The first day of a general strike ordered by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya got off to a mixed start with some workers laying down their tools, but the majority of state-owned enterprises were functioning as normal.
Tikhanovskaya issued the People’s Ultimatum two weeks ago that demanded Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko step down, end the violence and release political prisoners or face a nationwide general strike beginning on October 26.
A mass rally on October 25 saw up to 200,000 people march, according to local media reports, one of the biggest rallies to date, and the evening ended with OMON opening fire on protesters with rubber bullets and stun grenades. There were also reports of one demonstrator being hit with small arms fire. However, despite the new levels of violence by the police, workers at the state-owned factories remain fearful of losing their livelihoods and largely turned up to work.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, there was a call for a general strike two days after the August 9 elections that was widely ignored. However, two days after that as details of the brutal beatings the police were inflicting on protesters, one factory after another came out in support of the demonstrators, forcing the authorities to back down.
Since then, the regime-loyal factory directors have been weeding out the most militant workers, who have been threatened, sacked or arrested. As bne IntelliNews has reported, the strikes have failed to reach critical mass and at best workers have adopted an “Italian strike” where they turn up to work, but do little.
Some of the biggest facilities such as the Minsk Car Plant (MAZ) were working as normal. Other facilities were paralysed after senior specialists in charge of critical parts of the production process refused to perform their jobs, bringing production to a halt. At the Hrodna Azot fertiliser plant technical processes are performed by heads of departments, as the workers refuse to do it. Employees report that the plant has practically stopped working.
Some workers from Belarusneft, the state-owned oil company, walked off the shop floor and made a video calling on their colleagues to stop work, but the group was quickly fired.
“How could we pretend that nothing is going on?” ask one of the sacked workers following the news.
In one incident a video was released by workers at the Grodno-Azot fertiliser factory that showed a worker turning off the production machinery. However, it was later reported that the video was a “joke” and production was proceeding at the plant as normal. The morning shift refused to work, but the factory directors kept the night shift at their posts, who ended up working a 19-hour shift. The striking workers were attack and beaten with batons by police.
In another incident the daughter of a worker at the BelAZ car plant in Zhodzina stood outside the factory with a placard saying: “Dad, if you keep working, I will be jailed.”
There were widespread reports of smaller state-owned enterprises stopping work, but the overall picture remains confused and the anti-government action sporadic and local.
Workers in Belarus’ IT sector have almost universally come out on strike. Many other companies have already shut up shop in Minsk and left. According to reports, more than 2,000 people and 500 companies have moved to Ukraine in the last month as a result of the crackdown. Tikhanovskaya’s demand for a general strike puts her reputation on the line in her showdown with Lukashenko. The hope was a hammer blow where the opposition closed the country down that would quickly lead to an economic crisis and force Lukashenko to the negotiating table. That has not happened as the state continues to terrorise blue collar workers who are entirely dependent on their state jobs for their income and government services, which are usually provided for by the companies at which they work.