Belarus: the beginning of what end?

By Catherine Samary on 24 September 2020

The 6th re-election of Alexander Lukachenko on August 9 was preceded and followed by popular mobilizations fueled by police brutality against the backdrop of fraud and growing questioning of old social protections. The Belarusian autocrat, after multiple tensions with his Russian neighbor, is now asking Putin for his “help” in dealing with an unprecedented social protest.

The breakup of the USSR was decreed in Belarusian territory on December 8, 1991 by Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia and his two counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus – when the population voted overwhelmingly for the maintenance (and the reform) of the Union on March 17 [1]. But the “liberal” shock therapy driven by Yeltsin and initially also advocated by the pro-Western “Belarusian Popular Front” (BNF), was stopped by the ouster (for corruption) of the incumbent president and the election of Alexander. Lukachenko to the presidency in 1994. If he adopted the old name of Belarus, the new leader proposed to reject (by referendum in 1995) the white and red flag of this first pre-Soviet republic of 1918 in favor of the “Soviet flag” – but without the sickle and the hammer surmounted by the red star.

His blocking of liberal shock therapy and maintenance of a strong public sector was aimed at consolidating his power which will be increasingly autocratic. And it was accompanied by the repression of powerful strikes underway. As David Mandel points out (comparing the situation and the workers’ and trade union struggles in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in the 1990s), the Lukachenko regime “subjected the unions to a much more systematic repression” than in countries inflicting “more strong social decomposition ”by privatizations [2] – other means of breaking any questioning of the old bureaucratic system by its own social base, the workers.

The anti-union and political repression was accompanied by an initial search for stabilization of the new regime through socio-economic gains. In 2018, Belarus was ranked 53rd out of 189 countries according to the Human Development Index with one of the lowest inequality rates in Europe. Its GDP per capita has quadrupled since 1990 (20,000 dollars compared to 9,000 in Ukraine in purchasing power parity). But the social gains linked to employment, and the “cult of work” (not of workers!) Have gone from traits borrowed from “Sovietism” to a strong neo-liberal logic such as the obligation of accept any job (public or, increasingly, private) [3].

Since 2004, the individualization of employment contracts has replaced collective agreements; and the pension scheme does not take into account the time spent in military service, nor that of maternity and study leave. The country suffered less than others (more open to financial globalization) from the banking and financial crisis of 2008/2009: growth fluctuated but was maintained until the Ukrainian crisis of 2013 (ending the regime of the oligarch President Yanukovych) [4]. It was she who inflicted the country’s first recessions since 1995, due to its close ties to both Ukraine and Russia.

More and more fragile balances in the elections of August 9

This Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s “takeover” of Crimea were traumas for Belarusian power as well as for many other “post-socialist” autocrats, in multiple senses – and also polarized the left [5]. The thesis of a “colored revolution” fomented by the Western powers (and moreover identified with the fascist currents which were very active there) became for the autocrats the grid of denunciation of the social movements which contested them. But leaders of former non-Russian Soviet republics, such as Lukachenko, have also been suspicious of Russian power-owner behavior and its very asymmetrical plans for union. The regime’s repressive verticalist course grew stronger and, as in Russia, identified all opponents of foreign-funded pawns… Except that, moreover, for Lukachenko, this “foreigner” could also be Russian.

That’s why he has chosen to diversify his cards and play the mediator for the negotiation in Minsk of agreements between the then Ukrainian president, Putin, Merkel and Macron. Its “neutrality” earned it the lifting of European sanctions in 2016 [6]. In practice, early treaties signed by Lukashenko and Yeltsin provided for a “union of states” between Russia and Belarus – and Putin would like to make it a reality. And he would not be reluctant to replace Lukachenko with a leader who is more docile and open to new privatizations: the last negotiations in December 2019 were indeed met with resistance from the Belarusian leader [7]. At the same time, plans for a Eurasian Union, founded by Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia in 2014 (claiming to be the “model” of the EU [8]) are floundering.

