The protesters in Belarus are something very different from the oppositional leaders in exile

Interview with the Polish journalist Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat on the internal context and causes for the Belarussian protests

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist and expert on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She is the deputy editor of the Polish left media platform Strike and an editor at another Polish left-wing media – the newspaper Tribuna. She visited Belarus both before the presidential elections and in their aftermath. 

This is the first part of a three-parts interview, with the first part dealing with the internal context in Belarus, the second one – with the geopolitical dimensions of the political crisis and the third one with Malgorzata’s notes as a foreign reporter and conclusions. 

Mrs. Kulbaczewska-Figat, you were in Belarus in the middle of September 2020. What is the situation there on the ground? What is the economic and security situation there as far as the common people are concerned?

More than two months have passed since the presidential elections, which were in the beginning of August. For these two months people have kept on protesting. There have been big demonstrations every weekend, and more events during the week. All this happens despite repressions, despite police brutality during the protests. There were cases, when people were stopped on the street, searched and then detained, just for carrying the official symbol of the protest – the red and white flag. Right now the protesters are facing the courts, one after another and Alexander Lukashenko has recently threatened to ‘find and punish every single person who demonstrated’. The verdicts are not extremely strict – from five to fifteen days, but still it is not something that should happen to peaceful protesters, for most of these people were absolutely unaggressive during their marches. 

The determination of the protesters is falling, but not as much as the external observers thought. In the beginning, everyone expected that there would be some protests which would last for two or three weeks, not for two months. And now there are still people on the streets. These are protests without leaders – whoever comes out as a leader is arrested or forced to go abroad. It is even hard to say what kind of political program is in the mind of those who go on the street. 

The liberal opposition has produced a programme, which basically replicates the free market & liberal democracy pack that other countries in the region adopted, but I don’t think that people on the street really care about that. Their demand is that Lukashenko must go. 

When I was in Belarus, I saw signs that the city of Minsk is protesting – not only in the center, but also in the quarters. If you go there you will see flags and slogans “Long live Belarus!’, hanging from people’s balconies. People there are still agitated about what is going. Even if they know that Lukashenko has all the resources to survive, they are not happy with that. Outside the capital, the mood is a bit different. In east and north Belarus, even in cities, the demonstrations took place in August, but now are over. The country has largely accepted that Lukashenko will be the president. 

You asked about economic situation of the people. There is a high disproportion between what we hear about Belarus as a country, which has retained its state economy and thus offers to its citizens good conditions and prospects, and what the ordinary people experience. It is obvious that the Belarussian populations fares much better than the population in Ukraine. Also, inequality in Belarus is extremely low in comparison to its neighbours, and Russia in particular. But there are signs that things are not very bright. I can give as an example a conversation I had with a woman from Vitebsk – a city in east Belarus where I went in September.

She told me that apart from two or three factories, schools, local and state administration and some cultural institutions, there are no possibilities to find work in the city. Even if there are job offers, they often turn out to be fake – apparently state institutions are told by the authorities to give the impression that they are hiring, to make an impression of movement and development. But in fact there is a stagnation, and people are feeling that more than ever.

If we look at the prices and wages in Belarus, we see that prices are going constantly up, while wages are going up only in the area of Minsk. There is disparity between the capital and the country – the latter is doing its best to survive, while Minsk is a vibrant city with opportunities, with young entrepreneurs (which, however, may change now that repression has hit the start-ups and young businessmen strongly). But of course, it is still not this level of inequalities, which we have in Ukraine or Russia. 

There is a popular opinion that Lukashenko protected his people from the shock therapy, which destroyed the social and economic achievements of the times before 1989. There is also a belief that Lukashenko has to be supported, because he protects Belarussian workers from the onslaught of international corporations, observed in other countries of the region. How true are these beliefs? To what extent is Lukashenko a people-loving and anti-colonial leader in the current specific context?

The answer would be complex. In order to understand things, we have to look back 24 years, when Lukashenko won the presidential elections for the first time. At that time there was no election fraud. It was an honest victory. At that time, he was perceived as a people-loving leader – one who would protect the social system of the socialist time.

Belarussian society was absolutely against any privatisation and shock therapy after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In fact, they were against the breakup of the giant country they were proud of. Unlike in Ukraine, there were almost no anticommunist, national movements in Belarus. The majority of the population appreciated the kind of welfare state which had been built in Belarus in the 70s and 80s. 

Belarus came out of the world war destroyed. It had ¼ of its population killed or displaced. Strong Soviet partisan groups were fighting the enemy in Belarus and the Nazis answered with extreme atrocity toward the civilian population. And then, in Soviet Belorussia, the country was not only raised from ruins but modernised. It turned from an agricultural, peasant, backward area into a more industrialised economy. Both the suffering and heroism of the war and the reconstruction of the economy after the war are kept in popular memory. The Soviet Union has fallen, but its achievements are still considered a valuable heritage, which must be protected.

In a way, Lukashenko protected the population from the catastrophe which happened in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and also in Poland. He didn’t allow the big factories to be sold to dubious hands and then destroyed. He didn’t allow foreigners to buy out Belarussian industries, then close them or sell them out in pieces. There was no government in Belarus which would explain to people, like it was in Poland, that they must suffer unemployment and poverty, because ‘the country is getting back on its feet from Communist destruction’. There was no mass migration from the country. 

So yes, definitely in the first term of this government, Lukashenko played a positive role. But there is an important remark to make. I do not think that he ever believed that a state owned economy is a value in itself. At the end of the 80s when perestroika started, and he was the head of a collective farm, he was enthusiastic about the introduction of elements of market economy. What he did in 1996 was gauge perfectly the social mood and to do what the people wanted from a leader. And he did it. 

