"For Your Freedom and For Ours: why the Left should support the protests in Belarus"
On 9 August, Belarusians went to the polls in a presidential election that, just like every presidential or otherwise election in long-standing autocrat President Alaksandr Łukašenka’s 26-year-long rule, they already knew would be neither free nor fair. The reigning president had already imprisoned several high-profile political opponents, attempted to prevent opposition rallies, curtailed the number of independent observers at polling stations and attempted to crack down on independent attempts to verify the official results of the vote. This in itself was nothing unusual for Belarus, whose “presidential elections” are usually rubber-stamp affairs ignored by the population.
What was different, however, was that this time the population actually voted en masse, with vast queues in both domestic and foreign embassy-based polling stations and polling stations regularly running out of ballots. A vast feeling of anti-government fervour gripped the nation, which united behind an unexpected candidate, 37-year-old former English teacher Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja. After her husband, blogger Siarhei Cichanoŭski, was imprisoned by the regime, Cichanoŭskaja ran for election on a singular platform of three points: a release of all political prisoners, a return to the original, democratic form of the Belarusian Constitution of 1994 and new, fair elections within six months. In running on a platform of intending to organise free elections and immediately resign with no intent to remain in politics after, Cichanoŭskaja became less a traditional political candidate and more a vector of popular discontent, able to unify all opposition to Lukašenka‘s rule under one banner.
Upon the announcement of the blatantly rigged results of the election where Łukašenka was said by the Central Electoral Commission to have won yet again, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest, intent to end the regime once and for all. The regime responded with great violence, sending riot policemen against grassroots protesters mobilised less by any politician and more by a handful of Telegram channels and young bloggers. At the time of writing there are two confirmed deaths and many more suspected. Thousands were detained in inhuman conditions for days. Cichanoŭskaja, threatened by the regime, was forced to flee to Lithuania. Despite this, the protests still rage.
In his 26-year-long rule, Łukašenka (referred in English-language media often by his Russian language name of Lukashenko) systematically dismantled aspect after aspect of Belarusian democracy, establishing himself as the overlord of a country he saw as his own personal fiefdom. He neutered the Constitution of 1994 with constitutional amendments in 1996 and 2004 which respectively replaced a disobedient legislative branch with an obedient bicameral National Assembly composed exclusively of loyalists and eliminated term limits for the presidency. Election after election was marred by extensive fraud, intimidation of opposition candidates and even brutal crackdowns on protesters. The civil rights of Belarusians are brutally suppressed on the regular: Belarus remains the last country in Europe where the death penalty is regularly practiced, and in the early days of the regime a frequent occurrence was the forced disappearance of political dissidents.
In some sectors of the self-proclaimed left (including even some global heads of state such as President-in-dispute Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela) the regime is praised, for it largely resisted the privatisation drive of the 1990s in the rest of the former Soviet Union which wrested control over large industries from the state and put it in private hands, usually the hands of oligarchs that proceeded to have oversized influence over the domestic affairs of those states. Here two things have to be noted. One, it is that Belarus is a good case study for the truthfulness of the old anti-Stalinist criticism that it is not sufficient for a state to run its industry for it to be run in the interest of the workers and not profit. Since the rigged election on the 9th, Belarusian workers have gone on a general strike demanding the resignation of the illegitimate President and immediate early elections. And who could blame them? The state-run factories are run by appointees of the presidency. Workers’ rights in these factories are habitually violated with the absence of long-term contracts and the existence of no-cause firing, for they are not run to protect Belarusian workers’ jobs as such – they are run for profit, for the profit of one man who has reordered the state around the singular aim of providing him with personal revenue.
In the agricultural sector, the regime has reintroduced what it calls serfdom – and these are their own words – where agricultural workers are functionally forbidden to resign without permission as their ability to travel or resettle outside their area of residence is legally limited. If the Soviet Union was often criticised by anti-Stalinist leftists as “state capitalist” due to its economy being predominantly state-run but not actually controlled by the workers, then Łukašenka’s Belarus is what happens when state capitalism is reanimated from the dead through an increasingly horrifying necromantic ritual.
The second reason why the Western and global left should unconditionally support the protesters in Belarus is a matter of sheer human rights. The Belarusian people do not want much: they merely want a life with dignity and free elections where they can choose their government freely and not fear police violence. To refuse them solidarity even in this would be unacceptable ideological purity testing even if there were no other reasons to back them. But even beyond this, we owe it to our ideological comrades, too. Eight out of ten of the largest enterprises in Belarus are on strike. All the independent trade unions and parties of the Left in Belarus back the resistance – and suffer the consequences from the regime for this brave stance, too. The banner of the opposition, the ‘traditional flag’ of Belarus, a white-red-white horizontal tricolour, is in itself in origin a socialist banner, chosen by the Belarusian Socialist Assembly-dominated Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918.
Just as the global working class struggle for their human rights against the excessive force of the state in Portland, in Beirut, in Israel-Palestine, so they do in Belarus. Socialists everywhere must say: no to violations of human rights. No to rigged elections. No to serfdom, literal and figurative. No to the regime; Belarus lives!