Aliaksandr Yarashuk: Were it not for the protective barriers that we built together with the ILO and ITUC, the situation with the rights of workers and trade unions in the country would be more dramatic
The BKDP leader in an interview to journalist Nikolai Galko about protest moods in workers’ collectives, pressure from independent trade unions, defamation of Yara, the role and objectives of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Trade Unions, and international solidarity.
Aliaksandr Ilyich, what do you feel in the run-up to your anniversary?
– I don’t want to say banal things, but I don’t feel my age. Like many in my position, I feel like I am 30 – 40 years old in my soul. However, the thought more and more often comes to mind that somehow everything went away quickly. Like it or not, but you understand that the active part of life is left behind, and you are on the final stretch. Of course, I would like to hope for a protracted stretch. Well, it should be a worthy crown of the life I lived. All conditions have been created for this in the country today. You can’t imagine a better situation to test yourself, your principles and values. As they say, we do not choose the times to live, but the time chooses us.
It is interesting to know your opinion about pressing problems as we have a lot of them. Let’s start by focusing on those related to the trade union field. From a number of sources we hear about a strike, about a general strike. After reading these calls, you are convinced that the protest has covered all areas. How would you characterize this information campaign?
– Calls for strikes, in a situation when there are no prerequisites and no readiness for them, are not only meaningless but also harmful. In the face of repression and harsh laws, they inevitably create serious problems for workers. So it happened to us: 13 people, including several members of independent trade unions, on suspicion of preparing strikes, ended up in the pre-trial detention center of the Committee for State Security, and they are awaiting sentences to long prison terms.
Unprepared campaigns demoralize the workers and make their situation even more vulnerable. It seems that those who call for strikes from abroad have the least concern about the fate of those left behind. They neglect the rule, which must be strictly observed – those who have left and have lost the ability to somehow influence the situation in the country should not do anything that could harm those who could not or did not want to leave. After all, this is primarily for their own benefit. Because those who stayed give them a chance to return. Unless, of course, they do want it, which is also not a fact.
You can already hear victorious reports that the strikes in Belarus took place and were successful. That they were attended by up to 30 percent of employees. Fantastic numbers, considering that no one in the country has heard of them. But it seems that these figures have already been heard in the respective offices as reports on the work done, and they guarantee the participants in the adventure the continuation of a comfortable existence and such a pleasant struggle against the regime for the safe Belarusian “Gapon priests” in all respects.
At all times, there have been enough petty political swindlers in the Belarusian opposition, and it seems that new promising cadres, new “Ostap Benders”, have joined them. And, judging by the scale, shamelessness of lies and adventurism, these crooks are ready to go further than their predecessors. Needless to say, what a huge damage these people inflict on the Belarusian democracy, how seriously they undermine the credibility of both the opposition and the workers’ movement.
The time has come to directly declare to those who were forced or unforced to leave: today Belarus needs Indians here but not leaders abroad. So, welcome, return home, get in line and fight for freedom and democracy in the country. If you are afraid to go to jail, your knees are trembling and diapers should be applied to shameful places – stay in your Warsaw, Vilnius and London. And if so, be so kind to keep silent, don’t play heroes, don’t call workers to the barricades and don’t throw mud at those who chose to stay in Belarus. Somehow we can do without you here.
You yourself saw that we have never given any public assessments to anyone. We are not interested in these people at all, and we do not even mention their names. There is no need to advertise someone to be a force that he is not, and who does not represent anyone but himself.
If we talk not about propaganda attempts, but about reality, are mass actions likely to take place in the country? What is the attitude to a possible strike in workers’ collectives?
– We in the BKDP proceed from the premise that no one is better able to organize strikes than the authorities themselves. Just the way it did last year, and it runs the risk of leading the situation to this in the near future due to its social and economic policy. For ten years there has been no real economic growth, for ten years wages have not been raised. There is still no total crisis in the economy and a collapse in wages. However, it is a matter of time, maybe a year or two, when they can become a reality.
This is noted by experts, we understand this, and many workers are inclined to this opinion, realizing the critical situation of their enterprises, developing completely their own, often Soviet, resource. The ruling regime does not offer the country anything as an alternative to the archaic command-and-control economy. Both we and workers are overwhelmed with anxious expectations of inevitable retribution for the unwillingness to respond to the challenges of the time, the pursuit of a policy that boils down to the formula “to stand out for a day and to hold out for a night”.
