Workers from at least half a dozen of Belarus’ biggest state-owned companies walked off shop floors on August 13 as part of a general strike that spread like a bush fire through the country's top companies.
Factory managers who are used to dictating to their work force found themselves facing down angry rooms of defiant blue-collar workers, long Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s core supporters, who heckled and refused to be cowed by the authorities.
The industrial action could rapidly bring Belarus’ already struggling economy to its knees as employees at its most famous factories demand fresh elections and for Lukashenko to go.
The day brought more bad news for Lukashenko as the first high-level official from the presidential administration resigned in protest against the ongoing police brutality.
Artyom Proskalovich, Deputy Head of the Department of Legislation in Law Enforcement and Military Spheres of the Main State Legal Department, has resigned. While there are dozens of reports of policemen and soldiers resigning in protests, this was the first member of the presidential staff and one of Belarus’ elite to quit their job because of the falsification of the election results and the state’s heavy-handed response to the subsequent protests.
But the groundswell of the general strikes is going to worry Lukashenko more, as they represent a significant escalation of his conflict with his people. Opposition leaders called for a general strike to begin at 12:00 on August 11 and the first workers that did down tools were immediately arrested by the militia. However, by August 13 the walk-outs were rapidly gathering momentum as work at one state-owned enterprise after another ground to a halt.
A video that went viral the day before has become the template for meetings between workers and management. During a meeting with a director of one plant, he began to lecture workers on how Lukashenko had won the vote when one of workers at the back of the room shouted: “Stand up if you voted for [the opposition candidate Svetlana] Tikhanovskaya?!” The entire room leapt to its feet and began to loudly heckle the director.
Similar scenes were played out at many of the meetings called by directors on August 13 to try to shore up support for Lukashenko. Factory directors are used to being treated with respect and deference by their workers, but now they are facing rooms of defiant and angry employees who are not willing to accept the results of the election. A local mayor who tried to placate the workers of the Belarus Truck Plant (BelAZ) got similar treatment: “Who voted for Tikhanovskaya?” shouts a worker and everyone throws up their hands in front a very uncomfortable looking mayor.
Workers from the Minsk Automobile Works (MAZ), the maker of a famous heavy truck used throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), met with the mayor of Minsk in a rowdy gathering and demanded new free and fair elections. Workers started to chant: “We are the 97%,” a reference to the “Sasha 3%” meme that did the rounds after an independent poll said Lukashenko would only win 3% of the votes.
“Some workers at Minsk Automobile Plant also joining strike. A huge problem for Lukashenko is getting even bigger. If this general strike continues to grow, don't bet against martial law. You can't fight away factory workers with truncheons,” tweeted Oliver Carroll, the Moscow correspondent for the Independent.
The story was the same elsewhere. Workers from the Grodno Azot chemical-industry giant, Belmedpreparaty pharmaceutical plant, Keramin, one of the largest ceramic tiles producers in Europe, Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ), giant truck-maker BELAZ, and Belarus Metal Works (BMZ) – some of the largest plants in the county – all went on strike in protest against the results of the stolen election.
At a meeting with the management and workers at Grodno Azot, a large fertiliser plant, the management asked the workers: “What do you want?” “Free and fair elections,” the workers shouted back. “Friends, the election is over,” replied management, which was met by a roar of “NO!” before the meeting descended into chaos and a walk-out.
Across the country workers marched out of the factory gates chanting “Yukhodi!” This can be translated as “get out” or “resign” (leave your government post).
And it wasn't just the blue-collar workers going on strike; the musicians of the Belarusian State Philharmonic also put down their bows in protest. The assembled orchestra members gathered on the steps of their theatre holding up the white and red national flag that has come to symbolise the protests, while onlookers clapped and passing cars honked their horns.
Protests have been held every night from about 7pm onwards, but on August 13 the people of Minsk were on the street all day, forming the now traditional human chains of solidarity and holding flowers.
