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Will an Economic Downturn Cause Unrest Ahead of Elections?

Chinese workers protest in Belarus

On 2 July Belarus witnessed a rather unusual show – 200 Chinese workers marched dozens of kilometres towards the city of Homiel in protest against wage arrears and poor working conditions. These foreign workers are currently employed by the Chinese company Siuan Yuan which is building a paper factory.

A similar protest organised by Belarusians is almost unthinkable in modern Belarus. The government controls every employee through a contract system and dissidents who raise their voices may lose their jobs instantaneously, while independent trade unions have almost disappeared under Lukashenka's rule.

However, the situation may be changing as Belarus experiences its deepest industrial crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Production is constantly falling and enterprises are having to make personnel cuts.

While previously the government restricted layoffs to prevent social unrest, currently they are using a hands-off approach. Ahead of the presidential election the authorities will try to keep the situation calm, but afterwards Belarus may face a period of painful restructuring and social tension.

Chinese Protest March – A Sight Unseen in Belarus

On 2 July a column of Chinese workers of around 200 people employed at a Chinese-owned construction company in Dobruš town left their workplace and marched 33 kilometres towards Homiel, accompanied by emergency services and special police units. The Belarusian police, well-trained to prevent massive political protests, stood by with rather confused looks on their faces, having no idea what to do with the angry Chinese crowd.

The deputy head of the presidential administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ and head of the state wood industry consortium Jury Nazaraŭ personally took part in the negotiations between Chinese diplomats, the company and workers.

The workers explained to journalists that they were protesting against late salaries. After failed negotiations with Chinese diplomats, who quickly arrived in Homiel, they announced that they were heading towards Minsk and intend to speak to the Chinese ambassador. However, closer to evening the diplomats persuaded workers to return to their workplace by bus.

As it later turned out, the workers were dissatisfied not only with delayed salaries, but also with the working conditions at their construction site. They had no days off, the company took their passports, they had no right to buy Belarusian sim cards to call home, and the food and lodging were in poor shape as well. To top it all off, when they did get paid, their salary was lower than the employer had originally promised.

​The Chinese protest was a real sensation among Belarusian media outlets – the way the citizens of half-totalitarian China defended their labour rights very much contrasts with the local climate. Belarus has not seen worker's protests of this type since the 1990s when Lukashenka's power had not calcified and an economic crisis was still unfolding.

Industry Crisis May Cause Social Tension

Today, Belarusians who work in state-owned industries can easily lose their job for dissenting against the upper management and there are virtually no protections in place to ensure their rights are being observed. Virtually all independent trade unions, save a few, have been eliminated and most workers belong to the state-controlled Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions. However, this year the situation may change unexpectedly, and the reasons are becoming more apparent by the day.

The industrial sector of the country, and in particular machine building – the core of the Belarusian economy since the Soviet era – is experiencing hard times. In 2014 Belarus produced 20-50% less machinery than the year prior according to official statistics. Numerous industrial enterprises, such as the wood industry factory Homieldreŭ, the Mahilioŭ automobile plant, machine builder Strommašina, the Svietlahorsk concrete production plant and many others have either reduced the length of their working weeks and sent workers on unpaid holidays or cut their salaries.

As a result, in 2014, many Belarusian industrial giants, including Hrodna Azot, Mahilioŭ Chimvalakno, Minsk Automobile Plant and BelAZ, had to lay off between 5 to 20% of their employees.

According to the World Bank's estimates, state-owned industries employ around 10% of individuals which they classify as economically unjustifiable personnel, who hinder their economic efficiency.

The government has been reluctant to make cuts to the labour force for decades, as they believed that minimal social guarantees and salaries are better than unemployment which can lead to political turmoil. But with the current layoffs their concerns about the effect of unemployment may be realised ahead of the October presidential elections.

Can Workers Spark a Belarusian Maidan?

Tacciana Čyžova, a researcher at the Political Sphere Institute, has been monitoring protest activity in politics and the economy for the past few years. In a comment to BelarusDigest she noted that in 2014 the level of protest activity at Belarusian enterprises clearly grew when compared to 2013. The conflicts usually were tied to salaries and working conditions.

However, these clashes with companies' management usually do not transcend the territory of the enterprise or town and last no more than 1-2 days. Enterprise managers and local authorities usually seek to resolve the conflict peacefully and as quickly as possible, tactics which apparently are part of a model established by the central government.

A fine example of these tactics being employed happened in 2014 when a protest by ambulance workers, who after minor concessions from the authorities, promptly returned to their jobs. As the economic situation is unlikely to improve much ahead of elections, the authorities will attempt to avoid any radical reforms and mass layoffs in order to keep situation on the ground calm. Any mass protests, let alone a Maidan, seems very unlikely, Čyžova believes.

Moreover, this time even most opposition-minded candidates running for the presidency have warned against mass protests. A leftist party leader Siarhei Kaliakin says that violent scenarios will not bring results, but rather lead to tragedy. Tacciana Karatkievič, a candidate from Tell the Truth campaign, believes that the very idea of protests is not popular in modern Belarusian society, but she would join a protest and try to turn it peaceful if people do it spontaneously.

Meanwhile, United Civil Party leader Anatol Liabedźka stated that "we are not going to dissuade people from peaceful protests, as other candidates are, because the authorities push people to them with their unprofessional policies".

While the opposition agrees with the authorities about the danger of a violent scenario (clearly with a potential Ukrainian situation developing in the back of their minds), any real developments will probably follow the election. Belarus needs painful economic restructuring, and mass layoffs may well be on the menu shortly after Aliasksandr Lukashenka assumes the presidency for his fifth term in power.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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