Some 100 workers at Belaruskali, a state-run potash producer that is one of the few flickering jewels in the much-tarnished crown of Belarusian state-run industry, joined strikes last year to demand authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka step down after a disputed election.
The country was thrown into turmoil when Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in an August vote that millions of Belarusians believe was rigged.
It unleashed a wave of protests that is unprecedented in Belarus's post-Soviet history and continues to this day, albeit in smaller numbers amid a persistent crackdown by law enforcement authorities.
Thousands of people have been arrested, hundreds jailed, some allegedly tortured, and several have died, earning Lukashenka the opprobrium of the West, much of which does not recognize the 66-year-old former collective farm manager as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
Like workers elsewhere, dozens of employees at Belaruskali were arrested and more than 50 were fired for rising up. But in January, management at the company based south of Minsk announced what it cast as a change of heart, saying it was willing to take back striking workers.
It came after Yara, a Norwegian-based agribusiness giant, called for the Belarusian firm to take fired workers back and sent senior company officials to Belarus to make the point face-to-face with Belaruskali management.
For many independent labor leaders in Belarus, the action taken by Yara should serve as a template for Western businesses operating in Belarus to pressure Lukashenka, who along with other officials faces EU and U.S. sanctions over the election and the crackdown on protests.
But many of Lukashenka's opponents, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader who supporters contend was the actual winner of the August 2020 vote, have called on Yara to cut ties with Belaruskali, at least temporarily. As of March 10, an online petition urging Yara to end its "cooperation" with Belaruskali had gathered more than 68,000 signatures.
"The company [Belaruskali] is under total control of the unlawful regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and simply has no possibility to do what is right in law and ethics," the petition on Change.org, a U.S.-based website for such campaigns, reads in English.
Yara said it will continue to monitor the situation but gave no indication it was considering halting its purchases of potash -- a key ingredient in fertilizer -- from Belaruskali.
"Yara continues to engage with and seek advice from stakeholders inside and outside Belarus to evaluate how it can have the most positive impact. Yara's main concern remains the health, safety, and well-being of Belaruskali workers," Josiana Kremer said in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL, adding that the company has the backing of independent Belarusian trade unions.
"In Belarus, Yara's approach of seeking influence has been supported by both the Belarus Independent Trade Union (BITU) and the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP)," Kremer said.
Potential Takeover Target
Belaruskali sells more than 10 million metric tons of potash a year and boasts that its share of the global market is 20 percent, making it a global leader. The company employs around 16,000 people and is an important source of hard currency for the Belarusian government.
Its success has made it a potential takeover target in the past. Russian potash giant Uralkali has reportedly long desired to acquire Belaruskali. In 2012, Lukashenka claimed he was offered $5 billion in kickbacks by unidentified "Moscow oligarchs" if he agreed to sell the state-run company for $10 billion.
Much of what it produces is shipped to China, Belaruskali's main export market, although the ratings agency FitchRatings says the company has a "significant presence in all main potash-consuming markets, particularly in India, Europe, and Southeast Asia."
Yara is one of Belaruskali's biggest customers, purchasing potash valued at $65 million from Belaruskali from January to November 2020, according to data cited by Reuters.
Those purchases came during a period of declining sales amid the unprecedented political turmoil in Belarus.
Belarusian potash exports fell by 16 percent year-on-year, to $2.2 billion in January-November, the Interfax news agency reported, citing the country's statistics service.
That drop came amid a year marked by industrial strikes in Belarus in August, after the disputed vote, and at the end of October, when some workers at enterprises nationwide heeded a call by Tsikhanouskaya to stage a nationwide strike to press for Lukashenka to step down.
A potash mine belonging to Belaruskali was the scene of one of the most dramatic work stoppages. In a solidarity strike with pro-democracy protesters, two miners refused to return to the surface and remained hundreds of meters underground in the shaft of the mine in Salihorsk, where Belaruskali is based, 130 kilometers south of Minsk.
Overall, more than 100 workers at Belaruskali are reported to have taken part in strike action. Dozens were arrested and at least 55 were fired, according to reports. In August, a strike leader at Belaruskali was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
On January 20, Belaruskali said that workers who had been fired could return if they filed an application and that financial penalties imposed on employees as a disciplinary measure would be discontinued. It also said it was prepared to cooperate with Yara on industrial safety and accept specialists from Yara to monitor the production process.
That announcement came nine days after Tsikhanouskaya urged Yara Chief Executive Svein Tore Holsether "to consider pausing or not prolonging the contract with its Belarusian partner at this stage."
"It is crucial that Yara conditions collaboration with Belaruskali unless the repressions of workers stop," Tsikhanouskaya wrote in a letter to Holsether posted to her website on January 11.
"As Belaruskali management continues intimidating workers, we believe that signing a new potash supply contract between Yara and its Belarusian business partner will not be considered as a sincere commitment to the UN's guiding principles on business and human rights as stipulated in the internal Yara regulations," she wrote.
A Different Tack
The BKDP, an umbrella organization of independent trade unions in Belarus -- including the independent Trade Union of Miners of Belaruskali -- has taken a different tack.
In a statement on March 3, the BKDP lauded Yara as a "model of a socially responsible company," guided by a "a code of business ethics," including the "respect of human and workers' rights."
It said Yara's role at Belaruskali was "beginning to bear fruit," with management forced to declare its "readiness to accept occupational safety experts," as well as the payment of compensation to striking workers and a willingness to reinstate dismissed employees who want to return.
Belaruskali has not stated whether anyone who was fired has actually returned to the job. The Belaruskali strike committee has stated repeatedly that they would only go back once their political demands are met, among them the resignation of Lukashenka.
According to Yara spokesperson Kremer, the company is planning to send a health and safety expert to Belaruskali's plant to support and monitor progress on industrial health and safety improvements.
"Yara will continue to monitor the situation closely and expects Belaruskali to further improve the situation for its workforce, respect workers' rights, enhance occupational health and safety, and refrain from repression of employees," Kremer said.
She said that the company remained ready to react to developments in Belarus, but did not directly answer questions about whether the company might be prepared to sever ties with Belaruskali.
"We will also continue to engage with all key stakeholders, as we continuously evaluate our position," Kremer said in the e-mail exchange.