On 4 October 100,000 people marched through Minsk in the latest mass protest against the rigging of the presidential election of 9 August. It was the 57th day of protests, and the ninth successive Sunday of mass demonstrations in the country’s capital.
Despite some two months having passed since the election, the size of the demonstration in Minsk, and smaller demonstrations in other Belarussian cities and towns, shows that the anti-Lukashenko opposition remains as determined as ever to win its demands: a re-run of the presidential election; the release of all political prisoners; and prosecution of those responsible for the violence used against protestors over the past two months.
The strike wave which swept through Belarus in August has ebbed, at least for the time being. But, at the time of writing, miners in the Belaruskali potash mine are still on strike in protest at bad management and Lukashenko’s refusal to resign, and workers at the Grodno Azot plant in Hrodna are campaigning in protest at the arrests and trials of fellow workers.
Although it is difficult to assess the extent of their growth, independent trade unions continue to grow as more and more workers become disillusioned with the official trade unions.
A recently released video produced by workers at the MTZ tractor plant near Minsk explains some reasons:
“In exchange for our money these (official) trade unions put pressure on us. And their representatives took part in the falsification of the elections. We’ve had enough of feeding these ‘office-desk do-nothings’.
“We, MTZ workers, call for people to sign out of the state trade unions and to join independent trade unions. It is the independent unions which defend the rights of waged workers… Unite on the basis of independent trade unions and remember: ‘Solidarity is stronger than repression’.”
Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and standing for a sixth term of office, claimed to have won the election of 9 August with 80% of the vote — despite widespread popular dissatisfaction with state corruption, low pay, economic stagnation and Lukashenko’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (which he dismissed as a “psychosis”).
His main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (who replaced her husband as a candidate after he had been arrested and accused of planning “mass riots”), was credited with just 10% of the votes — despite her election rallies having attracted crowds of up to 60,000.
Since then, mass protests and strikes have been a daily occurrence. Lukashenko has responded with brute force.
Truncheons, rubber bullets, water cannons, stun grenades and mass detentions have been used against protestors. Around 225 protestors were detained on 4 October alone. Leading opposition figures, including Tsikhanouskaya herself, are either in exile or in prison.
Estimates of the number of detainees since August vary from 10,000 to 13,000. Either way, this is more than the number of people detained during two years of martial law in Poland, despite the population of Poland being four times larger.
There were three political prisoners in the country’s jails in May. There are now 77.
Media coverage of the protests has been made as difficult as possible. Selected journalists have had their press accreditation withdrawn by the authorities. Then, prior to last Sunday’s protests, the accreditation of all journalists working for foreign news agencies was cancelled.
Reporters covering demonstrations have also been beaten up and detained — 17 on the 4 October protests alone.
While Lukashenko has failed to find a strategy to undermine the opposition, he has succeeded in winning support from Putin.
In line with his image as the protector of Belarussian sovereignty, Lukashenko had previously criticised Putin, but the protests have led to rapid conciliation.
On 2 October the European Union imposed sanctions on 40 members of Lukashenko’s administration (but not Lukashenko himself). Belarus responded by imposing sanctions on an unspecified number of unnamed EU officials
Tsikhanouskaya has stepped up appeals for support from EU governments and is meeting the German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week. In the past the opposition has been reticent about overt appeals for support from Western governments, in order to minimise its exposure to allegations that it is acting as a front for Western intervention.