The situation in Belarus appeared to have subsided since election day: the opposition candidate had fled to Lithuania, and only a few small marches and night-time street blockades in Minsk faced the riot police. But today the country has been awakened to a series of strikes in over a dozen large companies. There are rallies and demonstrations in many others. Something seems to have changed, but… What?
The situation until yesterday
The opposition had been calling for a general strike for months from election day if Lukashenko’s victory were to be officially declared, the Russian press was happy to announce it and specific websites set up by the opposition had been insisting on it daily since June. The opposition had some small groups in the large state-owned plants such as the BMZ steelworks or the Grodno Azot fertilizer factory which immediately mobilized but did not even manage to get a photo in any media. The opposition sites announced strikes in several plants, but those that did take place were so small that the Belarusian government had no problem denying their existence. For instance, the police were able to enter the Minsk-Kozlov power plant on Tuesday and arrest a couple of strikers without any trouble.
The number of strikes dropped sharply on Wednesday, when the pro-opposition media were desperately trying to find strikes of three or ten people at research institutes or between shop owners. Meanwhile, the number of demonstrators on the streets increased, with all kinds of media performances, from copies of the famous Maidan Girl, to girls parading flowers in front of riot police and chanting ultra-nationalist slogans while holding the flag of the… Grand Duchy of Lithuania turned into the former flag of the Republic of Belarus. Repression increased in intensity yesterday afternoon and night, leaving a large number of injured and arrested.
Workers appear on the scene
However, today more and more companies are going on strike. These are no longer the Grodno Azot or the BMZ, where there were small opposition groups, but companies that had not gone on strike the days before. Many are construction companies in several cities in Belarus, and one of the biggest groups of workers is the state-owned BelAZ car factory. Whether or not there was a strike on Tuesday could not be confirmed, but this morning there were hundreds of workers gathered in an assembly with section representatives. Right now they are marching in the streets. These are no longer testimonial strikes, but today there are lots of videos and photos of groups of workers on strike, from construction sites to hospitals.
The reasons for such a response become clearer if we look more closely at what happens in plants like BelAZ:
There are a lot of people, several hundred workers have gathered. All this is happening next to the mechanical press shop. One man holds a flag saying “We are not slaves”, the others chant “Well done!”, – says our correspondent. The management of the company comes to the people and the people shout “we are not afraid”. Cars passing in the street honk. […] The workers of one of the largest companies in the country continue to ask questions of the plant and city management. They ask the head of the local executive committee, Dmitry Zabolotsky, why independent observers were not allowed to monitor the elections, why the violence on the streets was not stopped. One of the main questions about the “riots” is whether any protesters actually broke a car window or a storefront. The mayor is unable to answer in the affirmative.
Or at the Grodnozhilstroy construction company:
The team of the Grodnozhilstroy company gathered in assembly, showing determination. […] People discuss the events of the last days and nights: the military deployment in the city, the beatings of civilians by the security forces. “It’s scary to go out, I have children” says one of the company’s employees indignantly.
The company’s management and that of the city are trying to calm people down. A public official promises to “do the right thing from today”. […] They tell him that there was no provocation on the first day, and that all the men, women and even children were beaten.
The workers accuse the local authorities of inaction and that this led to the police riot. Applause is heard. “Show us a video where people attacked the traffic or riot police!”
Hundreds of people have come to the meeting. No one is afraid of the cameras, they don’t hide their faces, the men clearly express their anger at the situation.
Some workers appear to be supporting the opposition candidate in the videos, but the response of the workers today appears mostly and distinctly as a reaction to the police violence of these days and especially of yesterday. This is not a patriotic response in support of the fleeing opponent, but a response in defense of the most basic needs, of not having to be afraid of being hit or shot when leaving home – or of their children being hit, as the Grodnozhilstroy worker said-.
The workers have finally appeared on the scene in Belarus, with their own concerns and not under the initial calls of the opposition. They are now presenting themselves as a force during this crisis, but the outcome is not yet decided. Will they be caught up in the incipient popular revolt as the opposition wants, or will they advance their own struggle as a class by adding their own slogans to their own budding movement?