Pavel Katarzheuski from the "Fair World" party in Belarus talked with Pete Radcliff from Solidarity.
Could you tell us about the work of the campaigns and organisations you work through? (Fair World etc.)
I am a member of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Left Party "Fair World". It is the oldest left-wing party in Belarus. It was founded in 1991 under the name "Party of the Communists of Belarus" as the successor of the Belarusian section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 2009 the party changed its name to The Left Party "Fair World" in order to avoid confusion with the second communist party, which is a split from our party in 1996 and supports Lukashenko.
Since Lukashenko came to power, our party has been in principled opposition and believes that Lukashenko in 1996 did not hold a "referendum on amendments to the Constitution" as he himself calls it, but in fact a coup detat, which was accompanied by the destruction of a democratically elected parliament with a strong communist faction
The minimum programme of our party is the democratisation of the political system and the dismantling of the dictatorship, the maximum programme is socialism. However, I am trying to promote the idea of adopting a transition programme. At the moment, I have success in this direction and now the party puts forward not only democratic slogans, but also demands the abolition of anti-labour legislation, introduce a progressive scale of taxation and reduce the working day.
I am also currently one of the leaders of the party's youth organisation. Our youth organisation is now actively working in the student and trade union movement and organises educational projects. As often happens, we are a little more radical than our senior comrades and consider it our goal to push the party even further to the left than it is now.
Trade unions are recognised by even the Coordination Council as a key force that might bring down Lukashenko but Tikhanovskaya’s call for a national strike had a limited impact. How can the struggle in Belarus be made a strong and explicitly workers’ struggle?
The workers today need a national strike committee. In August, there were attempts to form a similar body, but they failed. It is obvious that the coordinating council does not represent anyone but itself and, in my opinion, is rather a brake on the workers' struggle against the dictatorship.
Today people continue to join the strikes, and I want to note that workers add to the general democratic demands a demand for higher wages. And this is a good indicator. However, this is not enough.
There are, of course, objective conditions which hinder the labour struggle and the strike movement. Now, in factories and throughout the country, a police regime has been effectively introduced, workers are facing criminal charges for participating in strikes, and left-wing parties and independent trade unions have been squeezed out of the public space for 26 long years.
Some see the national strike activists as the core of a working class opposition. Yet they are locked out of the factories and workplaces. Where and how might the workers organise and debate their strategy and independent objectives?
Strike activists are working in the right direction in the sense that they have begun to leave the pro-state union, which protects officials and employers and is a tool to control the working class. Also, for the first time since the 1990s, the membership of independent trade unions has grown.
The problem is that at the moment the regime is fascistising and has launched a counteroffensive. Now in Minsk even "specially protected areas" have been created, where the presence of police and communal services is strengthened. These areas, according to city officials, are "most susceptible to destructive protest influences."
Therefore, in Belarus now there are no convenient places for political activism and there is no convenient way of behavior to avoid repression. The example of Roman Bondarenko, who was not a participant in the demonstration and did not hold a flag, is very indicative here. He just asked a few questions of the police and was killed. He didn't even resist when he was beaten. That is, now even walking the streets is scary.
I think workers could now coordinate through independent trade unions and take advantage of the opportunities of those strike activists who left the country for security reasons. I don’t want it to sound grotesque, but the experience of the Bolsheviks shows that emigration can facilitate protest processes within the country. The main thing is to maintain an independent position and not fall under the influence of those forces that may impose unacceptable conditions on the labour movement in exchange for support.
What do you make of the political ferment amongst students? Are their expectations of a future Belarus moving beyond the limited ones of the official opposition?
Independent trade unions have now been established in many universities and I am pleased to note that some members of our youth organisation hold leadership positions in them. The majority of students are liberal, but I would say that this is spontaneous liberalism, and not a principled position. They are well aware of our proposals, including the requirement to index scholarships and the need to democratically elect representatives of the administration (now they are appointed "from above").
Belarus lives in the long shadow of a tyrannical state ‘socialism’ – carried out in the name of Marx and Lenin. What obstacles does that present in getting revolutionary Marxist ideas across now?
Unfortunately, there are a number of Stalinist organisations in Belarus that support Lukashenko and use communist symbols at rallies in support of the dictatorship.
In 1996, the presidential administration created a split in our party, as a result of which some members left our party and created their own "Communist Party of Belarus". This party consists of officials, business directors and small and middling bureaucracy. This party has access to major state media and support from the state. Of course, the very fact of their existence strongly discredits the communist and socialist movement.
It is noteworthy that even "revolutionary" Stalinists, who are guided by the Greek Communist Party and other "anti-revisionist" forces, at a critical moment when the revolution began supported Lukashenko, although they had previously criticised him. In fact, Stalinism once again showed its counter-revolutionary and anti-communist essence.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Lukashenko used to often use the rhetoric of "Soviet nostalgia" and criticised Western imperialism. However, one should not pretend that there is only one imperialism in the world. Criticising the Western imperialists, he flirted and received money from the Eastern ones, and it is obvious that his "anti-imperialist rhetoric" is just populism and a desire to please other bad guys, just from the other side. We also try to remind you that in the 1990s Lukashenko built his political career on anti-communism and right-wing populism. The fact that the state symbols of Belarus are similar to Soviet ones, and that monuments to Lenin still exist in cities, does not mean that socialism exists in Belarus.
We can say that our party and other independent leftists are caught between two fires. And, of course, we are forced to expose the anti-worker and anti-people character of the dictatorship.
Despite all his brutality, to many Lukashenko looks finished. But no one can currently see who or what might replace him. What should Belarusian socialists fight for?
No matter how cruel Lukashenko is, it is really clear that now he is sitting on bayonets. And as you know, you can't sit on them for a long time. All this brutality shows that the dictatorship is as weak as ever. If the regime collapses, we must use the experience of the struggle that we have gained over these months, mobilise our supporters and nominate our candidate with a socialist programme in the interests of 99%. Although, of course, we hope that the presidential form of government will be eliminated. Our party has always advocated the transition to a parliamentary republic.
But, nevertheless, we must use every opportunity to promote the socialist agenda. To tell the truth, I am under no illusion that democratisation will be long-term. But in any case, we will have a much larger window of opportunity than now.
Already now our party is demanding the abolition of all anti-labour measures, the restoration of social guarantees destroyed by the regime; guarantees of freedom for independent trade unions and student organisations; introduction of a progressive scale of taxation, reduction of the working day. If we talk about political demands, then undoubtedly we are seeking an freedom for all political prisoners, the elimination of the presidential republic, bringing to justice all those who maimed, killed and threw protesters into prison.
I would formulate our slogan as follows: "Workers' democracy instead of dictatorship."