Interview: Organised and disorganised labour in the Belarus uprising
Siarhei Biareishyk (Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania) speaks to Nick Evans about the uprising in Belarus following the falsified re-election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka on 9 August 2020. Siarhei explains that strike committees, and organisations built in the void left by the government response to Covid-19, are at the heart of the movement to overthrow the Lukashenka regime, and deserve all the solidarity they can get.
rs21: What led to the evaporation of much of Lukashenka’s popular support in the lead up to the presidential election?
Siarhei Biareishyk: The loss of popular support for Lukashenka is overdetermined. Certainly, worsening of economic conditions has played a key part in this. But there are a number of other factors as well. To give an example of how the authorities have treated the workers and ordinary people, we can take the ‘law of parasites’, passed in 2015. Modelled on a similar Soviet law that prohibits unemployment, the recently passed ‘law of parasites’ criminalizes unemployment, punishing it by certain taxes or revocation of certain substances or communal services. Effectively, Lukashenka’s policy was that everyone should have a job, but that meant forcing people to work under absolutely unsatisfactory employment conditions. It is a coercive way to extract surplus value in the guise of neo-Soviet policy. This law was met with a great amount of resistance among sections of the population that generally supported Lukashenka, especially in regions where employment is lower than in the capital, Minsk.
A pension reform modelled on neoliberal reforms from the west was also unpopular. So while the Lukashenka regime styles itself as proto-socialist, at the same time it enacts policies where the population are treated with contempt by the authorities. All these factors—and these are just few examples among others—played a role in the loss of Lukashenka’s electorate. The Covid-19 response is a further recent example of Lukashenka’s blatant disregard for his people.
rs21: What enabled support to crystallise around the opposition on this occasion, unlike during previous cycles?
SB: One major difference: for the first time since Lukashenka’s regime started 26 years ago, the main opposition has not coloured itself in nationalist tones. From the time of Lukashenka’s usurpation of government power in the 1990s, the opposition, borne out of the protests of the late 1980s and 1990s, has been largely nationalist in nature. Now the opposition campaign has nothing to do with this past. For the first time, their position is not entirely pro-Russian or opposed to Russia, and not entirely pro-European.
A certain number of contingencies also led to the unification of the opposition, whereas in previous years the opposition forces repeatedly failed to present a united front. This time, when Lukashenka jailed the two main candidates (Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski) and the third one (Valery Tsapkala) left the country, to create a façade of democracy and almost by accident, they officially registered Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, who is the wife of one of the jailed politicians and not a politician herself. She became a figure around whom all other opposition forces united; thus the opposition was spearheaded by three women: Maryia Kalesnikava (chief of Babaryka’s campaign), who remains in Belarus, and Veranika Tsapkala (Valery Tsapkala’s wife), who, like Tsikhanouskaia, had to leave the country. All three turned out to be charismatic leaders: they travelled to regions all around the country, and that was important for people, and now a lot of people in smaller cities come out and express solidarity, and this is unprecedented.
Finally, the key demand of the opposition is simply to run a new election. This is pretty much as popular a demand as can be. So I think those factors played a role.
rs21: Can you speak more about the composition of the opposition? How long do you think it can hold this coalition together?
SB: This is a question that also relates to the form that the protests have taken. The protests have been largely peaceful and the demands are threefold: release political prisoners, fire Lukashenka, and new elections. These are quite general demands. These have proved very successful in mobilising a great number of people with absolutely heterogeneous political views. The question is: are they still successful in mounting effective resistance in the face of the government’s repressive apparatus? After the initial wave of terror, the strategy of the current government is to wait it out and target activists, strike committee leaders, and dissenting people in other leadership positions. The question about how long it can last depends on how the strategies on each side will change, because the situation is inherently dynamic.
We can argue that now is the time to make political demands or take more direct action, but the protestors have been insistent on not doing so. It is a tense situation and the government can make missteps as well. For instance, since 25 August, the police started returning to the cities and making more and more arrests. Will this be met with a firm rebuke from the population and a shift in the strategy of the protesters? To give an example, the opposition have formed a ‘Coordination Council’ for the transfer of power, which initially included dozens of prominent citizens (now many more), and which is headed by five people, who have been clear that they have no political programme. The whole committee was deemed criminal by Lukashenka and its members summoned for investigation; two members of the leadership were arrested and sentenced for 10 days: one of the representatives of Tsikhanouskaia, who is currently in Lithuania, and the other is head of a strike committee of the Minsk Tractor Works. In response, the remaining three leadership figures called for all regular citizens to officially join the committee, thousands of people—with the idea to overwhelm the authorities: you cannot summon everybody for the criminal investigation.
