Under threat and unable to work, Belarusian trade unionists have taken refuge in Germany to escape prison

Under threat and unable to work, Belarusian trade unionists have taken refuge in Germany to escape prison

Lizaveta Merliak (left), former international secretary of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of miners, chemical, transport, energy and building workers (BITU), and Maksim Pazniakou, former chairperson of BITU, in Bremen on 27 January 2022. Both trade unionists now live in exile in Germany.

(Rachel Knaebel)

In Belarus 2023 began with a new trial for civil society, that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski. The president of the Viasna human rights group is accused, along with three of his colleagues*, of having financed actions that “undermine public order”. This “shameful pretence of a trial” has been denounced by Amnesty International, among others. The four defendants have been in detention since mid-2021 and face up to 12 years in prison.

Since the controversial elections in August 2020 and the subsequent protest movement, and even more so since the beginning of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the whole of civil society in Belarus has come under threat from the government of Alexander Lukashenko. In addition to human rights defenders, the authorities have also targeted journalists, lawyers, political opponents and peaceful demonstrators.

According to Viasna, which remains the principal human rights group in the country, at the end of January at least 1,440 people were in prison for political reasons.

Members and leaders of independent trade unions in Belarus have not been spared. On 5 January 2023, the Minsk City Court sentenced three leaders of trade unions not affiliated with the regime – Henadz Fiadynich, Viachaslau Areshka and Vasil Berasnieu – to heavy prison terms. They were charged with, among other things, “forming or participating in an extremist group”. The men, aged 66, 68 and 73, were sentenced to between eight and nine years’ imprisonment in a penal colony.

Earlier, on 26 December 2022, three other trade union activists – Aliaksandr Yarashuk, president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), his deputy Siarhei Antusevich and a union staff member, Iryna Bud-Husaim – were sentenced to between one and a half and four years in prison. The authorities accused them of “threatening national security”.

“Others were imprisoned, but have already served their sentences and are now out. Young people in particular, who were sentenced for taking part in protest actions,” explains Lizaveta Merliak, a former international secretary for the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of miners, chemical, transport, energy and building workers (BITU). She now lives in exile in Germany. “The young trade unionists who have been in prison have spent the time since their release recovering their health. If detention was so hard for them, what will it be like for our older colleagues, some of whom have been ill with cancer?”

Growing repression

Trade unions independent of the government have existed in Belarus since 1991. They came together to form the Belarussian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) in 1993. Despite pressure from the Lukashenko regime, which has been in power continuously since 1994, these organisations – the Free Trade Union of Metal Workers (SPM), the Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB), the Union of Workers in the Radio-Electronic Industry (REP) and the national centre, the BKDP – have made a place for themselves in most of the country’s large companies and have joined international structures such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the IndustriAll Global Union.

After the mass demonstrations against the rigged and disputed re-election of President Lukashenko in August 2020, independent trade unions followed the opposition’s call for a general strike. At the same time, new members have been joining. The free trade unions grew from around 10,000 to some 15,000 members in a few months. But soon their offices were being raided, as were the homes of some of their leaders.

In 2021, workers belonging to independent trade unions were dismissed en masse. The International Labour Organization (ILO) subsequently denounced the serious violations of fundamental workers’ rights in Belarus.

In February 2022, the leaders of the independent trade unions publicly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in Belarus. The government’s response became even tougher.

On 19 April 2022, some 20 union officials were arrested, including those convicted in December. “We were communicating with new union members via Telegram channels. In April 2022, the authorities considered these channels to be extremist content and one of their responses was to shut down my organisation,” says Merliak of the BITU. “When the chair of my branch union was arrested, that was a signal to me that I would be next.”

Exile in Germany

The mother of two then took to the road with her children and called a former German researcher at the ILO, whom she had met via the international trade union movement. The man, who is based in Bremen in north-west Germany, is retired but still connected to the trade union world.

That is how Merliak arrived in the Hanseatic city on 1 May 2022. She immediately applied for political asylum with the support of the German Trade Union Confederation, the DGB (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund). “They paid for the lawyer,” she says.

“We watched what was happening in Belarus all last year, we followed the arrests, the persecutions,” explains Ernesto Harder, president of the Bremen branch of the DGB, who accompanied Merliak. “I asked if there were other trade unionists we could help.”

The branch union then turned to the city authorities to successfully support the political asylum procedure for eight colleagues who had remained in Belarus. Bremen applied directly to the German Foreign Ministry, and the trade unionists obtained their status from the German embassy in Minsk. But only seven of the eight were finally able to leave the country. The eighth remains in prison.

In mid-July 2022, Belarus officially liquidated and banned the country’s independent trade unions. Merliak’s colleagues arrived in Germany shortly afterwards, in September. Among them was Maksim Pazniakou, former chairperson of the BITU and current president of the BKPD. He spent 30 days behind bars last spring.

“But I was lucky, I got out and I’m here today,” he says, from his new home town. “But more than 30 of our brothers and sisters are still in prison,” he recalls.

The persecuted trade unionists, both men and women, now live with their families in Germany. One evening last January, the mayor of Bremen welcomed them all to an official reception at the city’s trade union centre.

“Once they arrived here, the colleagues needed accommodation, a place in a crèche and a job. We saw a great wave of solidarity from DGB members to help provide all of this,” Harder says proudly.

The Belarusians also have an office where they can continue their work. In order carry on the role of the trade unions dissolved by the regime, the eight refugees have set up an association in Germany called Salidarnast, meaning ‘solidarity’. “The priority is to get our colleagues released,” says Pazniakou.

But it is also about supporting all workers in Belarus, despite the barriers. “We can no longer represent their interests directly, we can no longer conduct collective bargaining, but we continue our information and legal advice work. And we remain an integral part of the international trade union movement,” the trade unionist insists.

This work is all the more important for the association because, in addition to trade union repression, “labour law has been weakened in Belarus since 2020,” says Pazniakou. “To apply for any new job, you now have to provide a certificate of loyalty to the state issued by your former employer,” he adds. A person who has been arrested for taking part in a demonstration cannot get one. And someone who has spent even two weeks in prison for the same reason can be dismissed for abandoning their job.

“The problems of workers in Belarus did not start in 2020. Workers’ rights have been violated in the country for 30 years. Our association’s aim is to create a broad network to defend the demand for decent work,” says Merliak.

She adds that “we must maintain our solidarity, because only international solidarity can help against the autocrats who wage war in Ukraine and put civil society in prison.” As a refugee far from home, dealing with a language she does not yet really speak, the trade unionist is nevertheless confident that “one day we will return home and rebuild our society”.

This article has been translated from French by Sara Hammerton

* Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich and Dzmitry Salauyou