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High Stakes In Belarus: Will Tsikhanouskaya's National Strike Gamble Pay Off?

Workers from the Belorusneft petroleum company who were fired after supporting the national strike show their ID cards.

Belarusians are taking their demands for Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down from the streets to the workplace and the classroom.

Belarus has witnessed nearly daily protests since the country’s August 9 presidential election that Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claims he won by a landslide, despite charges from opponents, voters, and Western governments that the poll was rigged. A violent crackdown by authorities has resulted in several deaths, hundreds of injuries, and more than 10,000 arrests.

On October 26, the opposition turned up the pressure.

Thousands of workers at state-owned factories and private firms, restaurants, cafes, and other establishments -- as well as students at universities across the Eastern European country of 9.5 million -- heeded a call from opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to join a national strike after Lukashenka ignored a demand that he resign, halt the crackdown on protesters, and free political prisoners by October 25.

Analysts say the action marks a new phase in the months-long political crisis and will test both Lukashenka’s ability to cling to power and whether Tsikhanouskaya and her allies have the public support needed to push him out.

Workers And Students Walk Out As Strikes Begin In Belarus
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“The strike raises the stakes for both regime and opposition,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Regular mass peaceful protests have undermined the legitimacy of the regime. A general strike threatens its economic viability. The regime understands this is a threat.”

Timing Right?

Most of the country’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee, including Tsikhanouskaya. She left Belarus for Lithuania days after the vote amid threats against herself and her family.

Western governments have voiced support, with both the European Union and the United States refusing to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus's legitimate leader. The EU has announced asset freezes and visa bans on 40 Belarusian officials for their alleged roles in the repression of protesters and the opposition, as well as fraud during the August vote.

And on October 12, EU foreign ministers gave a political green light to a new sanctions package that will include Lukashenka himself.

A day later, Tsikhanouskaya issued an ultimatum to Lukashenka, demanding he step down by October 25 or face a nationwide strike.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya during a visit to Copenhagen on October 23. While the strike has increased the pressure on Lukashenka, resorting to this method also “raises the stakes for the opposition,” one analyst says.
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya during a visit to Copenhagen on October 23. While the strike has increased the pressure on Lukashenka, resorting to this method also “raises the stakes for the opposition,” one analyst says.

The timing of the action could give the opposition a jolt of fresh energy, said Hanna Baraban, a Belarusian commentator and analyst.

While protest numbers -- especially in Minsk -- swell to the tens of thousands on weekends, they tend to be more modest during the rest of the week, suggesting to Baraban that they may have been losing some steam.

“After more than three months of consecutive protests, Belarusians got tired and the number of people in the manifestations started to decrease slightly. It seemed that the authorities also got used to the protests and had been waiting for the movement to end by itself,” Baraban said.

More than 100,000 people turned out to protest on October 25, the opposition deadline for Lukashenka to step down. Lukashenka ignored the ultimatum and police cracked down hard, using stun grenades and detaining hundreds of people.

State Denial

State authorities under Lukashenka denied that the strike action was having any impact on state-run industry.

“Products were made and shipped to customers as usual,” Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchyk was quoted as saying by the state-run BelTA news agency on October 26.

Parkhomchyk belittled the strike effort, accusing the opposition of inflating its importance.

“Ten, 15, 20 people would gather up, take photos of themselves, and upload them to say that the factory is out of service, that the workers are on strike, that the enterprise is not honoring its commitments,” he said, without providing specific evidence.

Lukashenka has scoffed as well, earlier asking, "Who will feed the kids?" if workers at state-owned enterprises went on strike.

Students from Belarusian State University walked out of their classes on October 26.
Students from Belarusian State University walked out of their classes on October 26.

In a sign that the crackdown could potentially intensify, Kanstantsin Bychak, head of the investigations department at the Belarusian KBG, the state security agency, said on October 26 that protest actions could be classified as “terrorism.”

Despite denying the strike was having any impact, Belarusian riot police were busy rounding up strikers and sympathizers.

According to the Belarusian rights group Vyasna, more than 320 people were detained in Minsk, Hrodna, Brest, Mahilyou, Lida and other Belarusian cities and towns on October 26.