The internet has been turned back on and the population has caught up with the coverage of the nationwide movement. Some commentators have speculated that this has bolstered the protestors as they realise they are in the overwhelming majority. While Lukashenko has unleashed a brutal police response to try to intimidate the people, it doesn't appear to have worked. An air of confidence has crept into the protests and the mood lightened. In one humorous incident a car stopped in front of a human chain of protestors and Batman and Spiderman stepped out with large boxes of energy bars.
“Here you go. Energy bars to recharge your super-energy against the moustached super-villain!" Spiderman told the laughing protestors.
The number of arrests during the fighting on the previous night was down slightly and the police have already run out of prison cells in which to hold detainees. Belarusian Interior Ministry says 700 protesters were arrested on the night of August 12, bringing the official tally of detentions over four nights to 6,700.
The crowds outside prisons continue to grow as families hunt for missing members. Some prisoners were being released to relieved embraces from their relatives waiting outside.
But those released were also met with anxious enquires from the crowd still looking for their loved ones, holding up pictures and asking anxiously if they had seen them or maybe shared a cell. The police have released no information about who they have detained. Relatives don't even know which facility they are being held in.
For those released without anyone to greet them, some of the crowd members had brought food, drinks and cigarettes, while others held up signs offering free rides back into the city.
Conditions in the jails are horrific, according to reports of those that have already been released. Relatives waiting outside the prisons have already reported they can hear the wails and screams of those being tortured inside.
“You can hear screams of the detained in the Akrestina torture house in Minsk, filmed by @euroradio. Residents of the surrounding buildings say those continue through the night. Thousands remain in cells like these across Belarus,” tweeted Maksym Eristavi, a well-known human rights, gay activist and journalist from Ukraine.
Nikita Telizhenko, a Russian journalist for Znak, who had been detained and then released, published an article detailing the harrowing conditions inside the Zhodino jail.
Telizhenko described cells with people with broken knees, arms and legs receiving no medical treatment. People were not allowed to go to the lavatory but instead were told to go right where they were. Most were held for hours with little food or water while suffering continual beatings and humiliation by the guards.
“People there were lying on the floor like a living carpet, and we had to walk right on them. It was very uncomfortable for me that I nevertheless stepped on someone's hand, but I did not see at all where I was going, because my head was tilted strongly to the floor. “Everyone on the floor, face down,” they yelled at us. And I understand that there is nowhere to lie, people are lying around in pools of blood,” Telizhenko relates.
“All around there were severe beatings: blows, screams, screams were heard from everywhere. It seemed to me that some of the detainees had broken bones – some had arms, some legs, some had a spine, because at the slightest movement they screamed in pain,” Telizhenko reported, having spent a total of 16 hours in the prison before being released and returned to Russia by embassy officials.
International reaction still struggling to keep up
The international reaction to the uprising in Belarus remains mooted as the EU seems confused and divided over what to do. A special meeting of the foreign affairs council has been called for August 14, when some sort of co-ordinated response will be announced.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo belatedly broke his silence on August 13 and called for new elections in Belarus. The US administration has said next to nothing until this point other than a few formal words of condemnation.
“I think only a peaceful solution to the current crisis in Belarus is possible, it is necessary to hold new elections with the serious presence of international observers,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo was in Prague on August 12 to deliver a speech to Czech lawmakers on democracy, but raised eyebrows after he failed to mention Belarus at all in his public comments.
French President Emmanuel Macron had phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and their discussion included the post-election violence in Belarus as well as the situation in Lebanon following a devastating blast in Beirut. Macron told Putin he was "very worried about the situation in Belarus and the violence that citizens have faced during the elections," the Elysee said in a statement. "He emphasised the need to find again the path of dialogue."
EU diplomats on the ground however, have been more proactive. In Minsk the German, Swiss, US, UK and Japanese ambassadors staged a show of solidarity with the protestors by bringing white-red flowers – the colours of the national flag that is a symbol of the protests – to Pushkinskaya Street in Minsk, where Lukashenko's police had killed the first protestor two days earlier – a clear gesture of solidarity with the protestors.