None of the sane, responsible leaders of the labour movement, leaders of independent trade unions would want any social cataclysms, including workers’ strikes, due to the collapse of the economy and wages. But, alas, given the current economic course, such a development of events cannot be excluded.
You often visit Soligorsk and constantly communicate with miners. What are their moods? There is, of course, a wide range of topics. Is it possible, at least in a thesis, to touch upon the most important of them? The strike and the attitude of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, the Congress and your personal attitude towards it, possible sanctions, their impact on Belaruskali; Yara and issues related to it; the role of the miners’ union in the Congress.
– Soligorsk is a special place on the map of Belarus. The uniqueness of the city, of course, is associated with JSC Belaruskali. I consider myself to be lucky that at one of the most interesting stages of my life, fate brought me together with the miners, with the Independent Trade Union of Miners. This is a special kind of people, a special trade union. I can admit that I am proud that I consider many of the miners to be my friends. And their recognition cannot be won with beautiful words or 100 grams drunk for brotherhood. Today miners have the highest wages in the country. However, these wages did not fall to them like manna from heaven, but were conquered in a tough confrontation with the authorities in the early 90s.
And the exceptional merit in this is of the Independent Trade Union of Miners, which not only laid the foundation for the independent trade union movement of the country, but also managed to convincingly demonstrate that only a true independent trade union is able to truly defend the rights of its members, all workers. After a 44-day strike in 1992, miners moved from the 6th place in terms of wages in Soligorsk to the first place in the country. And they are not inferior to anyone to this day.
I am far from idealizing the current Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners. The situation there is not an easy one, and it is connected with the fact that under the conditions of the current repressive political system, the organization is under severe pressure and has suffered significant losses over the past two years. The events of the last year related to the strike and the creation of a strike committee at Belaruskali were a challenge for the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners, the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, and the Belarusian Congress of Independent Trade Unions were. It was an outburst of a group of society workers against falsification of elections and violence against participants in peaceful protest actions, which did not find adequate support from the miners. Unfortunately, even then mistakes were made and trends began to emerge that inevitably led to tense relations between the strike committee and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners, the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, and the Belarusian Congress of Independent Trade Unions.
Firstly, by announcing the strike committees as new trade unions, the foreign opposition centers opposed them to the independent trade unions and demonstrated an absolute lack of understanding of the essence of the labour movement and the fact that trade unions and strike committees are completely different subjects. Trade unions are legally operating organizations; strike committees cannot have a legal status. Strike committees are created by the workers only for the period of the strike and are disbanded immediately after it. In any case, whether it succeeded or not, for the existence of a strike committee without a strike is nonsense, nonsense. In order to acquire legitimacy and be able to defend the rights of workers, strike committees often, as we had in the early 90s, are transformed into independent trade unions.
Secondly, the call from abroad to pay for going to the strike was a huge mistake. The people went on strike, but the money, as expected, finished soon. We saw that the miners did not succeed in the strike, we understood well the consequences of amateurish, ill-considered calls for workers to continue to go on strike, and since September last year we have tried to resolve the problem of the strike committee of Belaruskali, which, by the way, was located on the squares of independent trade unions. The way it is resolved all over the world – through the return of workers to their jobs. We have involved the Norwegian company Yara, a partner of Belaruskali, to resolve this problem, as well as to resolve the problems of labour safety of miners.
And, albeit with great difficulty, the administration of the enterprise agreed to accept the Yara experts, to work out with them a program to improve the safety of miners, and declared its readiness to resolve the problem of hiring workers dismissed for going on strike. However, as you know, there is no such good deed that you would not pay for. At first the strike committee told us that they were not going to return to work. And then, in close cooperation with foreign centers of opposition, the strike committee, which by that time had degenerated from a normal union of workers into a suck, the agenda of which was dictated by the rogues well-known in Soligorsk who had moved out of the country, declared independent trade unions to be accomplices of the regime, they stated that I was an agent of the Committee for State Security, Yara – a company doing business on blood, they called our cooperation corrupt, and accused me and my colleagues of receiving kickbacks from Yara.
