How workers in Belarus protested a year ago and what came from it
The official results of the presidential elections in Belarus and the following brutal suppression of protest actions caused outrage at many enterprises in the country. The workers went to rallies, some announced that they were ready to go on strike. However, there was no general strike in Belarus. Former strike committee activists told Deutsche Welle about the way they live now.
More than 6,000 employees of Belaruskali demanded fair elections
Gleb Sandros worked in the mine of the Belaruskali enterprise; in August 2020 he joined the strike committee created at the enterprise. More than 6,000 people signed up to the strike committee’s demands for an end to violence and new fair elections. “It seemed to me that the initiative was on our side, although most of those who supported the strike started going to work again. The employer managed to extinguish the protest mood”, – Sandros recalls.
The man was detained at the end of August near the entrance of an apartment building where he lived; the head of the local police suggested that he either stop protest activities and return to the enterprise, or go to jail. On September 7, the activist left Belarus.
“There are people at the enterprise who are dissatisfied, however, they go to work and express their dissatisfaction in the supply rooms and in the kitchen; there are also those who are dissatisfied but keep silent, and those who do not care as long as they have money, a collective agreement and a good social package. Issues of freedom and human rights are not of first priority for them”, – Sandros says about the current state of affairs.
At Gomselmash workers were closed in workshops
The situation is approximately the same at the Gomselmash enterprise in Gomel. “People have different moods, there are many dissatisfied, however, everyone is constrained by wages and production volumes. Now there are many supplies of equipment to Kazakhstan and Russia. But I think that in winter there will be less and less orders, there will be no high wages, then everything will be resumed”, – an employee of the enterprise Pavel (his name has been changed) is losing hope.
The man recalls that a year ago, the employers used to to close them in the workshops so that the workers would not go on strike and join the protesters in the city. After the August events, many were fired for violating the regime: people were tracked on cameras, they were detained by guards. “Events unfolded rapidly, I began to create closed chats, to unite people. But many began to act on their own, it was a mistake. We broke up into small groups that we quickly suppressed”, – Pavel states.
It took up to three days to stop Naftan
“We, like at other enterprises, went to the plant management team, organized spontaneous rallies. We did not try to organize a strike, because, according to the regulations, it takes up to three days to stop petrochemical production”, – says a former employee of Naftan Vitaly (the name has been changed). The man notes that the workers of the enterprise applied for support to an independent trade union, the employer began to fight against this: to intimidate, fire the trade unionists.
Vitaly went on strike in November, in winter he was fired from the enterprise, and then there were summons to the prosecutor’s office, to the Investigative Committee. “They wanted to show me a decree sating that I was a suspect in a criminal case, but they didn’t find me at home. I left Belarus, but I’m still engaged in trade union activities”, – the man says.
Another former colleague of his, who is still in Belarus, notes that with the adoption of amendments to the Belarusian Labour Code, almost all activists from Naftan have been dismissed, however, the pressure on them continues: security forces officers come to search their houses and houses of their relatives, send summon to court – do all to intimidate them.
Rail war on the Belarusian Railway caused resent in China
Sergei, who worked in the Minsk branch of the Belarusian Railway, may be accused of terrorism in Belarus. In August, the railroad workers did not manage to strike; they went on strike, albeit not massively, in October: someone sabotaged, someone took sick leave. According to Sergei, because of this there were problems with the movement of trains – there were not enough locomotive crews. But the main damage, including damage to image, was caused by the so-called “rail war”. “The tracks were short-circuited with wire, the throughput of the section dropped significantly. China was even dissatisfied with this: the goods were late, the traffic schedule was not complied with” – Sergei says.
Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered to find all the organizers of the “rail war”. Sergei was detained twice: “In October, the Committee for State Security officers tried to intimidate me; they said they would apply any criminal article in respect of me. After my dismissal in April, the security forces again became interested in me. I learned that files were being prepared to initiate a criminal case on deliberate blocking of roads and under the article “act of terrorism”, so I had to leave Belarus”.
Many activists of Grodno Azot had to leave the country
Many Grodno Azot activists also left the country. “After the August events, they created a strike committee at the enterprise, and I joined it too. We wanted to organize everything according to the law”, – Igor says (the name has been changed). According to him, while the strike committee was trying to do everything on legal grounds, the authorities evaluated the situation and suppressed the protest moods by force.
The second attempt to organize a strike took place on October 26-27. “Unfortunately, then the security forces also took everything into their own hands. On October 26, “combat operations” were launched at the plant with a huge number of riot police and military personnel. There were detentions, beatings; people were driven into the territory of the plant. After that, I realized that I would not be able to return to the enterprise”, – Igor recalls. All participants in the strike were in control of the security forces. Igor changed his place of residence and telephone number, however, so far he and some of his colleagues still stay in Belarus and continue to fight.
Were the security forces ready to blow up the factories, if only they didn’t stop?
Another former employee of Grodno Azot Nikita (the name has been changed) has a similar story: “On November 1, I was arrested in the city, they demanded that I should confess in organizing a strike. But I didn’t, so I was imprisoned for 10 days for participating in rallies. I stayed in Belarus, changed telephone numbers and place of residence. They tried to find me, called my relatives”.
“Why was there no strike in 2020? The security forces were ready to blow up the factories, but not stop them. People turned out to be more conscious, they did not want such victims”, – says another former employee of Grodno Azot.
“We wanted the strike committee to represent the interests of all workers; we wanted to address complicated issues. However, we were stopped by those on whose side were the money and the security forces. We had no experience of confronting the state. Now that communication has been established between the activists of different factories, everything would be different”, – says Yuri Rovovoi, the head of the strike committee of Grodno Azot.
Rabochy Rukh and support of the part of the Belarusian community
After the August events, he had to leave Belarus. Currently Rovovoi resides in Warsaw, works in the Polish trade union Solidarity and participates in the Rabochy Rukh initiative. It is a platform that unites working people of Belarus in order to protect their civil and labour rights and freedoms. The movement is supported by the Belarusian communities.
“Belarusian community in Boston began to emerge in the life of factories at the end of November. The question arose: how to help the strikers? The idea was to create a large-scale program, to work with the strike committee of Grodno Azot, to help activists who remained in Belarus”, – says Vladislava Chaley, a Belarusian from Boston. According to her, over time, many communities from the United States and Europe joined the initiative and took patronage over activists from other enterprises.