It rained all Tuesday night in Minsk, but people still came out the next morning to support striking factory workers. They weren’t alone: President Alexander Lukashenko’s most loyal and most brutal police force was out in full force, too, seeking to intimidate and arrest — or worse — the strikers and their supporters.
But the wave of strikes in Belarus, which began last week to protest our stolen election and the police brutality that followed, has continued. In support we Belarusians sing folk songs, hand out food, raise funds and stand in solidarity with factory workers doing what was unthinkable months ago: standing up to the man who has been our country’s president since 1994.
Belarus never had the wild privatization of the other post-Soviet counties, and the government maintains control over many industries. Mr. Lukashenko uses that control to repress dissent and whip up displays of political support when he needs them. But that has changed now. Despite the risk of losing their jobs, employees of state-controlled institutions across the country, from the main TV station to fertilizer companies, are on strike, demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down.
Of course, strikers are afraid — afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being abandoned, afraid of reprisals. But for now, the fear of more years under Mr. Lukashenko is stronger.
Fear was what first brought Mr. Lukashenko into office 26 years ago. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic collapse, Belarusians were in a state of shock and wanted a return to stability. That’s what Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager with a populist touch, promised — and after being elected he proceeded to oversee a sort of return to the Soviet Union, complete with a state-dominated economy and brutal political repression.
For those who have sought to change Belarus, repression has long been a fact of life. Your phones are tapped, you are stopped and held at the border, and you never know when a dubious accusation may see you detained and beaten, possibly never to return.
But if those practices were once confined to a relatively small group of people, they have now been laid bare for all to see. It is now a ritual on social media for those released from police detention — close to 7,000 people have been arrested so far — to lift their shirts and show bodies covered with black and blue from police beatings. At least two protesters have been killed, hundreds have been injured and many are missing. Mr. Lukashenko continues to claim that he is protecting the country.
Workers across the country have taken a stand against such violence and injustice. But the workers’ movement in Belarus is not a monolith. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, of which I am the vice chair, is part of the International Trade Union Confederation and brings together the country’s independent trade unions. All these independent unions, with a membership of about 10,000 people, are on strike.
Then there’s the “official” Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, which claims to represent 96 percent of workers, about 4.5 million people. (The figure is grossly inflated.) This entity is not internationally recognized and its head is also the head of Mr. Lukashenko’s presidential campaign. Still, there are good people in the organization, even if those at the top still support Mr. Lukashenko. Dissent is emerging here, too; in large factories, workers are leaving the “official” union and joining our ranks.
The loyalists believe that Mr. Lukashenko will be able to wait until the strikers grow tired and international attention moves on. But I see no sign of the strikers tiring. In my role, I provide support to strike committees and worker collectives — my phone is ringing constantly. The strikes, I believe, will continue to grow. Support is flooding in from labor movements around the world. Trade unions in Canada, Hong Kong, Britain, Poland, the United States and other countries have expressed support and solidarity.
As I stood with the hundreds of thousands of Belarusian protesters on Sunday, I was filled with tremendous pride in my people. In this country, whose security service that is still called the K.G.B. (it never bothered to change the name after the fall of the Soviet Union), people came out on an unprecedented scale. I and others have long struggled to win that kind of political engagement. But with so much of the economy and society still directly controlled by the state, fear has long outweighed hope. No longer.
Today, when I leave my apartment in Minsk, I can join a protest immediately — marchers pass my door. Before, this was impossible, even unthinkable. Change is happening in Belarus that has been delayed for decades.
What it will turn into is still unclear. But this time, Belarusians are ready to confront the uncertainty.
Siarhei Antusevich is the vice chair of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. This essay was translated from the Russian by Ian Bateson.