Lukashenko regime has striking workers in its sights

Late last week, after Belarus’s strongman president Alexander Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown on protests against his disputed re-election, Juras and about 800 other workers at the BelAZ manufacturing plant in Zhodino downed tools and walked out in protest.

“They insolently falsified the election results. And then, they dispersed peaceful protesters. It’s no longer possible to just sit and be silent when you see how people are beaten and maimed,” said Juras. He added that in Zhodino, a 65,000 strong city some 55km north-east of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, security forces had detained “rows” of people.

As Mr Lukashenko battles to reassert his authority following this month’s deeply flawed election and his savage crackdown on peaceful protesters, state-owned companies such as BelAZ, which account for about 70 per cent of the country’s $60bn economy, have become one of the key battlegrounds.

The huge state-owned sector is a throwback to the Soviet command economy that dominated eastern Europe until the collapse of the Iron Curtain. But while other former Soviet states in the region went through a wrenching economic transition in the 1990s and 2000s, Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, set Belarus on a different course.

Instead of overseeing mass privatisations, he kept the bulk of the economy under state control. The decision meant that Belarus was spared the economic shock therapy that Russia and Ukraine endured, and for years, the subsidies to state-run companies gave Mr Lukashenko a loyal support base. But as the public mood has turned against him since the election, the same companies have been a potential point of pressure for his opponents.

One of the most eye-catching protests took place at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant on Monday, where a visibly shocked Mr Lukashenko turned up expecting a friendly audience, and was instead met with boos and whistles from workers, and chants of “Resign! Resign!”

But there have also been other strikes and protests at state-owned groups across the country, ranging from the fertiliser group Grodno Azot near the Polish border, to tractor and automotive plants in the capital Minsk. Belaruskali, which controls 20 per cent of global production of potash, and is a key source of dollar income for Belarus, was also hit by walkouts.

Amid mounting concern over the economic impact of the protests — one presidential aide claimed this week that it had already cost the country $500m — Mr Lukashenko’s regime has hit back at striking workers.

Maksim, a loader driver at BelAZ, said that company bosses had simply locked workshops with workers inside to stop them taking part in the protest.

Grodno Azot staff protest near their plant © Reuters
BelAZ employees rally against the election result © EPA-EFE

Since then, workers have also been threatened with the sack for participating in strikes. “The plant management in every possible way prevented the gathering of people,” he said.

Nikita, a stamp operator at the Minsk Tractor Works, also claimed that bosses at his factory would not let workers who had signed a petition calling for new elections out of the factory to join the strike.

“It’s 50/50. Everyone is scared,” he said. “There’s no way Lukashenko will resign without the workers. They need to stop the workers from striking because if the industrial giants cease production, then he’ll have to go.”

However, in recent days, there have been signs that the pressure on strike organisers from Mr Lukashenko’s regime is helping him claw back control. At BelAZ, which has 11,000 staff, the protests had dwindled in recent days, with many workers worried of losing their jobs if they continued.

“People are intimidated, threatened with lay-offs. Daily meetings are held in workshops and divisions. People are told how hard life was in the 1990s and how they should be grateful to Lukashenko for what we have now,” said Juras.

“Most workers support the protest, but they are afraid of losing their jobs. It is very difficult to find a job in our small town. And at the factory they pay well.”

Some analysts think that Mr Lukashenko may now be able to ride out the wave of protests — at least in the short run. “The only thing [that could really hurt Lukashenko] would be a national strike, but for that to happen there would have to be very strong organisation between strike committees,” said Katia Glod, a non-resident fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank.

“There has been an attempt to form one, but it was done too late, it should have been done several days before.”

But Mr Lukashenko’s opponents have not given up. “It may drag on, but the point of no return has been passed,” said Juras. “There is no turning back. You cannot forgive what he did to our people and our country.”

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