendum on amendments to the constitution, but the choice apparently will be the same as between Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
It also became obvious that the regime is a danger not only to its citizens, but also to the whole world. It is enough to recall the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk.
The program of the Democratic Left forces
From the very beginning, our party, the Belarusian Party of the Left ‘Fair World’, supported the popular uprising and demanded new democratic elections at all levels, an end to violence and the bringing to justice of all those responsible for election fraud and violence against protesters. At the same time, we insist on implementing our transition program – reducing the working day without reducing wages, abolishing the contract system of hiring, freedom for independent trade unions, lowering the retirement age and implementing the principle of gender equality in the field of labour relations. More than 20 members of our party in one way or another have suffered from repression – they went through prisons, received fines for participating in peaceful protests or were subjected to police violence.
In an important meeting in February 2021, the Second Forum of Democratic Left Forces adopted a political and social manifesto and united the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), the Green Party, some independent trade unions and our Party ‘Fair World’ under a single program. This was a big step forward for the democratic left, but the existing political reality forces all opposition forces, from liberals to socialists, to concentrate first of all on preserving their political parties, public organisations and trade unions, as well as strengthening human rights activities.
The dictatorship has launched a counteroffensive and leaves only ashes on the political field, but the laws of dialectics, as well as the history of independent Belarus tell us that nothing can be frozen forever.
Pavel Katarzheuski is a member of Central committee of the Belarusian party of the Left ‘Fair World’
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