The 2020 Presidential election in Belarus has turned out considerably different from previous elections. The assault on democracy during the run up to the elections was pretty standard: candidates excluded, harassment of the opposition, a rigged ballot. There were no international observers, and the state-controlled electoral commission announced that Alexander Lukashenko had been re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote. He looked set to continue the 26-year rule, which has seen him called ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
But the election had been different. The economy was failing and the regime’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic misfired (Lukashenko echoed dictatorial populists the world over in casting doubt on the virus, and refusing to take the robust public health response of many administrations.) In response, the opposition united around a single candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the ruled out candidates (and those candidates had themselves been different: not the traditional opposition, but some of them defectors from the regime and others, such as Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei, a blogger.)
On Sunday 9th August, after the polls closed, the electoral commission said she had secured just ten per cent of the vote (with ten per cent abstaining), but many polling stations reported a very different result (the opposition think she won as much as 64 per cent of the vote: effectively, a landslide victory.)
Protests broke out, not just in the capital Minsk, but in towns and cities across the country. And, in what was probably the key mistake made by the regime, the protests were met with unparalleled violence, with some of the reported 7,000 people arrested (including some who were simply swept up by the security forces) tortured and abused in prison.
The protests continued, spurred by vast numbers (estimates suggested demonstrations of well over 100,000 in Minsk) and social media channels that provided a completely different perspective from the state media. The state pulled back, and started releasing those arrested. But the regime got no benefit from changing course: those released confirmed the rumours of abuse and torture.
International responses to the election have been divided. China, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela officially congratulated Lukashenko on his re-election. Countries like Canada, the UK and USA, as well as the European Union (EU), declared the election rigged and condemned the regime’s brutal response.
Russia’s response has in practice been nuanced. Clearly not keen on Belarus becoming a pro-western ally, but with an uncomfortable relationship with Lukashenko over several years, Putin has been cautious in his interventions, and media responses and public opinion in Russia have been divided. Russia appears in no hurry to prop Lukashenko up if it involves military entanglement, although there have been unveiled threats of intervention in the case of civil disorder.
The EU’s response has been more forthright – especially from the EU’s High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell – but is restrained by the limits to unity (for example, if support for Lukashenko’s opponents were to provoke confrontation with Russia, but also because countries like Greece compare the response to Belarus with the EU’s approach to Turkey) and also the limits of its practical influence. Sanctions are being developed against individuals in the regime, rather than be seen to be punishing Belarus as a whole.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, was speedily clear in her demand that the state cease its violence against peaceful protesters and its torture and abuse of those arrested. The UN Secretary General also made it clear that “authorities must show restraint in responding to demonstrations. Allegations of torture and other mistreatment of people under detention must be thoroughly investigated.” Others have called for re-run elections with an independent electoral commission and international observers.
Workers flex their muscles
During the week after the election, Lukashenko visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, expecting to mobilise his traditional supporters, but in a now famous video, was shown being urged vocally to leave by workers who maintained that they had not – as the electoral commission insisted – given him their votes. Strikes broke out, and workers marched and protested. Journalists at state-controlled television left their studios (replaced, ominously, by workers brought in from Russia), and the Belarus Ambassador to Slovakia resigned in protest. There have been various reports of police in the countryside giving up their uniforms and joining protesters.
The independent trade union movement in Belarus – the BKDP – is small, dwarfed by the state run FTUB whose Chairman Mikhail Orda is a key figure in Lukashenko’s inner circle (he ran Lukashenko’s Presidential election campaign). BKDP leaders have a track record of receiving prison sentences and illegal strikes. An affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the BKDP has regularly reported its government to international organisations over its abuse of workers’ rights and attacks on human rights such as freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Veteran leaders of the independent trade union movement were among the first to be arrested – people like Nikolai Zimin who used to lead the largest independent manufacturing union, the BNP, the chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Miners Maxim Sereda and Ivan Roman, journalist and activist of the Free Trade Union of Metal Workers. Held for several days, they were eventually released when Zimin’s untreated health problems prompted an international intervention by the ITUC, ILO and UN.
The BKDP has reported that unions formerly loyal to the FTUB have been breaking away, reflecting the views of workers in the massive industrial factories that Lukashenko once considered his main bases of support. In response to the haemorrhaging of support from industrial workers, Lukashenko has ordered managements to crack down on strikes and protests, and has himself called for strikers to be sacked, protesters’ pay docked, and workforces showing inadequate loyalty to his regime locked out. The FTUB itself – which has been strangely silent (phone calls went unanswered for days) – has called publicly for those arrested to be released and the ‘allegations’ of torture and violence investigated.
