24.11.20
„Don’t wait for the majority, create the majority“

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We are publishing an article by Frank Hoffer, an associate fellow of the Global Labour University, in which he reasons on the potential and possible actions of the organised labour movement in present-day events in Belarus.

‘Don’t wait for the majority, create the majority.’ That is how Vladimir Shuravko addresses his colleagues at Grodno Asot in a short video on Telegramm-Kanal, the communication platform of the Belarusian protest movement (Shuravko, 2020). Vladimir was arrested and dismissed because of being a member of the strike committee of Grodno Asot, one of the largest chemical plants in the country. He is one of the courageous independent trade unionists who know that mass strikes are the quickest peaceful way to end Lukashenka’s illegitimate presidency. Lukashenka knows this too and has used all means of repression to suppress strikes and nip trade union organisation in the bud. Trade unionists are constantly pressured, dismissed, arrested and beaten (Labourstart, 2020). On 16 November, nineteen trade unionists were sentenced to prison, because of participating in an ‘unauthorised mass-event’.

Much on the streets of Minsk recalls the self-liberation in Central and Eastern Europe 30 years ago when Soviet systems imploded in the face of broad popular movements and peaceful demonstrations for freedom and democracy. The people in Belarus are fed up with stagnation, state propaganda, the KGB, arbitrary rule and election rigging. The protest is not centrally organised nor—as conspiracy mystics would like to believe—initiated by foreign powers. Their lack of leadership is also their strength. So even the arrest of numerous activists cannot stop the protest of the many. The telegram channel Hexta is the virtual public space through which the decentralised protests spontaneously coordinate and network. The creativity of the protest forms reflects the diversity of the many different groups: students, artists, doctors, workers, pensioners, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals, who week after week turn out in masses demanding Lukashenka’s resignation.

But unlike the helpless old men thirty years ago in Prague, Sofia or East Berlin, Lukashenka and his security apparatus rely on KGB and police terror to defend their power. With Putin instead of Gorbachev in the Kremlin, he trusts in Russian support for the authoritarian variant and calculates that the West, after a few symbolic sanctions, will accept as a matter of realpolitik the fact of a tightened Lukashenka dictatorship.

Peaceful protest and state thugs

Brave women and men have been taking to the streets for months despite police truncheons, stun grenades, mass arrests and torture. Countless people have been intimidated and brutally beaten. Last Thursday, 31-year-old Roman Bondarenko died of his injuries after being beaten by state thugs in civilian clothes (Roth, 2020).

The Belarusian diaspora from all parts of the world is supporting its compatriots through public campaigns in Berlin, Vancouver, Sydney and many other cities. European politicians have expressed their solidarity, the European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize(European Parliament, 2020), and the German Bundestag has adopted a remarkably clear resolution. In particular Russia and some of its political friends in the west are cynically rejecting support for the protest movement in the name of non-interference while backing up Lukashenka. However, non-interference is not an option in a conflict between state terror and self-determination. Standing up for the people to determine their own destiny is not interference in internal affairs. Threatening to send special security forces, like Putin (BBC, 2020), and sending the propagandists of Russia Today to Minsk to replace critical journalists on Belarusian state television, on the other hand, is.

Supporting the fight for freedom

Among the supporters of the democracy movement are some who are not necessarily otherwise know as champions of freedom and the rule of law, such as Jarosław Kaczyński, Victor Orban or Boris Johnson. And neither from the German Bundestag or the German government were similar clear words expressed concerning Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong or Thailand. But what is right in the case of Belarus does not become wrong by failing to do the right thing in other cases.

Without daily and active solidarity not only from the Belarusian diaspora but also from trade unions, other civil society initiatives and political parties, there is a danger, however, that Belarus will quickly disappear from public view and that official political statements of solidarity will remain empty words. The Belarussians need moral, political and financial solidarity and practical help for the persecuted, arrested and displaced persons.

The political spectrum and economic interests are broad, not only among international supporters but also within the protest movement. With such a broad protest movement, it cannot be any different, and when the unifying goal of Lukashenka’s departure and free elections is achieved, these differences will become clearly evident. It is likely that some euphoric dreams will be shattered and that Lukashenka will be followed by a ruthless market economy. Everything will depend on supporting those—especially the independent trade unions—who represent the social and economic interests of broad sections of the population.

Belarus has far better economic starting conditions than Poland or the Baltic states in 1989. Despite Lukashenka’s rhetorical Soviet nostalgia, considerable structural change has already taken place. What was already flawed thirty years ago, shock therapy and the shameless privatisation of national assets, would not only be unnecessarily painful for Belarus today, but wrong.

Fair change instead of shock therapy

Developing ideas for a fair and socially just transformation has to start now already in order to avoid both oligarchic capitalisms as in Russia or Ukraine and a shock-therapeutic transformation in which people, disappointed by democracy and freedom, turn towards illiberal nationalists like Orban, Kaczyński or Putin.

‘Lukashenko uhodi!’ [‘Lukashenko get out!’] is what people all over Belarus have been demanding for weeks. This struggle for freedom of a people trapped between geopolitical interests needs and deserves our full solidarity. Solidarity now means support for the protest movement, for strikers and their independent trade unions, journalists and other civil society initiatives. But it is also about a European offer of economic support for a democratic Belarus—support and not technocrats from the IMF, ECB and EU Commission imposing on countries what they consider to be right. It must be about supporting a fair and inclusive reform process together with the democratic representatives of the Belarusian people and with broad participation of the population. It is a question of avoiding the social mistakes of past transformations, when for many workers, farmers and pensioners, political liberation was followed by economic whining.

Instead of the fatal structural adjustment programmes of past times, the democratic forces in Belarus need economic space for a socially responsible and fair transformation. The unconditional opening of the EU internal market for exports from Belarus, bridging loans to avert a short-term financial crisis, promotion of European direct investment and a wide range of cooperation in the fields of science and training would be important building blocks here. The same applies to advice and assistance in the creation of state development banks, inclusion of workers and independent trade unions in corporate governance structures, responsible management of municipal utilities and the design of universal pension and health care systems. In short, an aid programme is needed that promotes the country’s development opportunities and does not primarily amount to a peripheral integration into the economic and migration interests of the European power centres.

The paths for future transformation must be debated now, even if they can only be answered after the victory over Lukashenka and the self-liberation of the Belarusian people, because where positive ideas for transformation are lacking, the market, power and money will fill the vacuum. However, while today there cannot be clarity about the future of Belarus, clearly it starts with one word: Uhodi!

Frank Hoffer,
an associate fellow of the Global Labour University

References:
— Shuravko, V. (2020) https://t.me/belarusseichas/14745. Accessed 17.11.2020
— Roth, A. (2020) ‘Belarus: thousands protest against death of teacher in police custody’, The Guardian, 15 November
— Krömer, J. (2020) ‘Belarusian activists in Berlin set up alternative ‘embassy”’ DW.com, 13 November
— European Parliament (2020) ‘Press release: The 2020 Sakharov Prize awarded to the democratic opposition in Belarus’, European Parliament News. Available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/pressroom/20201016IPR89546/the-2020-sakharov-prizeawarded-to-the-democratic-opposition-in-belarus. Accessed 20 November 2020
— BBC (2020) ‘Putin says he could send police to Belarus if necessary’, BBC News, 27 August


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