'Art Of The Possible'

Workers from Hrodna Azot, one of Belarus’s leading chemical companies, were detained as they were about to join the strike, with police making arrests as early as 7 a.m., according to Amnesty International.

“Lukashenka’s regime uses its only instrument -- pure force -- demonstrating its complete lack of flexibility and inability to find new ways to deal with the protesters,” said Baraban.

Relying on brute force is a sign a weakening Lukashenka is running out of other options, argued Andrey Shuman, a Belarusian political analyst.

“The point is that politics is the art of the possible. And a strong politician is one who has a large array of options. The fewer the options, the weaker the politician, and the less able he is to retain his power. Lukashenka is now losing power,” Shuman told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Numbers Game

Tsikhanouskaya had called on private businesses, clergy, and athletes to join and observe the general strike call.

"Employees of state factories and enterprises, transport workers and miners, teachers and students have gone on strike this morning," she said on her Telegram channel on October 26.

Later in the day, Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that she was “proud of every Belarusian who found strength and courage and went on strike today,” while urging all Belarusians to join the strike action.

Riot police detained striking students in Minsk on October 26.
Riot police detained striking students in Minsk on October 26.

Figures on how many people had walked off the job on the first day were hard to pin down.

The head of Belarus's Confederation of Democratic Trade Unions, Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, warned that it was difficult to calculate participation in the strike "given the authorities' massive pressure."

The opposition said factories where strike actions took place on October 26 included the oil company Belarusneft, fertilizer giant Belaruskali, automakers MAZ, MZKT and Belkommunmash, the Minsk Tractor Factory (MTZ), and appliance maker Atlant.

Students at universities in Minsk and elsewhere also walked out of classes. They were joined by pensioners, who repeated a similar march from a week ago.

"Chains of solidarity" that linked the arms of opposition supporters were reported, including outside Minsk’s Hi-Tech Park.

What Will Russia Do?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia "cannot ignore the strikes at enterprises in Belarus. The issue of their reliable functioning is important."

If strikes come close to paralyzing the country, it could be a further test of Russian support for Lukashenka.

Since the crisis began, Moscow has backed him with a $1.5 billion loan and increased security cooperation, including more military drills.

“If the scope of the national strike grows during the following weeks, Putin may lose what remaining tolerance he has for Lukashenka,” said Baraban.

Final End For Lukashenka?

Despite the jailing or exile of its main leaders, the opposition, led by the Coordination Council that Tsikhanouskaya created, is managing to organize itself, in many cases relying on technology and the Internet.

“Tsikhanouskaya made video calls with nearly every social group that is active: local neighborhoods, workers, athletes, and others. Hundreds of members of the Coordination Council…are based in Belarus,” Hanna Liubakova, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in an e-mail. “There’s interconnection and unity between these political actors -- the people of Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya (Vilnius), Telegram channels (abroad and in Belarus), Coordination Council (Belarus, Poland), and despite being based in different countries, they coordinate and unify their actions.”

A woman takes part in a march by pensioners in Minsk on October 26.
A woman takes part in a march by pensioners in Minsk on October 26.

While the strike has increased the pressure on Lukashenka, resorting to this method also “raises the stakes for the opposition,” Gould-Davies said.

“A general strike requires a majority of people to support it every day, not only at weekends, and to accept the resulting economic hardship. To succeed, it must create a tipping point where so many workers are striking that it creates a social expectation for others to follow suit -- and too many workers for the regime to punish,” he wrote in comments to RFE/RL.

On October 21, Tsikhanouskaya promised workers financial compensation “guarantees” if their contracts are terminated due to strikes. On October 26,she said that $7 million in donations had been collected to financially support strikers.

A pro-government rally in Minsk on October 25 that drew only a smattering of supporters underscored the eroding support Lukashenka faces, Shuman said.

While it may be premature to talk about an imminent end of his rule, Shuman said, the clock is ticking.

“The crisis is rapidly narrowing the horizon of opportunities for Lukashenka,” he said. “His supporters are abandoning him; it is more difficult for him to deploy the means of force and authority at his disposal. If all this continues, I think that around January-February we will most likely be talking about a change of power.”

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.