Honestly, after all this, the leadership of Yara should have uttered Shakespeare’s “plague on both your houses”, sent away independent trade unions, strike committees, and foreign Belarusian democracy, recalled their experts on the safety of miners, stop talking about the observance of their rights, forget about all this as a nightmare and return to the days of doing business without putting forward any conditions on the administration of Belaruskali. Just as hundreds of other companies operating in Belarus do not nominate them to their partners. Nobody obliges them to anything like that.
Yara is not obliged too, by the way. It was its own choice to be guided by the Code of Business Ethics and high social standards during its presence in Belarus. The leaders of the Norwegian company took into account everything except one thing – the inadequacy of the Belarusian opposition. If not to say – cretinism.
A simple question: is Yara the only buyer of potash fertilizers from Belaruskali? Of course not. All European countries buy fertilizers. But why does the foreign opposition demand only the Norwegian company to leave the country and attack the Norwegian authorities? But does it require termination of cooperation with JSC Belaruskali from Polish, Lithuanian, British companies, the governments of Poland, Lithuania, Great Britain, countries where the opposition is localized, from companies and governments of other European countries that buy fertilizers?
Why has the opposition launched a worldwide campaign of defamation and discrediting of Yara and Norway, picketing the country’s embassies, inciting useful idiots in the face of foreign Belarusian diasporas against them? What problems are these people trying to resolve in this way? They do not understand that they retain for themselves at least some hope of returning home only in one case – if at least someone who can and wants to influence the internal situation remains in Belarus.
Sadly, the opposition politicians who left Belarus failed their test for consistency in the case with Yara. The bad thing is not that the exam is failed, the bad thing is that no conclusions are made from this story, the campaign of defamation of Yara and the independent trade unions continues.
Aliaksandr Ilyich, remember the radical change in your biography. A high position in the executive branch – and the transition to trade union work. The Congress, elections, , victory. When did you get a taste for genuine union activity? As far as I understand, you managed to do a lot for the people within the Federation as well.
– The canvas of my life is woven from two completely different halves. I made a quite successful career in Soviet times; being a very young man I became the first secretary of the district party committee, and then the head of the department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus. Under the current government, I worked as First Deputy Chairman of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee and had excellent prospects for further career growth. But I gave it up without regrets; I turned over the page and opened the door to the unknown in the late 90s.
The decision to join a union was as much random, spontaneous as it was natural. I always had a heightened sense of justice. Without dreaming about it, not turning trade unions into a goal of my life, nevertheless, in 1999 I became the head of the Belarusian trade union of workers of the agro-industrial complex. Maybe I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but from the first step I was accompanied by an inspiring feeling of complete trust in me by a huge mass of people, and the trade union then numbered about a million people, their willingness to follow me and support me in all my initiatives.
Incredible things began to happen to the organization. This conservative, amorphous, loose, weak structure began to transform before our eyes, turning into an impressive force capable of taking under real protection the most powerless workers in the country – the peasantry. Yes, so quickly that six months later Lukashenko demanded from the Head of Administration Myasnikovich: “Do anything to get Yarashuk out of there”. Myasnikovich zealously began to carry out his assignment, invited me to his residence, and for five whole hours persuaded me to leave, offering various employment options.
There was everything there: offers of major posts, and promises of sinecure, and persuasion to leave as the ambassador to tempting countries. And, since I rejected all this, it was followed by hints of threats that awaited me if I didn’t leave in an amicable way. I refused, to which Myasnikovich said in conclusion: “You have a congress ahead, and there are no chances of being elected”. I myself understood that there was practically no chance of winning the congress scheduled for mid-2000, however, I accepted the challenge without hesitation.
And I was right, having managed to turn the lack of chances into one hundred percent result, having won with a crushing advantage the Minister of Agriculture, whom the authorities put as an alternative to me. Regardless of the administrative resource, the presence at the congress of officers of the Committee for State Security who were openly shooting videos. This was probably a moment of truth not only for me, but for all the delegates to the congress who despite everything overcame their fear. We won the most important victory that a person can achieve – victory over ourselves.
Please assess the role of the Congress, the dramatic knots in its activities. After all, many times you were on a verge of catastrophe, liquidation.