Things, however, have been changing. As long as preserving the state-owned economy allowed Lukashenko to stay in power, he did that. He didn’t abandon it. But over the last decade he was giving more and more concessions to business and to the kind of oligarchy that emerged around him. Their wealth is not as extreme as the Ukrainain and Russian oligarchs. But they appeared, with their own class interests and demands. So, also in Belarus privatisation has been taking place, slowly but surely. 

The other aspects of workers’ position are far from what might be expected in a ‘socialist’ country too. There are no independent labour unions. The official ones that exist are generally toothless and the right to strike is limited. There is hardly any stable employment in Belarus. Most of the workers, even in the state sector, are not being employed on long-term contracts. They are hired on 3-4-year contracts, which are renewed regularly. But if someone is too rebellious, his contract may not be renewed. Then he will probably have difficulty finding any job in Belarus, even though unemployment is officially kept low. 

Last but not least, preserving the current shape of Belarussian economy is not only a matter of Lukashenko’s free will. Belarus is not rich in natural resources. It is a land-locked country. It depends a lot on Russian resources and international partners. The economic model Lukashenko built was possible to a great extent thanks to Russian support. Russia sold resources to Belarus at low prices for purely geopolitical reasons – to keep Belarus as an ally.

What will happen if Russia steps up the pressure on Lukashenko? What happens if Russian oligarchs push their own agenda and try to buy some Belarussian enterprises? 

Lukashenko will be in an extremely weak position if he has to negotiate with Russia. And Russia does not give any guarantee of keeping the Belarussian social system. I would even say more – if the Russia-Belarus integration plans are pushed forward, the common state would most probably go in the neoliberal-oligarchical direction. The preservation of the social system in Belarus is in danger. Even if Lukashenko stopped privatisation in the 90s, there is no guarantee he will do it now, when the pressure is much stronger.

When we listen to international media we hear what important oppositional leaders are doing – such as Tikhanovskaya, while the workers’ protest movement goes unreported. You mentioned some reasons for their dissatisfaction. Do workers have a vision for change beyond Lukashenko’s resignation and new elections? What is their relation to power? What is their attitude towards international powers?

There is one important point to make in connection to workers. Human dignity is key to understanding this protest. In Belarus, everybody understood – more or less – that these elections would not be free and fair. Everyone knew that Lukashenko would stay in power and the opposition would be able only to show there is some dissatisfaction, even though as Tikhanovskaya’s campaign progressed, a feeling of something new began to appear. But nevertheless – people would not be much surprised had the final result been 55-60% for Lukashenko. But when Lukashenko assigned himself 80%, everyone understood that it was fake. I talked to one anarchist, who escaped the country and now lives in Poland. He told me that everyone thought that this was a slap in people’s faces and caused anger. This caused another wave of the protest

The first demonstrations were brutally dispersed. Then protests erupted in factories. The workers’ collectives began to issue their statements about what happened. There were calls for general strikes, but at the end just a few factories stopped production, with Belaruskali, a large company specializing in potassium fertilizers being the largest. 

It was the workers’ dissent and not street marches that made Lukashenko tremble. He went to one of the factories in Minsk. He listened to the workers shouting and demanding his resignation. Only after this meeting, Lukashenko’s supporters started organising counter-demonstrations. They were much fewer in numbers than the protests.

Despite the fact that the workers came out with a few points for change, Tikhanovskaya and her companions pretended not to see what was going on. When she set up a protest council, which was expected to negotiate with Lukashenko – if he ever agreed to negotiate – no representative from the factories was invited. Around the 20th of August 2020 in a video Tikhanovskaya asked the workers to continue to strike, but she didn’t promise them anything. She just said that workers must go on with the protests. At the same time, the state media and Lukashenko himself kept repeating that a victory of the opposition means shock therapy and privatizations, and the police arrested some of the spontaneous workers’ leaders. 

So, the workers were called to participate in protests that didn’t offer them any guarantee for the future and where no one was really recognising their interests or importance. In October, the strike in Belaruskali was declared illegal in court, which said that the strike was not related to workers’ problems, but was a political act, which is not allowed in a state-owned factory. The leaders of the strike committee were punished. The Belarussian opposition did nothing to show solidarity with these people. It did nothing to tell the international community about them. The workers were left abandoned. Even if the intimidation on the part of the state was the principal reason for the factories resuming normal work, such behaviour of the ‘democratic’ leaders definitely did discourage people, too.

They realised that Tikhanovskaya just calls for Lukashenko to go, but she hasn’t promised them anything and doesn’t care about what they want from a democratic Belarus. Workers decided that they have no interest in participating in the protests, which might even be dangerous to them in the short term.

Even as the workers have given up on protesting, there are some left-wing groups who have tried to show up on the protests. First of all, they are against the system of short-term contracts. They want more independence for workers and more rights in the state affairs. They want a renouncement of privatisation to be written in the constitution. They want to counter the law that was approved two years ago that cut the number of professions that allow early retirement. They want workers’ rights to actually be preserved. However, the impact of the left-wingers is limited. 

There is one more dimension to that. Do workers have a geopolitical ally? What are their relations to outside powers? 

They don’t have one. That is the most tragic dimension to the protest. Workers’ protest gave power to students too. But workers have never had a geopolitical partner or anyone who wants to support them. In August when the factories closed, their actions began to be compared to the Solidarity movement of the 80s in Poland. It was always Mrs. Tikhanovskaya that was presented as the protests’ leaders. But people are not for Tikhanovskaya, they are against Lukashenko. If an empty chair raced against him, they would have voted for an empty chair.

Photo: Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat (source: Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat)

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