On Sunday 9 August the old-style Stalinist president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, rigged the presidential election to stay in power. He has run the country since 1994, controlling state media and the vast state machine.
70,000 attended the rally of the anti-Lukashenko presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya which took place in the capital, Minsk, at the end of July.
Tikhanovskaya had entered the contest after her husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger and alternative presidential candidate, was arrested and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. Tikhanovskaya’s platform demanded the release of all political prisoners and new, fair elections.
Lukashenko became increasingly unpopular as the economy tanked. His bizarre mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, denying any threat to health, has caused widespread alarm and contempt. His regime has lost some key leading supporters. And his relations with Putin’s Russia, once strong, have frayed.
Lukashenko was declared the winner with about 80% of the vote, to Tikhanovskaya’s 10%. The results were met with derision and people took to the streets. Perhaps 7000 were arrested in Minsk during the first fours days of protests against the official result. There has been widespread state violence against the protesters and systematic abuse inside detention centres. At least two people have died.
Protesters have driven round Minsk, Brest and other smaller towns with their horns blaring, protesting against the results. Riot police have responded by standing on street corners using their batons to take out the windscreens of passing cars. Drivers have been dragged out and beaten by the roadside.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has fled to Lithuania, saying her children have been threatened. Thousands of women, dressed in white and often carrying flowers, have taken to the streets to protest against state violence.
Groups of doctors have protested outside hospitals with signs saying “Stop the violence”.
Although the state machine remains intact, individual police have resigned in protest against the police violence, and a series of videos have been posted on-line by army personnel burning their uniforms in disgust at the state terror.
The European Union has criticised the vote and condemned the crackdown, as has Amnesty International.
On Thursday 13 and Friday 14 August a strike wave began, demanding Lukashenko resign. So far these strikes seem to be short stoppages.
Workers at state-controlled fertilizer producer Grodno Azot took to the streets demanding an end to the crackdown.
Also on 13 August workers of the BelAZ plant in Zhodzina, 60km from Minsk, which makes trucks and construction vehicles, walked off the job. It seems the workers put forward four demands: the resignation of Lukashenka; an immediate end to police violence; the release of all political prisoners and thousands of protesters; the holding a new presidential election with all candidates who have been barred from the presidential election.
A march from the Minsk Tractor Works, MTZ, to the main government building took place on Friday 14 August, with workers demanding a vote recount and calling for peaceful marches on 15 and 16 August. Rail workers joined the protests.
Thousands of workers from the Hrodna Azot chemical plant in the western city of Hrodna walked out demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. The workers declared “Our votes have been stolen!” and “We didn’t elect him!”
On Sunday 16 August perhaps 200 000 protesters filled Minsk’s streets demanding Lukashenko must go, dwarfing a pro-Lukashenko rally.
Leaders of the Baltic states issued a joint statement demanding new, fair elections, leaving an increasingly isolated Lukashenko urging Russian help. Opposition figures have stressed their mobilisation is not anti-Russian and they have avoided the question of EU integration.
Charles Michel, European Council president, denounced the violence used against protesters. Josep Borrell, the head of the EU’s foreign policy, called for an investigation into human rights abuses.
On Monday 17 August more strikes took place. Hundreds of workers of BelAZ, one of the world’s largest haulage and earthmovers manufacturers, marched round their factory demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. Hundreds of TV workers struck in the state’s broadcaster, BT, leaving an empty sofa on a morning television show; some presenters have resigned and Oleg Titkov, a television show host, said, “We want to work honestly. We do not want to be forced to lie.”. The musicians of the Minsk orchestra struck, too.
On Monday morning, at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, Lukashenko told workers he planned reforms. However he was booed by workers chanting “Resign!” Lukashenko replied, “Are you saying the elections were unfair and you want fair ones? Here's your answer. We had an election. Until you kill me, there won’t be another one.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, speaking in Lithuania, said she was ready to lead Belarus through a transition period. She called on state officials to break with Lukashenko.
At least some of the 16,000 workers at the state-owned Belaruskali company, the world’s largest producer of potash, a key source of dollar revenue for Belarus, struck stopping production.
Striking workers of Naftan oil refinery in Novopolotsk, which employs 10 000 workers, announced their demands: 1. Resignation of President Lukashenko; 2. Resignation of the Central Electoral Committee; 3. Release of all political prisoners.
Solidarity with the struggle for democracy and workers’ rights in Belarus!