Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 20

On January 27 trade unions in Minsk held a protest rally of unprecedented size and virulence, reflecting the precipitate fall in the living standards. More than 10,000 industrial workers participated at the call of official and unofficial unions. The speakers, and the resolutions approved by the participants, demanded that the government stop price increases, restore the purchasing power of salaries, consult the trade unions on economic policy decisions and allow the unions access to the mass media. Labor leaders gave the government two months to come up with effective measures to “halt the pauperization of society.” Failing that, the labor leaders said, the unions would demand the resignation of the government.

Some of the leaders, moreover, threatened to add political demands, including one that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka resign. This was the first time that such a demand had been considered collectively. Some rally participants went so far as to loudly deride Lukashenka as “Batka” [little father, an old derogatory nickname] (AP, Reuters, Belapan, Russian Public Television, January 27).

The unions had planned to hold the rally last month, but agreed to postpone it when an alarmed Lukashenka and top officials made appearances in factories and promised relief (see the Monitor, December 3, 1998). The economic situation, however, has continued to deteriorate, fueling the authorities’ worst fear: that of social protests merging with the political opposition.

The political opposition has scheduled a Congress of Democratic Forces to be held on January 29-30 in Minsk. The stated goal is to establish a common organization and platform for a political offensive against the authorities. City authorities have revoked the permit which had initially been granted for holding this congress. Opposition leaders have announced that they are going ahead with it regardless.

In a further countermeasure, Lukashenka issued a decree on January 27 which requires political parties, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions and all independent associations to re-register with the authorities between February 1 and July 1. All groups whose registrations have not been renewed by July 1 will be considered disbanded and prohibited from carrying out their activities. The conditions for re-registration are restrictive compared with the conditions for the original registration. Political groups are now required to have at least 1,000 enrolled members, instead of 500. Labor associations must have at least 500, instead of 200. Moreover, the groups applying for re-registration are required to supply full personal data on each member listed in their rolls (Itar-Tass, Belapan, January 27, 28). These intent of these conditions is to exploit fear of reprisals, to reduce the opposition to a dedicated core and to make it easier for the repressive apparatus to keep tabs on that core.