Once working people mobilise, as they have done in Belarus, change is inevitable

Workers in Belarus are demanding democracy. If President Aleksandr Lukashenko, often (rather optimistically) referred to by the media as ‘Europe’s last dictator’, ever had the real support of the people of Belarus, he has certainly lost it now. The last straw was the ridiculous claim that he had won the elections on 9 August for a sixth consecutive term with 80 per cent of votes, and the subsequent violent reaction to the initial manifestations of public anger.

Strikes have hit enterprises that account for over a quarter of Belarus’ wealth. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Minsk and other cities in Belarus to demand change. They have faced riot police and military vehicles and have defied increasingly violent threats from Lukashenko.

There has been repression – about 7,000 people have been detained, many beaten up and there have been reports of torture in prisons.

Many trade union leaders and journalists have been arrested – most released eventually but many charged with taking part in unauthorised demonstrations.

Unable the stop the protests, and perhaps unable to persuade the police to attack their own people with more violence than they have unleashed so far, President Lukashenko is trying to stop the rest of the world from seeing that the people of Belarus have turned against him. Some 137 journalists were arrested in August and the press accreditation of many journalists working for foreign media – including some of the world’s biggest news agencies and broadcasters – has been withdrawn.

He is also making ludicrous claims that there is some sort of foreign, and even NATO, plot against him. The fact staring him in the face, and which he dares not acknowledge, is that the people of Belarus have had enough of him and will neither be intimidated nor convinced by blaming foreigners for the unrest.

On the face of it there appears to be a stalemate with Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, apparently having no intention of resigning, the leader of the opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya being forced out of the country to Lithuania, and the people of Belarus continuing to demonstrate for change with no immediate prospect of success.

Unified support from the international labour movement

The political world is divided – the European Union criticises Lukashenko, says it supports democracy in Belarus and is imposing sanctions on the regime leaders (which they have also done in the past), while Russia supports the failing Lukashenko. The trade union movement is unified and solid: supporting the Belarusian people as they stand up against police violence, stand up for democracy and the right to political protest (including by withdrawing their labour), and stand up for freedom of assembly and association.

Be in no doubt: once working people begin to mobilise, and independent trade unions – like the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) which is a member of the International Trade Union Confederation – start to organise, change is inevitable.

Already in addition to mass demonstrations many workers are leaving work to protest, and when at work are working slowly and to rule (slowing productivity by adhering to every rule). President of the BKDP Alyaksandr Yaroshuk reports there is sabotage and disregard of orders, not only from workers but also engineers, technical and administrative staff. Even if there are no major strikes as I write, production is being disrupted.

Yaroshuk acknowledges that “the game is long” but also asserts that “the economy will not be able to exist for long in such conditions, and one way or another there will be a denouement”.

Solidarity is the core value of trade unions since their inception and applies equally to the struggle of the workers of Belarus for democracy and human rights.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) offers its solidarity and an international platform for the independent trade unions of Belarus. We are in frequent contact with the BKDP and remain willing to help in every way we can.

All we want is for the people of Belarus to determine the future of their own country. We believe that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - which includes Belarus, Russia and EU states as members - is the right international body to assist in resolving the political crisis in the country. We also call on the EU to review its ‘Eastern Partnership’ initiative and support to Belarus.

Power to the people of Belarus! They will triumph one day – I do not know if that will be tomorrow or at some other time in the future, but we will support independent trade unions in Belarus for as long as it takes.