Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 18

Authoritarianism on the March in Belarus

by Kathleen Mihalisko*

In the wake of a debilitating five-day strike by drivers in theMinsk subway system, the Belarusian authorities have arrestedindependent labor activists and accused foreign organizations–includingthe American AFL-CIO–of having instigated the unrest.

The work stoppage which began on August 16 caused the first completeinterruption of service in the 11-year history of the Minsk subwayor Metro. The action resulted from the joint decision of the IndependentTrade Union of Belarus and the Minsk Metro Workers Union to protestthe non-payment of employees’ wages since June, and to demandthe removal of Metro director Uladzimir Nabechka. The strike wasthe latest, and most serious, incident in a summer of mountingdiscontent among Belarusian transport workers, who have also walkedoff the job at trolleybus depots in the capital and in Homel.

Almost from the moment the subway strike got under way, it wasobvious that the authorities were not prepared to address thedrivers’ grievances through negotiations. Dozens of strike-breakerswere brought in, some from as far away as Moscow, according tothe August 23 Izvestiya. Masked interior ministry troopsrounded up approximately 70 striking workers and confined themin makeshift detention centers. On August 21, trade union leadersMikolai Kanakh, Uladzimir Makarchuk and Henadz Bykau were detainedand ultimately sentenced to 10-15 days of administrative arrest.A fourth activist, Syarhei Antonchuk, was arrested in violationof his right to immunity as a member of the Belarusian parliament,but was later released without charges being filed. At the sametime, police conducting a search of the Independent Trade Union’soffices seized documents, correspondence, and unflattering cartoonpictures of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. All of those who wenton strike now face dismissal from their jobs.

According to an August 22 Minsk court decision, the strike wasillegal under statutes which prohibit such actions when they posea threat to the safety of citizens. The manner in which the strikewas forcibly ended, however, had all the characteristics of anauthoritarian regime in action. In addition to the crackdown bysecurity forces, Lukashenko, not a man given to suffering challengeslightly, was quick to denounce the strike as a politically-motivatedattack on himself and his administration and to condemn the transportworkers for falling prey to greed and to the work of agents provocateurs.Moreover, Lukashenko used his pervasive control over the mediato ensure that his version of events would be the only one mostpeople heard.

In a series of statements on Belarusian radio, Lukashenko leftthe false impression that the well-paid drivers–who earn "threeto four times as much as I do as president," Lukashenko said–weregreedy in demanding more money. But he made no mention of thefact that they had not been paid for many weeks. Speaking at thestart of the strike, Minsk Metro workers’ union leader Makarchukemphasized this his people were not asking for "a singlekopeck more," but only that management hold up its end ofthe labor contract and pay back wages. Moreover, in the case ofthe trolleybus stoppages, one disgruntled worker told Belarusianradio August 20 that the drivers risked endangering the livesof passengers by operating broken-down cars when the drivers weresuffering from hunger. The Russian weekly Literaturnaya gazeta,on August 23, made the interesting observation that Lukashenkowas sporting a fashionable new tie and gold tie tack–items wellbeyond the means of most Belarusian workers–at the very timehe was berating the drivers for money-grubbing.

Rather less original was the president’s assertion that the much-demonizedBelarusian Popular Front (BPF) was behind the strikers. The affiliationof Antonchuk and other strike organizers with the BPF was enoughfor Lukashenko to level the charge that the crushing defeat of"nationalistic forces" in the May parliamentary electionshad forced the BPF to reorient its strategy toward fomenting laborunrest and seeking help for this from abroad. At a high-levelmeeting of government and law enforcement officials on August20, as reported on Belarusian radio the following day, Lukashenkostated that

"I’ve been receiving information constantly about the preparationof leaders of free, so-called independent trade unions, the sameones that stirred consultations with representatives of Americantrade unions. This year and at the end of last year, alreadyunder my watch, [these representatives] conducted three seminarsto teach free trade union leaders how to act

I’m partially to blame for not reacting at the very beginning,when these commissars, voyageurs, and emissaries entered Belarusfor the purpose of inflaming the situation that exists in ourstate."

Leaving no doubt as to the source of Lukashenko’s informationand concerns, a Minsk regional KGB officer named Z. Sinyukouscomplained during the same broadcast that the AFL-CIO had helped"subsidize" the activities of free trade unions in Belarus.

Such xenophobic accusations certainly are nothing new. In April1991, when the tottering communist regime was confronted withworker demonstrations on a mass scale in Minsk and elsewhere,a government official similarly lashed out at the Americans andthe Poles for causing the unrest. At the time, however, the spokesmanhad the tact to utter these words behind closed doors, and someembarrassment ensued when they were leaked to the US State Department.No such diplomatic sensitivity is in evidence today: as a result,the US embassy in Minsk had to issue a press statement denyingAmerican involvement in the Minsk metro strike.

Whether the authorities act to curtail the activities of foreign-basedorganizations–as the Belarusian KGB has long urged–remains tobe seen. But there can be little doubt that developments surroundingthe transport strikes are part of an alarming trend toward theestablishment of authoritarian rule in Belarus.

Already the political climate there can be described as considerablymore autocratic than pre-democratic. Lukashenko has been rulingby decree for many months, often on matters far beyond his constitutionaljurisdiction, and he was not overly concerned with his countrymen’sfailure to elect a working parliament. At times, his initiativeshave seemed erratic: witness the much-publicized incident in whichLukashenko, citing nationalistic "errors," ordered schoolhistory textbooks written between 1992 and 1995 to be withdrawnin favor of their Soviet-era versions. The resulting hue and cryled Lukashenko to change his mind and rescind the directive–butnot before he attacked his opponents for spreading "rumors"about an instruction that he now denied on Belarusian televisionAugust 23 ever having made.

While concepts like "democracy" remain foreign to thelexicon of Belarus’ president, it is equally true that Lukashenkois well attuned to the priorities and mentality of his fellowcitizens. Opinion polls attest to his broad-based and growingpopularity. As of June 1995, one survey found that 36 percentof Belarusians believed their president was doing a good to excellentjob, up from 24 percent in December 1994. In June, an additional34 percent described his work as satisfactory. Clearly, the president’sactions in the name of restoring order to society are strikinga positive chord with the population.

But can the good batyushka actually solve the real problemsof systemic economic crisis, unemployment, no-show paychecks fortens of thousands of employees, and rising poverty among workersand pensioners? On August 24, after locking up the leaders ofthe subway strike, Lukashenko asked the media to attend a meetingbetween himself and one Uladzimir Yakubovich, a potassium minerfrom Salihorsk whose young son suffers from an infectious disease.Promising to do all in his power to help the boy receive medicaltreatment abroad, he encouraged others to bring their problemsdirectly to the president if they wanted results. This step wasa curious harking back to the Stalin-era image of the Leader asfather figure. In like spirit, Lukashenko told Yakubovich thathe would soon issue a decree holding enterprise directors personallyaccountable if their workers went unpaid. If that measure fails,presumably Lukashenko will again be able to blame foreign saboteurs.

*Ms. Mihalisko is a longtime specialist on Belarus who earlierworked as a senior analyst at Radio Liberty.