So perhaps one can reformulate the question: not how long will it last, but what kind of tensions are there, and how are they developing, because the situation by definition cannot be static and obviously Russia is another force in play.
rs21: To help us understand those tensions, can you talk about the developing relationship between the street protests and organised labour?
SB: Let me state an empirical fact. The election was followed by three days of police terror – and now we know they were not only waging war, but committing war crimes: they were torturing people in jail, they beat up people on the streets, they murdered; in sum, they arrested over 7,000 people and some are still missing. These crimes cannot and will not be forgiven. Solidarity actions followed, especially by women who formed human chains around the cities. On 13 August, the decisive step in this was the workers in major factors walked out. This I think was the point when the police had to halt the terror. This was decisive.
What followed was interesting, because there was a vague call for strikes by the opposition leaders, but only for strikes in governmental organisations. Not, for example, in the IT sector, which is quite strong in Belarus, many of whose leaders spoke out in support of protests. The IT sector said strikes there would not put any pressure on the government; now, they are discussing massive relocations of these companies — they have to keep turning profit. So there was a massive investment of hope in the workers. In any case, the workers’ action in combination with solidarity actions was effective, it halted the terror – whether it will be effective long-term, we will see, and this brings us to the question of what organised labour looks like in Belarus.
rs21: So can you tell us more about what organised labour looks like in Belarus? What are the forms of trade union organisation, or rank and file organisation?
SB: The Belarusian model is unique because in the 1990s, unlike other post-Soviet countries, there was no major wave of privatisation. So a lot of factories were retained, and this is a pre-condition today for the effectiveness of the factory worker resistance in the overall struggle.
On the other hand, one can hardly speak of organised labour in Belarus; one can speak rather of disorganised labour in Belarus because the labour code in the country is actually very bad for the workers. Something like 90% work on temporary contracts, which means they can be fired at short notice and with no compensation. This has already started happening: activists in factories across Belarus are losing their jobs as a result of political action. Moreover, any stoppage of work due to political action or demand is illegal; strikes based on economic demands are theoretically possible, but there are so many stipulations in the penal code for them to be legal, that they are practically unachievable. Unions do not provide any protection against this; factory workers are, thus, atomized. In effect, the law is structured in such a way as to prevent any collective action by the workers.
The labour code is perhaps best illustrated by Lukashenka’s own attitude toward the striking workers. He threatened to replace the workers who refuse to comply, or even close down the factories: ‘If you don’t want to work, you are no longer a worker’. The workers are not perceived as a class or a collective subject, but indeed something like a condition for the creation of value, as Ilya Budraitskis has pointed out. And if you are no longer creating value, you are no longer a worker. Lukashenka said: ‘I will close the factories: if you don’t want to work, don’t work.’ So this just shows the attitude towards organised labour. The system is paternalist, where centralised government will decide who receives what, rather than a government based on some kind of self-organisation of labour.
rs21: Have there been attempts to form independent unions?
SB: Here and there, but it is almost impossible to do this under Belarusian laws. Now, in the last two weeks, there has been a development of grassroots organising among the workers. The striking committees are emerging. These are new organisations outside of the official unions, and there is now a national strike committee, which is collecting money for those who have lost their jobs. They are still lacking funds for day-to-day functioning. This is a new form of grassroots worker organisation that we have not seen before in Belarus and it is not predicated on unions.
rs21: Are there regional dimensions to these new forms of grassroots action?
SB: Yes: what you witness in smaller cities would have been difficult to imagine just three weeks ago. There are industrial towns, for example, Polatsk and Navapolatsk, or Salihorsk or Zhodzina, where they have one major factory. In these cities, the workers come out to the central square and participate in direct democracy. They say to the authorities: ‘Come to us now, and we will question you.’ There are videos of people just saying: ‘How come in our city Lukashenka received 80% of the votes?’ Then they ask everyone who voted for Lukashenka and only the elite and the directors of the factories raise their hands. And they ask who voted for Tsikhanouskaia and everybody raises their hands. So there is this kind of accountability that is being demanded in the regions from the local authorities, and this is important.