But Belarus’ public debt fell from less than 10% of GDP in 2005 to around 50%. Pressure from both Russia and the IMF added to all tensions. For 5 years, the regime has applied a wage freeze while many prices are increasing. The generalization of fixed-term contracts was imposed in 2017 along with a project for an unemployment tax (identified as “social parasitism”), a project which was finally dismissed in the face of the first social protests involving in particular the youth and their bloggers. .euse.s. The Covid-19 initially treated with derision by Lukachenko was a factor aggravating the growing discredit of the regime [9].

Women, young people, workers …

The elections of August 9 were held against this internal social background and while tensions with Putin’s power were major, despite popular proximity and lasting dependencies. The shadow of Moscow would thus be behind two of the three candidates dismissed by Lukachenko before the elections but also behind 33 recently arrested mercenaries, members of a “Wagner group” who “raged in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central Africa” ​​for power. Russian, says Vincent Présumey [10].

But the unforeseen grafted onto this context. Lukachenko began by invalidating in various ways his three main candidates (Siarhei Tsikhanovski, Viktor Babaryko, and Valery Tsepkalo) – “all socially linked to the ‘business’ sectors,” continues Vincent Présumey. But the autocrat wishing to testify to his “pluralism” accepted the candidacy (which he supposed harmless) of the wife of Tsikhanovsky (imprisoned) Svetlana Tsikhanovskaïa (then of those of the two other ousted candidates) – all without political experiences deciding to take the relay of their spouses.

The opposition campaign was marked by Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya who expressed her fears (for her family) in popular words. She was quickly supported by the other two women, Maria Kolesnikova (Babaryko’s campaign leader) and Veronika Tsepkalo. Both his courage and his fragility “spoke” to the populations. The youth became involved massively, with a pivotal “moment” on August 7, when Lukachenko decided to encourage a rock concert – which Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya decided to attend.

The surprise came when “in his presence, the host disc jockeys covered an unexpected song, Peremen (Changes)”, by Victor Tsoï (died in 1990) of the former Russian group Kino – a cult track from the days of the perestroika [11]. The proclamation of the results (giving only around 10% of the vote to Tihhanovskaia and 80% to Lukachenko) produced anger and protests. The violence of the repression – in particular that of the special forces, the OMON – only accentuated a popular shift to “release” this power, and this throughout the country, well beyond Minsk.

A major turning point, from August 10, was the involvement of workers in emblematic companies and in calls for strikes and demonstrations – demanding an end to the violence, the release of those arrested. and contesting the election results [12]. Several leaders of strike committees were brutalized and / or arrested, such as Nikolai Zimine, metallurgist, veteran of independent trade unionism (BKPD), severely beaten in August then arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison, like a few others (when denunciations multiply and images of police violence) [13].

Internal and international uncertainties

It was by keeping quiet about their (pro or anti-Russian) privatization program that the candidates campaigned against the regime, its frauds and its violence. But the “forehead” of the candidates has already cracked while remaining opaque. The Coordination Committee of this opposition was established [14]. But on August 31, Maria Kolesnikova [15] (support of Viktor Babariko) member of the praesidium of this Committee produced her first public fracture: she unilaterally announced the creation of a new party (“Ensemble”) opening the door to a scenario of new elections without prior departure of Lukachenko. What Svetlana Tikhanovskaia (refugee in Lithuania) radically rejected [16].

At the same time, after denouncing Russian interference, Lukachenko decided to seek Russian “help” – after returning to Russia the 32 Russian citizens among the 33 mercenaries arrested. Putin would not want to support a loser – nor encourage a popular movement that would produce his downfall (without certainty about his succession). The Navalny affair makes it harder for (Macron and Merkel’s) plans to rely on Putin to manage this crisis (against pressure from both Poland and the Baltic States and the United States). For the time being Lukachenko has been granted a loan of 1.3 billion euros (probably accompanied by a restructuring of its debt and deliveries of hydrocarbons at reduced prices) – which neither the IMF nor the The EU cannot provide it.

For the moment, no one on the ground is in a position to “represent” and defend popular aspirations which turn neither to Russia nor to the EU, but to the demand for fundamental rights and freedoms, at the political and social level. The trade union and international political left must support these demands, independent trade unionism – weak in such a regime, but real – and all forms of popular self-organization which alone can limit “instrumentalisation” from all sides.

This text is the long version of the one published by L’Anticapitaliste, written on 13/09 and updated on 18/09.