Meanwhile the BKDP has been flooded with requests from workers who want advice on how to strike, and what to do to show their opposition to the regime. The independent unions are calling for a national strike, although it is not clear how possible that would be to organise. Sergei Dylevsky, a worker from the iconic Minsk tractor factory, has led many workers onto the streets and has been appointed to the Co-ordination Council established by the opposition to negotiate or organise a change of government.
What could be decisive?
The hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them women, who have flooded the streets of Minsk each Sunday since the election, and also many of the main towns across the country, are the most visible signs of the disaffection with Lukashenko’s smothering, Stalinist regime. But there is currently no confidence internationally that these manifestations demonstrate a strategy that will successfully drive Lukashenko out. Strikes and industrial unrest, on the other hand, could well make the difference, and that probably explains why the regime has switched from brutal repression of demonstrators to intimidation and harassment in the workplace.
Many commentators have identified the key role that workers have had in other countries (such as Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab spring, or earlier in Poland, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa.) As Lukashenko is assumed to rely on electoral support from workers in heavy industry and massive collective farms such as the one he once managed, so the workers have not just economic but also political influence.
So, the international trade union movement has increasingly focused on persuading governments and multilateral bodies such as the EU, but also the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe which perhaps has more scope than most to pay a progressive role, to emphasise the right to strike.
No one is telling Belarusian workers what to do: that is rightly a matter for them. But the international community can remind Lukashenko’s regime of the fundamental right to strike (as well as the right to peaceful assembly and media freedom) and thereby provide the workers of Belarus the freedom to play a key role in deciding how their country is to be governed.
Photo by Максим Шикунец, under copyright license.
 Canada deeply concerned by violence following Belarus presidential elections, Global Affairs Canada, August 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/08/canada-deeply-concerned-by-violence-following-belarus-presidential-elections.html
 Foreign Secretary statement on Belarusian Presidential elections, FCO and Rt Hon Dominic Raab, August 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-statement-on-belarusian-presidential-elections
 The main Russian trade union confederation, affiliated to the ITUC, has issued a statement of solidarity with the independent trade union confederation in Belarus, saying: “The current leadership of the state not only threatens to use the army against the opposition, which represents a significant part of society. In recent days, we have heard that layoffs, business closures, and lockouts will be used instead of a meaningful dialogue with society about the workers who stop work for political reasons. In addition, a statement was made that foreign strikebreakers may be used to fight the strikers. Such methods are destructive for labour relations, for citizens’ incomes, and for the state itself.”
 Belarus: Statement by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, EEAS, August 2020, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/84140/Belarus:%20Statement%20by%20High%20Representative/Vice-President%20Josep%20Borrell
 Bachelet condemns violent response of Belarus to post-electoral protests, OHCHR, August 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26162
 Secretary-General Spotlights Peaceful Expression Rights amid Demonstrations in Belarus, UN, August 2020, https://bit.ly/2ELjAyj
 Tatiana Kalinovskaya, Belarus Workers Chant ‘Leave’ at Lukashenko as Anger Mounts Over Vote, The Moscow Times, August 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/08/17/belarus-workers-chant-leave-at-lukashenko-as-anger-mounts-over-vote-a71177
 He supported the protesters. The Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia now steps down, The Spectator, August 2020, https://spectator.sme.sk/c/22469888/belarusian-ambassador-to-slovakia-steps-down.html
 It is very difficult to run a legal strike in Belarus which is one reason why the International Trade Union Confederation has for years rated the country a ‘5 – no guarantee of rights’, the worst ranking possible for a non-failed state in its 2020 Global Rights Index: https://www.ituc-csi.org/violations-workers-rights-seven-year-high; and why the UN’s workplace rights body the International Labour Organisation has consistently found Belarus to be in breach of fundamental workers’ rights.
 That would be illegal under international law (which protects management rights to lock workers out in industrial disputes, as it protects workers’ right to strike, but which prohibits state-mandated lockouts) and he has not implemented his threat.
 The heads of the strike committee of the Minsk Tractor Plant (MTZ), Sergei Dylevsky, and the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), Alexander Lavrinovich, have been convicted. Anatoly Bokun, head of the strike committee of Belaruskali, was fined a large sum. Nine criminal cases have been initiated against members of the strike committee of Belaruskali OJSC alone. On the night of August 29-30, the coordinator of the strike committee of the Belarusian State University, Svetlana Volchek, was detained. On August 30, in Grodno, the authorities detained and then released the International Secretary of the BKDP, Yelizaveta Merlyak, who will be tried for “participation in an unsanctioned mass event.” And on August 31, the staff of the State Security Committee (KGB) detained Anatoly Bokun, the leader of the strike committee of JSC “Belaruskali”.