These protests in smaller towns are important for two reasons: many of these regions have traditionally supported Lukashenka; and even more significantly, people who have generally been considered as belonging to an ‘apolitical’ constituency are emerging as political actors.
rs21: This brings us back to the question of whether you see any tensions developing between these new grassroots and the opposition candidates?
SB: So far, the strike committees have not formulated economic demands. Rather, they have retained the three basic political demands. Now I may allow myself to speculate a bit, or at least to analyse the situation. I think for the first time, in Belarus, workers are becoming political subjects, which means that for the first time they perceive themselves as political actors. What we do know is that certain economic models on which Tsikhonouskaia and others campaigned was largely the familiar shock therapy policies and privatisation. We know that the workers in these factories opposed that. Now these workers are entering the scene as political actors and they are demanding that the representatives of the new strike committees should be included in the ‘Coordination Council’ for transition of the power, whereas just two weeks ago nobody would have consulted them.
Right now the opposition is trying to unite all of these heterogeneous voices, and if the striking committees end up entering as political actors on the scene, and if they entertain some representative mandate, there is some hope that they will not be just incorporated in the neoliberal agenda of the primary opposition candidates. By entering the scene in the way that they did, to halt the terror, they became the main actors, if not the heroes, of the resistance and therefore this must be taken into account.
So, there is a political potential here. Here I see the possibility of democratic developments in the eastern bloc that do not fit previous schemas, a path that would be unprecedented. But this is so far speculation and analysis; after all, the police — who persecute the activists and obstruct all organizational efforts — in combination with extreme precarity of the workers have been successful at holding back massive spread of strikes, at least for now. Nonetheless, I think in part that it is unavoidable that the opposition candidates can no longer just push the economic agenda that they wanted to, because they recognised who saved them, or who will save them, lest this same newly formed political force in time turn against them.
rs21: Comparisons with the 2013/14 Maidan in Ukraine are inevitable, but it seems you are suggesting that pre-exisiting conditions and the structure of the Belarusian economy, as well as the sequence of events in the last few weeks means we are seeing something very different here?
SB: I think it’s useful to draw a line of demarcation between Maidan and other ‘colour revolutions’, and what is happening in Belarus. It is very easy to project past models, and the previous opposition has always modelled itself on something like colour revolutions. Today, there are major differences both on material and ideological levels. For example, there is a pervasive insistence on not turning to nationalism, which is not at all what happened during the Maidan. In Ukraine, there was of course already a split in society between east and west, which incidentally allowed the Russian intervention, and in Belarus this is not the case. On the material level, strikes in factories were not a significant dimension of struggle in the colour revolutions, whereas as I have explained, they are emerging as a key factor in the current uprising.
In fact, it is the regime that tries to force the comparison between Maidan and the current uprising. Maidan has been a kind of key word for the government authorities in Belarus. For the first few days, they tried to legitimise the result of the election, but now, they no longer try to legitimise it and simply say: ‘We do not want Maidan, we do not want civil war, and if we change Lukashenka there will be civil war.’ Via official media, they spread the lies that the protesters are nationalist or that the Russian language may be outlawed (there are two official languages, Belarusian and Russian). On the contrary, what is important to note is that the collective efforts in civil society in actions of solidarity or mutual aid, of strikes and other organizations, are not coloured at all by nationalism. In fact, the letting-go of past nationalist attachment of the opposition is the central condition of the effectiveness of popular resistance in Belarus.
rs21: How will the movement try to maintain its independence from Russia or the EU?
SB: Russia is the elephant in the room. I’m afraid it might be the case that Russia will play a major role in the whole story. The Belarusian economy in its current state is structurally dependent on Russia. The country is not doing well, but it is doing reasonably well compared to its neighbours in the post-Soviet sphere, and this is because of a structural dependence on Russia, on oil and other subsidies. You cannot undo this.
