Belarus workers fight for democracy

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2020 - 7:39 Author: Pete Radcliff
Workers in Belarus

Again on 19-20 September, mass demonstrations across Belarus demanded democracy. The last two Saturdays have seen tens of thousands of women in the capital, Minsk. They have faced police attacks, but the last two Sunday demonstrations have both attracted over 150,000.

The women defended each other heroically — stopping state security arresting their comrades and pulling off the balaclavas behind which the security thugs hide their identity.

One hero of the women's marches is 74 year old Nina Baginskaya. Escaping arrest on 12 September, she was eventually arrested at the 19 September demonstration.

19-20 Sep saw the first significant Sunday demonstrations in some cities such as Gomel. In Grodno, Brest, Solihorsk, etc., numbers were larger.

Belarus's president Lukashenko remains in power. Russian president Putin has given a £1.2 billion loan to bolster the Belarusian economy, though economically that is only a gesture.

Neither Lukashenko nor Putin seems to know whether to make concessions to the protests. That might encourage further democratic demands from an increasingly confident people. But then a bloody escalation of the repression could set off an even more united reaction from the Belarusian people, perhaps ricocheting into Russia itself.

Each week there are probably at least 1,000 people arrested. Every day police snatch squads are active against prominent oppositionists like Maria Kolesnikova and against strikers.

In the huge Belaruskali potash mines, a heroic minority of workers have been out on strike for weeks. The majority of workers are in the mines, but not working normally.

Striking workers

The appeals of the striking workers at Belaruskali on their Telegram channel are both inspiring and moving. They draw attention to the bureaucratic corruption of managers and the neglect of health and safety in an industry full of fatal accidents and lung disease. They speak in fury at the beatings of demonstrators and the arrests of their comrades for building a genuine workers' union.

On Monday 21 Sep a second Belaruskali worker, Oleg Kudelka, protested by following the example of Yuri Korzun and refusing to leave the mine. Kudelka was forcibly brought up and taken to a mental hospital and then to police questioning.

In Belarus, protest action routinely brings the risk of unemployment for a whole year or imprisonment.

The Belarus Independent Trade Union (BITU) and others have called for National Strike Committee, but have not been able to form it yet.

In many companies the new independent unions are new and have weak links with similar unions elsewhere. And many strike leaders have been arrested, or have temporarily left the country for Poland (where they are getting help from the Solidarnosc union network) or for the Ukraine or Lithuania.

At the massive Grodno Azot chemical production complex, a vote of two-thirds of all workers is required for strike action. The union was confident of getting that majority, but a strike decision was prevented by the bosses refusing to allow workers who are on leave or sick to get onto the site to cast their vote. (And then Lukashenko still has the power to rule strikes illegal whatever the vote).

Norwegian unions from the Yara International chemical company have accompanied managers to visit their supplier Belaruskali. They were refused permission to meet the reps of the strike committee and BITU on site. They instead met them at the airport, and have arranged further talks about the mine's failures on workers' health and democratic rights.

Liza Merliak, international secretary of the BITU, told me that other acts of solidarity are important too − like John McDonnell's "Early Day Motion" to Parliament, and street protests.

• LabourStart solidarity statement here

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