– After the seizure of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus in 2002, the authorities unpretentiously, without bothering to observe the charter of the trade union, expelled me from the trade union of the agro-industrial complex. However, two months later, I became the head the BKDP which faced a real threat of destruction. Only strategic decisions could avert this threat. And they were promptly accepted. A few months later, we joined the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and, using its resource, organized a system of solidarity support for independent trade unions and, which is extremely important, brought our conflict with the authorities into the walls of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The adherence to principles by the ILO, which introduced Belarus 9 times over the years to a special paragraph for violation of the rights of workers and trade unions and appointed in accordance with paragraph 26 of the ILO Commission of Inquiry, which developed 12 Recommendations to the Belarusian authorities, which they failed to fulfill, led to the fact that, at the request of the ITUC and ETUC, the European Union deprived Belarus of trade preferences in 2007. This decision saved the BKDP and brought the authorities to their senses. They had nothing to do but to recognize us and to return our place in the National Council for Labour and Social Affairs, return the right to social partnership at the national level and become a party to the signing of the General Agreement between the government, trade union associations and employers.
And today the ILO and the ITUC, the international trade union movement as a whole are a kind of safeguard for the existence of an independent trade union movement (by the way, since 2010, I have been the Vice President of the ITUC, and since 2011 – a member of the Governing Body of the ILO). Since both we and the authorities keep in mind by default that the elimination of the BKDP can pave the way for the ILO’s application of its paragraph 33 to Belarus. It was applied by the ILO only once, in 2011 against Myanmar, and led to an economic blockade of this country and the fall of the junta.
We can count on workers from different countries, united in trade unions around the world, that they will not stay away from the fate of our colleagues in Belarus and will provide solidarity support at a critical moment. However, we are aware that it is not a guarantee against the liquidation of the independent trade union movement by the authorities, whose brakes have completely failed. But that’s another matter.
I have every right to be proud of my organization. We are very glad that, according to surveys by the British company Chatham House, independent trade unions, along with independent media and human rights organizations, have one of the highest trust ranks in the country. We, an organization consisting of just over 10 thousand people, are trusted by almost twice as many people as state trade unions with over 4 million members. The BKDP has a well-deserved authority in the trade union world, its name is known on all continents and in many countries, and its activity has become a part of the history of the international trade union movement as a high example of the fulfillment of its professional and civic duty by a trade union that has been in incredibly difficult conditions for many years.
I am not ashamed in front of the working people of the country for what the BKDP and its organizations have been doing both domestically and in the international arena for many years. It was a systematic work done in good faith, and a small handful of people as a whole managed to adequately carry out the mission of protecting the rights of all workers in the country. If not for our efforts, not for the protective barriers that we have built together with the ILO and ITUC, the situation with the rights of workers and trade unions in the country would be much more dramatic.
Your associates in the trade union movement. It is especially interesting to hear from you about relations with Russian trade unions. As far as I know, this is a unique form of relationship. How did you meet Shmakov?
– The consolidated position of the Russian trade unions on Belarus, in addition to our readiness to fight, the efforts of the ILO and the ITUC, became one of the factors of the BKDP’s survival. Both the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia and the Confederation of Labour of Russia support us as a matter of principle. This is very painful for the Belarusian authorities. It is funny when Lukashenko complains to Putin about Shmakov that he is a friend of Yarashuk but not of Orda. But this is a political and human choice of Mikhail Shmakov that is not subject to conjuncture, and we properly assess it.
In September last year, the BKDP Deputy Chairman Siarhei Antusevich and I were the only foreign guests at the jubilee congress of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia dedicated to the organization’s 30th anniversary, which was attended by representatives of the Kremlin Administration, the State Duma, ministers and governors. Mikhail Shmakov was not afraid to give me the floor to speak. As for the Confederation of Labour of Russia, which unites the independent trade unions of Russia, this organization is ideologically very close to us. Boris Kravchenko, a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, is my good friend.
The BKDP congress will be held soon. What is its objective?
– In times like today, it is difficult to associate the holding of a congress of an independent trade union center with any strategic goal. It must be carried out because these are the requirements of the charter, and we are already carrying it out with a delay due to the pandemic. It is necessary to make some mandatory amendments to the charter, to elect a new leadership and new governing bodies of the BKDP. However, in such a critical situation, the very fact of holding the congress will give an important sign to the members of independent trade unions that we, as before, are guided in our activities by the high principle – do what you must do, and come what may…