Where democracy is not a right
In this first of a two part special report, UNITElive investigates what’s happening to trade unionists in Belarus and how one woman union leader’s fight shows that only solidarity can defeat oppression
To continue, Lukashenko’s record on human rights has been widely criticised. The only country in Europe to officially still have capital punishment, opponents to the regime, including independent politicians, journalists and yes, independent trade unions, have been repressed, sometimes violently.
Up until a few weeks ago I doubt if most people would have heard of Belarus. Following Lukashenko’s ‘re-election’ on August 9, of which many independent observers have reported concerns of serious fraud, manipulation and irregularities before, during and after the election –disproportionate violence, persecution and arrests were rained down on people peacefully protesting against the results.
Overnight the formerly overlooked republic of Belarus had become a target of worldwide, democratic condemnation.
These voices included IndustriALL Global Union and IndustriAll European Trade Union – both to which Unite is affiliated, who expressed their outrage and anger at the disproportionate violence used – including that used against leaders of the three independent Belarus trade unions.
A wave of spontaneous walkouts and wildcat protests of workers took place. Belarus Workers had created striking committees to coordinate protest activities in response to the extreme violence, arrests and detentions orchestrated by President Lukashenko. And the authorities replied with repression and intimidation.
Workers downed tools to join the protests. IndustriALL reports that by August 20, 7,000 workers arrested on August 9 still remained detained in prison. Strike leaders began to go ‘missing’ and there has been reports of ‘extremely alarming accounts of brutal torture, heavy beatings and other inhuman acts of violence while in detention.’
But the situation only got worse – and it appears especially so for women opposition leaders. Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU) international secretary, Lizaveta Merliak (pictured), was shortly to find out what it was like to be taken by the state for herself.
It happened on Monday afternoon, August 30, as she finished work for the day. Lizaveta was arrested in front of her house in Grodno as she arrived home with her husband and young son.
In a scene straight out of a trashy thriller, she got out of the car and two men in plain clothes approached her. Showing no warrant or other official documents, (although one did very briefly wave some sort of id paper in front of her) the men took her phone and bundled Lizaveta into a car – to the despair of her family, who looked on, helpless. But this was no film, no novel – this was really happening. The intervention looked like – and was in fact – that a wife and mother had just been kidnapped by the state.
As Lizaveta was being taken by these men, her husband called the local union leader to inform her colleagues of her arrest.
Lizaveta was later taken to the local police station where she was interrogated by several people on her participation in the protest against rigged elections earlier that same day.
Support for Lizaveta came flooding in and the police station allegedly received many calls both from inside and outside of Belarus.
Union activists were demanding explanations – why had this happened? Why had Lizaveta been arrested? IndustriALL among many others believe that these acts of solidarity certainly played a role in Lizaveta’s release from custody, a few hours later. However the police kept her phone and she is still due to face trial at a later date.
Her union BITU believes that its’ active links with striking committees at different companies in Belarus could well have been the reasons behind the arrest.
Since then many members of the striking committees have had to withdraw because of the enormous pressure on themselves and their families. Some have even had to escape to neighbouring countries – fearing for their very lives.
Women now lead the way
But the fight goes on – with women now leading the way, with marches and peaceful protests throughout Belarus – despite violence and repression from the state. On September 12 around 10,000 women marched on the streets of Minsk, demanding the departure of Lukashenko.
Since the beginning of the resistance, women have been involved and continue to play an active role in the movement.
The poignancy of this action is even greater when you realise how far patriarchy is deeply institutionalised in Belarus – reaching all the way to the top. When Lukashenko received news of the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed political opponent, he remarked that a housewife would never be a real competitor.
Earlier he claimed that the Belarusian society, “has not yet matured enough to vote for a woman,” saying this was “because according to the constitution, our president has strong powers.”
But the actions of Tikhanovskaya and other female colleagues has shown Belarus society that women can raise their voices and be leaders. Their actions have inspired many of the thousands of women – still taking to the streets in protest.
Sadly the women have not been spared from violent police repression. The Belarusian authorities have been internationally denounced for targeting women activists and family members of political opponents. There have even been reports that women prisoners have been raped.
We often forget that in the comfortable confines of homes throughout the UK it is easy to – and often right to criticise our government. It is currently unlikely that you’ll then be arrested, tortured or even killed.
But the trade union movement never forgets – and that is why Unite is affiliated to international campaign groups such as IndustriALL – because in the end it is only solidarity that can defeat oppression.
“I want to thank everyone; to a large extent I was released thanks to your solidarity,” says Lizaveta.
“Unfortunately, right now other union members including Mikalaj Zimin, ex-chairman of BITU, and Anatoly Bokun, co-chairman of striking committee at Belaruskali, remain in prison. I urge you to extend your solidarity to them and all union and labour activists currently facing persecution in Belarus.”
Valter Sanches, IndustriALL Global Union general secretary echoes those views. He says, “IndustriALL Global Union and our affiliates worldwide are closely monitoring the situation in Belarus.
“All the facts of violence and repressions against union leaders and activists form the side of Belarusian authorities are appalling and will be denounced. Together with our allies in the union movement, IndustriALL Global Union calls on all its affiliates throughout the world to take more actions and express solidarity with Belarusian independent unions.”
Unite’s delegate to IndustriALL Global Union is assistant general secretary Tony Burke.
He pays tribute to Lizaveta. “Liza is a very brave comrade. Her arrest in Belarus was an attempt to silence not only Liza who is the international officer of her union, but independent trade unions in the country who are fighting for a free and fair presidential election an end to attacks on workers’ rights by the Lukashenko dictatorship.
“Unite is helping and supporting the independent unions, their officials and members in the metal workers, the chemical workers and the electrical and radio workers unions and the Belarus BKDP federation body by working through our global trade union federation IndustriALL, the Building Workers International, the European TUC and our own TUC to help them secure justice.
“It’s great to see so many women leading demonstrations and strikes. Lukashenko appears to be terrified that so many women are taking the lead – hence the attempt to silence opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who fled the country after her family were threatened. It’s clear they won’t be backing down.”
And a Unite member originally from a neighbouring nation to Belarus has come forward and given UNITElive a quote. Our member says, “Greetings of solidarity to all brave comrades in Belarus, to the workers at Minsk Sugar Factory, Naftan, MTZ and BelAZ, to our friends at MPZ, BMZ and Grodno Azot, to the heroic miners at Belaruskali – and to all Belarusian workers who stood up against oppression and injustice in their motherland.
“We, your comrades in the UK, admire you and your strong-willed fight for freedom, justice and democracy in Belarus. We are supporting your struggle with the regime – and we will stand on your side, until you will win. Long live Belarus!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself – and in part two of this special report we have an exclusive interview with Lizaveta – so stay tuned to UNITElive.
FIND OUT MORE – See IndustriALL’s site for the latest on Belarus
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite