“If our demands are not met by October 25, the whole country will peacefully take to the streets with the people’s ultimatum,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement. “And on October 26th, a national strike of all businesses, the blockade of all roads and a slump in sales in state shops will begin.”
But does this effort have any chance of success? Last month the National interests interviewed dozens of protesters and activists across Belarus, including several in the days following Tikhanovskaya’s ultimatum. They told us that another general strike was unlikely.
Many stated that the opposition was facing an uphill battle as growing numbers of Belarusians fear they will find themselves on the receiving end of the government’s violent response. At the same time, some warned that workers whose support is essential to a national strike are gradually losing confidence in the protest movement.
A young labor activist from Minsk, who asked to be identified as Jackir for security reasons, predicted that few workers would follow Tikhanovskaya’s call for a nationwide strike, arguing that the former presidential candidate lacked the economic program necessary for their rally.
„[Tikhanovskaya]I am a temporary ally, but it is far from humans, ”he said. “It does not want to raise wages or improve people’s livelihoods, it just wants to give them freedom. We can work with people like you, but definitely not believe in them or go to the end with them. ”
After a controversial presidential election on August 9, mass protests broke out in Belarus, which Lukashenko is said to have won with 80 percent of the vote. For the past two months, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets every week to call for new elections. They were soon accompanied by workers in thirty large Belarusian companies, which accounted for 27 percent of the country’s GDP, and went on a nationwide strike until Lukashenko resigned.
Despite the deteriorating economy and new western sanctions, Lukashenko managed to stop this revolutionary wave for the time being. The nationwide strike gradually died down while Belarusian security forces cracked down on demonstrators and arrested or exiled most of the opposition leaders.
Although demonstrations in Minsk continue to attract large voter turnouts each week, the authorities have proven more effective in suppressing protests outside the capital.
In the southwestern city of Brest, law enforcement agencies with the help of the military dispersed, tortured and killed demonstrators, according to a local activist and IT specialist who asked to be identified as Vasily. “We found bodies in the river and in the forest,” he said National interests.
“If they arrest you, they’ll take you to a garage with 20 to 30 police officers,” said Vasily. “You go through it and everyone hits you, some with a knee, some with a baton, some with a fist. When you pass out, they throw you into a human heap, and when someone starts screaming, they run towards the heap and beat everyone up. ”
Protesters in the western city of Grodno saw a similar reaction from the authorities. Irina, a local sales representative, said the police “trampled” [protests] out at the root “early by spraying pepper and arresting many demonstrators. “Strikers were arrested in Grodno and anyone who supported the strikers was arrested as well,” she added. “It’s Grodno now [quiet]. ”
The Belarusian authorities are showing no signs of loosening their tactics anytime soon. Recently, the Ministry of the Interior authorized police to use lethal force against protesters and the attorney general threatened to separate the children of protesters on national television from their parents.
In the meantime, many workers are being discouraged from joining new strikes against the government because they could lose not only their jobs but also their government-provided housing, said Jackir, the Minsk labor activist. “[The authorities] Cut off your oxygen completely, ”he said. “It will be very difficult to find a job as more than 40 percent of the jobs are state-controlled.”
Lukashenko’s stubborn reaction to protests against his rule sparked an outcry from the West. Earlier this month the European Union imposed sanctions on forty Belarusian officials accused of rigging the August presidential elections and then participating in the crackdown that followed. Lukashenko himself was added to this sanctions list earlier this week.
Russia, on the other hand, has stood by its long-standing ally. In August, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had established a law enforcement reserve that would be deployed to Belarus “if necessary” on behalf of Minsk. More recently, Moscow has put Tikhanovskaya on a wanted list.
No less important is the fact that Russia provided Belarus with financial relief at a time when Lukashenko’s government was largely cut off from the international capital markets. Last month, Putin announced that Russia had approved a $ 1.5 billion loan to Belarus, most of which will be used to refinance the country’s existing debt to Moscow. Earlier this week, the Russia-led Eurasian Stabilization and Development Fund agreed to provide Minsk with a ten-year loan of USD 500 million.
After giving Lukashenko a boost, Russia is now trying to steer the transition process. Konstantin Zatulin, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Post-Soviet Affairs, said the National interests It is time for Russia to enter the conflict as a mediator and “dictate its terms” to both sides.
“Russia obviously does not want to elect the President of Belarus for them, but we understand that the current situation has reached a certain dead end,” he said.
Zatulin said Moscow wanted to prevent the “radicalization” of the Belarusian opposition, but would also press Lukashenko to change the constitution and eventually hold new elections. At the same time, Zatulin stressed that Russia did not intend to coordinate the transition process together with the European Union, as many in Moscow still have bitter memories of the mediation efforts of the West during the 2013-14 mass protests in Ukraine.
Can Putin broker a big deal between Lukashenko and the opposition? Some seem skeptical, such as Stanislav, a medical student from Brest, who said, “The demand for violence in society has grown. Some people have already prepared for this [violence], although they held out earlier. “It is therefore not surprising that the village house of the Minsk riot police chief was set on fire four days ago.
However, Tikhanovskaya’s attempts to direct the protest are faced with tired workers who are not only afraid for their livelihood but also lose hope of becoming the figurehead of the opposition.
Anton, a social activist from Minsk, says: “[at this point] People take inspiration from one another, not from these leaders. “He noted that there have been similar ultimatums from opposition groups in the past, but the strikes didn’t quite work out, so he doesn’t have“ much hope ”of Tikhanovskaya’s strike. “I hope I’m wrong,” he added.
Dimitri Alexander Simes ist Robert Novak Journalism Fellow am Fund for American Studies.
David Saveliev is a Masters student at Oxford University and specializes in protest politics in the former USSR.
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