I get the sense that Russia no longer wants Lukashenka. There has been a change in the last few days. A lot of workers in state TV, an important ideological apparatus of the state, started striking. They refused their instructions not to report the protests. What then happened is that they started importing Russian workers. Sometimes it looks very comical, because the Russian TV workers don’t quite understand the situation in Belarus – they often use the tools they used in Ukraine, and it’s very visible, and people are kind of turning this into memes.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s also evident that Lukashenka is calling Russia for help. Before the campaign Lukashenka maintained very antagonistic relations towards Russia. He even pulled a stunt where he ‘caught’ some Russian spies on the border and made a whole big deal out of it to raise nationalist feeling in his favour. But now, evidently, he’s going back to them, and Russia is helping him, so he must be promising them a lot.
Now, how to resist it? There has been an absolutely hegemonic position in the protests, from the IT elite, from the workers, and from regular citizens, that we want neither the west nor Russia. In fact, when donations started coming for the strike fund, the workers were very reluctant about it. They said we do not want to be perceived as if we’re being paid off by the west. So there is this kind of recognition of two evils.
I think that any kind of intervention or army occupation by Russia will not be tolerated therefore and will be resisted; whether there will be some kind of more subterranean intervention is another question. So this is another difference from Maidan. If Russia decides to bring in their army, it will be completely disastrous for them, I think. The popular mood is that we will not sell out to Russia or to the west. What that will mean in terms of policy will play out in the months to come, but this view remains hegemonic so far.
rs21: You have mentioned grassroots initiatives in civil society. How do you see these shaping the protests?
SB: These are absolutely critical. Let me give you the example of Covid to illustrate this. As you know, Lukashenka, just like the US and Brazilian presidents — all three share many character traits, in fact — refused to believe that Covid is a real threat. He joked that you can just treat it with vodka, or whatever. They fabricated the statistics, while medical workers were under great stress, which was an affront to their labour. What happened then was that civil society collected money for the medical workers, they collected PPE. They created grassroots networks, which were delivering food, water, PPE, and so on. So these kinds of networks have been emerging out of a complete distrust of the authorities. This long-standing incompetence of the authorities goes hand in hand with a new generation doing things for themselves collectively.
Another initiative, for example, is called Honest People. They created a network of thousands of independent observers for the election. Ultimately, they were banished from the polling sites, but the network still exists, and now they’re using this same network to collect funds for the people who have lost their jobs because of political repression: they are posting their profiles online, looking for private employers to give them even temporary jobs, or other qualifications, etc. So these networks are being formed as a result of distrust in the government and spearheaded by the young people who have never trusted any kind of leadership, because all of the leaders have betrayed them, whether opposition leaders or the government.
rs21: Are there lessons we can learn from new forms of protest emerging in Belarus?
SB: Perhaps it is too early to talk about lessons we can learn in terms of the prescriptive forms of protest. Positive and negative lessons in terms of strategy and organization are being learned daily, however. Also, there may be certain kinds of lesson we can learn in terms of analysing how a pre-revolutionary situation arises. What we can observe is that the creation of networks that are in themselves not political in content, in a revolutionary moment become by their mere existence political because they function outside of the regime. There is also a certain dialectic that shows the new possibilities for republicanism as a result of authoritarianism, which is foreclosed in liberal democracies with strong institutional history. By this I mean: long-term authoritarianism inadvertently created communities of mutual aid to survive in the repressive regime; now these communities are taking the initiative to rebuild the country beyond the apparatus of representative democracy. The thing that I hear from friends again and again is that this country has to be ‘built by us, nobody will do it for us,’ and how to do it must be invented. Just as they had to respond to the Covid emergency themselves, people perceive themselves as active actors in restructuring their communities, their republic (literally ‘common thing’, res publica in Latin), beyond the representative apparatus that has failed them.
The protests are extremely heterogeneous in form, and this has interesting implications for the pressure that can be applied. They are quite dispersed, mini-protests, as it were. One day, for example, the teachers walked out. The next day, it was the Academy of Science workers, then medical workers. They are walking out in their individual workplaces and communities and they are making direct demands to their bosses, who have all supported Lukashenka.
Another new strategy, and we will learn whether the lessons are positive or negative, is the kind of paradoxical demand, especially from Viktar Babaryka’s camp, that we will do everything according to law. We will use the law. Why is it paradoxical? It is because the government completely disrespects the law, but pretends that it is a country ruled by law. So they started to do everything according to Belarusian laws as a way to expose and overwhelm the bureaucracy at the helm of Lukashenka’s regime. For example, they organised a giant action when candidates were disallowed from registering for the presidential election: they flooded the authorities with individual legal complaints. It was a performance, I would argue: of course, their demands were not going to be satisfied, but there was this performance of the collective exercise of law, with hundreds of people, standing in a line delivering these appeals. On August 27, hundreds of people collected signatures to recall their elected representatives in the parliament. Again, as a performance, they delivered these signatures. Why, again, is this paradoxical? Because the very officials the appeals were meant to recall by democratic demands cannot be said to have been democratically elected: the parliament has been a pro forma body loyal to the president for two decades, and even the activists hardly know who their ‘elected’ (i.e., appointed) officials are. Now they are being recalled, and they are being forced to speak in public to justify their actions and positions.
This tendency has transferred, for better or for worse, to the protests — obey the law at all costs, even at the protests. So one of the tactics or trends has been that the protestors clean up after themselves. They chant: ‘We clean up after ourselves’, and they go and clean the streets, after the protest, during the protest. People with cars come and pick up garbage, using the aforementioned newly emerging networks.
Now we will see in time whether we will end up drawing a kind of negative lesson from this. Why do I say negative? Because there is a need perhaps for other expressions of power. It is one thing to expose the absurdity of the apparatus in a pre-revolutionary situation, it is another to grasp power in the revolutionary moment. So far, one tactic has been the mere presence of population on the street. So people just walk out, go to the store, stand in the street, without chanting, without signs. The mere presence of the population, which would not otherwise be on the street, has been a kind of a form of protest. However, since the emboldened police returned to the streets on August 27, the protestors are allowing themselves to be arrested without resistance, by dozens, showing full faith in ‘following the law’.
But the rules of the game have changed. Right now it’s a matter of revolution, it is no longer a question of transfer of power, because what we see is a usurpation of power by an illegitimate regime, a coup, a junta, so you need a revolution. The terms have shifted a little bit — the question is: do the strategies need to shift as well? A revolution already means something illegal; it means a successful treason. So far this strategy of ‘follow the law’ has been successful in mobilising great numbers of people, but will it be enough in the long run? We will have to see. The insistence on this strategy will make it a prolonged struggle. The lack of leadership is a kind of precondition of the protests, but the lack of political demands, other than the three main abstract demands, may prove to be a negative lesson after all.
rs21: You have said workers have expressed caution about donations to strike funds, but what forms of international solidarity could be useful?
SB: One thing I would like to say is that there has been almost no expression of solidarity from the left. This has not been missed, and I think it is a mistake—it enables adversarial forces in a situation that is quite uncertain. So statements of solidarity would be significant, and these statements of solidarity must include precisely an insistence on non-intervention, on the one hand, and insistence on the possibility of democracy without neoliberal reforms, on the other hand. In contrast, there was a letter that was co-signed by Communist Parties from across the post-Soviet bloc, in solidarity with Lukashenka, in very Stalinist tone. So I think it would be helpful for the independent left forces, which are already weakened, in Belarus to hear solidarity from the left that refuses the Stalinist impulse.
I think that nonetheless, donations to strike funds will be important, especially for everyday operations. More and more people are being fired and persecuted, and they will need help. It would help if donations are made specifically to strike funds or specific initiatives in civil society, rather than as some kind of abstract fundraising or monetary package from the EU.
Finally, there should be expressions of solidarity with civil society, with attention to the new networks that are being formed. This is often invisible because the mainstream media just shows images of the mass protests with the white-red-white red flag. But it is these actors which are effective on a smaller scale, and are practicing democracy on the ground beyond the official structures of legislative representation. Along with the striking workers, it is these basically grassroots organisations that will be crucial if the disaster is to be avoided, if the democratic impulse is to be retained in the long run.
Overall, despite the glimmers of hope and unprecedented forms of expression of solidarity, my assessment is not optimistic. It is very hard to imagine that Russia will let a dictator be removed by peaceful protest across the border, and it is hard to imagine that the neoliberal policies of the main opposition campaigns will not be exploited by the EU, should they win in some way. Nonetheless, the new forms of organization, the initiatives in the civil society, the emerging strike committees — all these provide a reason for hope and an object for study. Specific solidarity with these groups, rather than with large-scale protests in the abstract, would be helpful, and would mean a lot to them.
1 September 2020