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'I cannot forget what has happened': Meet one of Belarus' striking workers

Protesters in Minsk on August 21 after Belarus' authorities detained a leader of striking factory workers and threatened protesters with criminal charges
Protesters in Minsk on August 21 after Belarus' authorities detained a leader of striking factory workers and threatened protesters with criminal charges   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Strikes organised to protest at the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus now appear to have largely been put on hold, but some workers cannot forget what has happened and refuse to go back to work.

They are sure that strikes will continue and a union leader has told Euronews that in the meantime some workers are fighting back by working slowly.

In recent weeks, thousands of workers at state-run factories in Belarus have downed tools, protesting the results of the presidential election on August 9, and the violent crackdown on protesters that followed.

According to the authorities, Lukashenko won a sixth consecutive term with some 80% of the vote. This has been disputed by the opposition and by independent observers, including the EU. Every day since the election, thousands have taken to the streets, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.

Protests were also held in the form of strikes, but despite some initial success, many people have returned to work under pressure from management. Some have reportedly been threatened with losing their job, or even with criminal prosecution for partaking in “illegal” strikes.

Some of the biggest strikes have taken place in the west of Belarus in Grodno, where Euronews met two workers, one who is refusing to go back to work and another who is ready to go on strike if others join him.

Julia Slivko, 33, told Euronews that she cannot give up, or forget what she has seen. She said her recollections of violence and injustice are stuck in her head and impossible to ignore.

“Why am I not going back to work? I simply cannot forget what has happened. I cannot. I saw ten police officers beat up one person. I cannot forget that,” said Slivko, who works at the Belarussian state-owned construction company Grodnopromstroy JSC.

She has helped to organise strikes at the company, which employs around 3,700 people. The result has been pressure from management. For example, she recalled getting a call from her boss, who told her to stop encouraging strikes.

Since the election, around 7,000 people have been detained in Belarus, many beaten by police, and there are reports of widespread torture in prisons. Out of fear of what could happen to her, Slivko sent her 12-year-old son into hiding. She also explains that she is under fierce pressure and possible surveillance.

“I am frightened. When I hear someone knocking or something in the yard at night, I am thinking that they are coming after me,” she said. “I also look behind me when I am walking down the street, and I am sure that I have been followed at least twice.”

“I understand that the police will come after me. Maybe not now. Maybe in one month or two, but they will come. The government will not forget anyone.”

'We know we have to stop working'

According to Slivko, the pressure comes partly from management and partly from the police.

Her company has said that workers on strike will lose their job. It worries many people, she said, because they barely earn enough to make ends meet and because many people have loans. Also, people are increasingly afraid to participate in strikes because they are told that they are illegal and can lead to prosecution.

“However, people are upset with all the violence that took place. People are not satisfied, and many have already quit or have been fired. People have had enough,” she said, pointing out that the workers want Lukashenko to step down, and for opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to return to Belarus. She is currently in exile in Lithuania.

In Grodno, Euronews also met 26-year-old Artyom Tchernikov, who works at the chemical factory Grodno Azot, one of the largest state enterprises with around 7,000 employees.

He has returned to work, but does not plan to stay long if strikes do not happen soon.

Euronews
Artyom Tchernikov, who works at the chemical factory Grodno AzotEuronews

He said that workers are angry because Lukashenko “stole their voice” in the election, but workers are also fed up with corruption in large state enterprises, where hard work is no guarantee of reward.

He earns about €300 a month at the factory, which includes taking night shifts. It is not enough to make ends meet, he said, and he, therefore, took a second job.

“We have seen large protests, but fewer and fewer people join from Azot,” he said. He explained that Grodno Azot has not been on strike yet, as it takes time to shut down a chemical factory safely.

“The management at Azot pressure them and say that if they go on strike, they will have no money for food. It is partly working. We need to fight for a brighter and better future, but many prefer to stay at home because they are scared about their families.”

He insists however that it is crucial that strikes eventually happen at Grodno Azot and across the country at the many state enterprises. He is not sure that the spirit of the workers has been broken yet despite the threats, because workers have almost no choice at this point.

“We know that we have to stop working, so they lose government revenue because they use this money to buy sticks to beat us with,” he said. “We also know that we cannot stop now. We need to have Lukashenko resign because if we keep him as president, everyone will be punished. I am sure that he has a list of people who went on strikes. We will get punished.”

Tchernikov said he is terrified of the government and talking to the press, but that it is necessary to continue. However, he has returned to work, because it makes no sense just to be one person quitting. He would simply be substituted, he explains.

“I cannot go on strike alone. I will just get arrested and another one takes my job,” he said. “I also think that I have a role to play helping people at the factory and coordinate everything. Still, if I do not feel needed anymore, I will leave my job and maybe travel to another country.”

Slowing down at work

Lizaveta Merliak is the international secretary of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union and oversees Grodno Azot and many other factories in the region. After Euronews left Grodno on Tuesday, as many as 30 workers at Grodno Azot were detained for around three hours on their way to a protest, she explains, angering many workers at the factory.

She agrees that the strikes have proven more difficult than first expected and that the government has been able to shut much of it down, but she sees this as a temporary situation.

“It takes some time to coordinate everything here in Belarus. People have not had any collective action for 26 years, so we lack coordination. But our demands are the same, so we are preparing for the strikes to happen, and the real strikes have not started yet.”

“The government tries to put out fires by pouring gasoline on it,” Merliak said. “Workers are starting to understand that they have power and that some of them cannot be replaced. Because of the detentions on Tuesday, we might see even more on the streets now.”

She said that many workers now use the Telegram app to coordinate everything, an app that has been used to great effect in the gathering of protests in the country since the election. At the same time, unions – such as her own – are trying to organise strikes legally, but it has proven more difficult. The management at Grodno Azot has told workers that they need two-thirds of all workers to vote for a strike for it to be legal. Furthermore, the vote must take place at the factory, she said, but when they try to organise it, many workers’ ID cards stop working and they cannot enter the factory to vote.

“No matter what happens, the workers are not the same anymore. They cannot return to normal, and we see more of them leaving state-run workers unions and instead joining independent ones,” she said.

“We need coordination, but I am confident that it will come.”

While strikes are still being planned, some workers have resorted to slowing down their output, as another form of protest, Merliak said. At one of the state-run mining companies in the region, she said that work has slowed down to 10% of normal speed. It is partly done by following safety procedures more closely, she said.

“You check more carefully if all equipment is working correctly,” she said. “You are not sure and ask a professional to come and have a look. You wait for this guy, who is also slow, and then he asks another guy from the upper floor for help. He then also has to come and check.”