A central feature of the events in Belarus is going more or less unreported: Fully one half of the Belarusian economy is through state-owned enterprises. This fact has given Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko something of a base among industrial workers, until now.
A repressive government and fraudulent elections; hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets facing tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades; thousands arrested and tortured in prison; political strikes of thousands of factory workers. That is Belarus today.
And what’s more, despite its size (a mere 10 million inhabitants), the crisis in that country has the makings of disrupting the world situation even more than did the protests in Ukraine a few years ago. A review of its history shows why and how:
As with the rest of the entire region, Belarus was originally settled by different Slavic groups as well as having been invaded by the Vikings, the Mongols (Genghis Khan) and the Tatars (to take slaves). This history leaves the entire region with different unresolved national/ethnic conflicts. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Belarus was absorbed into the old Soviet Union. Then, after the collapse, almost all the different nationalities broke away to form their own independent states. Belarus was one of them.
However, unlike every other such newly created country, the strong man who came to power in Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, did not conduct wholesale privatization of the state-owned enterprises. For example, the
all-important Minsk Tractor Works, which employs 15,000 workers, remains state owned. (That plant produces 87% of wheeled tractors sold in the newly independent Eastern European states and 8-10% of such tractors world-wide.) As a result, Lukashenko retained a base of support, especially among those factory workers. As late as April of this year, a poll showed him having the confidence of one third of the Belarusian people (not much less than Trump!).
This was despite Lukashenko’s complete bungling of the response to Covid-19. (Prior to that, his support was probably higher.) His recommendations would make Trump proud: “The tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone”. He also said: “I don’t drink, but recently I’ve been saying that people should not only wash their hands with vodka, but also poison the virus with it. You should drink the equivalent of 40–50 milliliters of rectified spirit daily.”
Lukashenko is also a homophobe, (having said “it’s better to be a dictator than to be gay;”) an anti-semite (“”This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Babruysk into a pigsty…”) and a misogynist (“this country is not ready for a woman leader…”).
All of this came together in the elections on August 2, 2020. Nobody believed in the official result of 80% for Lukashenko. Especially not after such frauds as the 2006 election in which he first claimed 93.5% of the vote and then reduced that to 86% because he, himself, admitted that nobody believed the original claim. “Yes, we falsified the last election,” he openly said at that time.
“volley after volley of rubber bullets”
As soon as the fraudulent results were announced, tens of thousands of Belorusians came out onto the streets to protest. The NY Times reports the response: “Riot police officers in recent days have displayed extraordinary force against protesters, pummeling demonstrators as they lie on the ground, firing volley after volley of rubber bullets and stun grenades into peaceful unarmed crowds and arresting thousands of people, many of them simply for being outside. In the city of Brest, on Belarus’s border with Poland, security forces fired live bullets, the
Interior Ministry said on Wednesday, claiming the officers had come under attack.” Thousands were also arrested. This did not stop the protests, and a few days later the political prisoners were released. These prisoners showed all sorts of scars, from burn marks to twisted hands and fingers, and this only further enflamed the situation.
Industrial working class enters the stage
On August 10 and 11, workers struck in protest, starting with the Minsk Tractor Plant. Also reported on strike were workers at the Zhabino Sugar Factory, the Belshina tire factory, Belarus Metallurgical Factory, trolley bus workers, and others.
The collapse in support among the all-important industrial working class was shown by this comment as reported by the NY Times: “We used to trust him before, but life was getting worse and worse with each day,” said Valery, a mechanic at a state-owned engineering company in Minsk, who declined to give his name for fear of punishment. “What is happening now is complete lawlessness. There was no election, it was a sham. I used to be loyal, I knew that there needed to be law enforcement to fight against criminals, bandits. But these [protesters] are people, who can go against their own people?”
Although without an official leader, it seems the movement is oriented towards Lukashenko’s election opponent, Sveta Tikhanovskaya. Al Jazeera reported the following comments from Sergei Dylevsky, leader of the Minsk Tractor Works workers: “Lukashenko is a former president, he needs to go. Sveta (Tikhanovskaya) is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.” But who is she and what does she represent?
She originally stepped into the race to replace her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who is a blogger and capitalist entrepreneur and was the leading opposition candidate. He was banned from running and had to flee the country. As the election campaign developed, two other potential candidates united with Tikhanovskaya: Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. Like Tikhanovskaya, they too have close links to entrepreneurs and to Belarusian bankers, and it is these forces that seem to have been the central opposition in recent years.
One would suspect that these Belarusian capitalists would have formed close relations with the Russian capitalist oligarchs, and maybe it’s for that reason that relations between Lukashenko (who has based himself on state-owned industry) and Putin (who is represents the Russian mafia-capitalist class) had soured in recent years. (In addition, Lukashenko had also been trying to develop some links with the West.) In recent years, Russian media had been harshly criticizing Lukashenko, especially in the run-up to this election. In fact, relations were so bad that the Russian private military Wagner Group had sent some of its forces into Belarus and just a month ago 33 of them were arrested.
However, the prospect of Lukashenko being overthrown by mass protests, and the likelihood that he would be replaced by a leader who is more oriented towards the West, apparently has driven Putin back into Lukashenko’s corner. Over the weekend of August 15-16, the two shared phone calls, which were followed by the release of the Wagner Group arrestees.
CNN reported,“In their Saturday call, the two autocrats agreed to “regular contacts at various levels and the disposition to strengthen allied relations.” But however much Lukashenko insisted on Belarus’s autonomy afterwards, this was the moment he stopped his erratic courtship of the European Union, and directly turned to his harsher eastern neighbor to bail him out. The next move is Putin’s. But it is not obvious, or easy.”
Suwalki Gap & domestic considerations
One consideration for Putin is control over the militarily strategic Suwalki Gap, which is a border between Belarus and Poland and also leads to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. With Poland on one side, if Belarus falls under the control of a Western-oriented government, Putin would see that as a serious military threat, as would the NATO forces if Putin’s troops occupied Belarus. The broad flat land makes the Suwalki Gap a gateway for an invasion in either direction, but difficult to defend in and of itself. Were Russian troops to invade, further Western economic sanctions would surely follow and this threat may stay Putin’s hand.
Recently, people within Russia reported Russian troops moving towards Belarus. Whether they directly invade or whether this is just a threat nobody knows for sure, except Putin himself.
There are also domestic considerations for Putin. With the economy stalling and Covid-19 spreading, Putin is threatened with his own opposition. This threat has twin and contradictory effects. On the one hand, a mass protest that overthrows Lukashenko could be an impetus to such a movement against Putin. On the other hand, it is certain that millions of Russians sympathize with the protesters in Belarus and a move by Putin to put them down could in itself spark widespread protests inside Russia.
“For Starters I’m alive for now”
No matter what Putin does, Lukashenko’s days in office seem almost certainly numbered. He, himself, seemed to admit that when he recently came on national TV and said,“for starters, I’m alive for now, and I haven’t left the country.” Not exactly a rousing show of confidence.
It’s hard to see how anybody but Tikhanovskaya would immediately replace Lukashenko. She, herself, has said that if she were to take office immediately she would serve as a caretaker president in order to hold new elections within the next six months. Whether she would run for president or have her husband take her place is unknown. There is also the role of her two allies during the previous election. They too, in fact, had stepped in as replacements for others. Would they step back? Would these three remain allies? And would one of them – or possibly somebody else – serve as a stalking horse for Putin?
Last act not written
Most important is what happens to the state-owned industries, which compose one half of the Belarusian economy. All of the opposition candidates represent privatization, as does Putin. But the Belarusian working class, especially its industrial working class, has benefited from the continued state ownership. After they played such a key role in bringing down the pressent ruler, it is hard to see how they would stand back and allow their industries to be privatized, with all the plant closings and layoffs that would come with it.
The last act in this play is far from having been written.