Why do the authorities persecute independent trade unions?
On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations detained the leaders of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union, filing a criminal case on tax evasion charges.
The few independent trade unions which have survived decades of restrictive policies in Belarus remain a strong oppositional force in the country.
As active participants in the mass protests against the social parasite law in Spring 2017, union leaders likely became targets of the authorities’ preventive action to deter future demonstrations. However, the police force asserts that all charges are of a purely economic nature to avoid criticism from western governments and international organisations.
A crackdown on independent trade unions
On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations arrested the head of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union (REP), Hienadź Fiadynič, and his deputy, head of Minsk the office Ihar Komlik, on tax evasion charges. The financial police also confiscated hard disks and paper documents from the organisation.
On the same day, searches took place at the offices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union in Salihorsk, the heart of Belarusian potash industry. The apartments of activists linked with the movement were also searched, and the financial police have interrogated many trade union leaders. Fiadynič and other activists were released following the interrogation, but Komlik remains in custody.
The police claim that REP leaders opened bank accounts abroad, where they accumulated ‘hundreds of thousands dollars’ from foreign donors, even though they had no license from the National Bank of Belarus to open a foreign account. Allegedly, they were trying to obscure their financial deals and evade taxes at home. REP activists deny all accusations and claim that the account mentioned by the police was closed in 2011.
Leaders of the Belarusian opposition gathered shortly after the events to discuss a possible response and called on Belarusians and the international community to support a campaign of solidarity with independent trade unions. In the resolution’s own words:
‘We call upon the representatives of the international community to immediately put the release of political prisoners and the complete cessation of political repressions in Belarus as a condition for dialogue with the Lukashenka regime’.
However, the head of the Department of Financial Investigations, Ihar Maršalaŭ, argues that ‘this case has no political background. We are doing our usual job of uncovering tax evaders’.
The history of free trade unions in Belarus
Under the Soviet system, trade union were the ‘social pillars’ of the state. Nevertheless, they had no real power and served as an instrument of the Communist party. After the dissolution of the USSR, numerous independent trade unions and associations emerged in Belarus. However, there was a split regarding support for the Lukashenka regime following his 1994 election. Only after 2001 did the authorities manage to wrest control of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions (FPB) and purge it of oppositional elements. The authorities continue to persecute the most vocal unions.
As a result, the oppositional trade unions formed an alternative association: the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Over the past two decades, independent trade unions have faced constant pressure and struggle to meet bureaucratic requirements such as registration and legal address. Union members often face restrictions and punishments at their place of work. As a result, membership to independent trade unions has dropped to around 10,000, while the official FPB boasts 4 million members.
Despite formal membership numbers, FPB can hardly be regarded as a protector of workers’ interests. Governed by the political leadership of the country, it never challenges official policies. In contrast, independent trade unions actively struggle against violations of labour rights and criticise the government, for which they are hated by both enterprise bosses and the political leadership.
International actors frequently point to violations of labour rights in Belarus. For example, the persecution of independent trade unions has led to the exclusion of Belarus from the EU Generalised System of Preferences, resulting in hundreds of millions dollars of loss since 2006.
A strong organisational force with links to citizens
Following the arrest of the REP activists, human rights groups immediately recognised them as political prisoners. This differs from the White Legion case, when two dozen people were detained on charges of creating an illegal armed group. Activists were hesitant to step in because of the presence of weapons and other evidence. Valiancin Stefanovič, an activist for the human rights group Viasna, explains that this time, the state has clearly violated the right to free association, because trade unions cannot freely receive foreign aid in Belarus. For years, the authorities consciously complicated the process of receiving foreign aid for civil society, viewing it as support for political enemies and interference in the politics of a sovereign state.
Most commentators agree that it was REP’s active participation in the spring protests against the social parasite decree that has led to the organisation’s repression. The union gathered 45,000 signatures demanding the abolition of the decree and offered legal consultations to people who planned to contest their obligation to pay the tax.
REP also provides legal assistance for citizens on a daily basis and constitute one of the few real forces that actively works with the people. What’s more, many activists in the union participate in the Belarusian National Congress, headed by oppositional hardliner and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič. It seems that in the wake of the events of spring 2017, and fearing another wave of social unrest in the future, the authorities have decided to weaken potentially powerful actors.
Repressions without political prisoners?
Many noticed that the case of REP resembles the case of Alieś Bialiacki, who was arrested on the same charges in 2011 after the government of Lithuania handed over information on Viasna’s bank accounts to the Belarusian authorities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2014 as part of the Belarus-EU rapprochement process. However, unlike seven years ago, it seems that this time around there will be no political prisoners.
The Belarusian authorities have drawn very clear lessons from their experience with the West. Imprisonment of political activists causes outrage, while criminal persecution without imprisonment earns a far more muted response. At the same time, it effectively decreases the power of the opposition.
The fact that those arrested during the White Legion case have all been released despite the fact that a criminal investigation continues confirms this assumption. The authorities are learning how to justify repressions with purely security (in White Legion case) or economic (in the case of trade unions) evidence, in order to avoid politicisation and criticism from western countries.
The Belarusian authorities learn to appreciate their country’s statehood
On 1 July, on the eve of Belarus’s official Independence day, Alexander Lukashenka highlighted the connection between Belarusians and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This was the first official statement to allude to the historical roots of a sovereign and independent Belarusian state.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have started employing rhetoric which differs starkly from the usual official nationhood discourse. The Belarusian authorities continue balancing between the West and Russia while simultaneously trying to mitigate confrontation with the opposition within the country.
The official version of Belarusian nationhood
The process of national revival began to speed up after the Declaration of State Independence of Belarus on 27 July 1991. This process was initiated by nationalising elites in the second half of the 1980s. During this period, national symbols (such as the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms) acquired official status. Information about the deep historical roots of Belarusian statehood also started to appear in history books.
However, everything changed when Lukashenka came to power in 1994. One year after his inauguration, he drafted a referendum which would lead to the formal recognition of Soviet-era state symbols and make Russian the second official language (de facto the only working language). Belarus was well on its way to political rapprochement with Russia.
History books were once again rewritten, but this time emphasis was placed on the roots of Belarusian independence in the early days of the USSR; the national ideology was to be based on Soviet values. What’s more, the collapse of the USSR was treated by both history books and Lukashenka himself as ‘the greatest catastrophe’, and its restoration in one form or another was to be seen as a restoration of historical justice.
According to official rhetoric, proponents of a national revival in Belarus were now portrayed as ‘nationalists’, who aimed to undermine Belarusian statehood and the Union State of Belarus and Russia for the sake of better relations with the West.
According to some political scientists, the rhetoric of Lukashenka in the late 1990s can be linked to his political ambitions to replace the faltering Yeltsin in the Kremlin and become leader of a kind of updated version of the Soviet Union.
Things began to change when Putin came to power in Russia. Lukashenka quickly realised that his former Kremlin ambitions were now impossible: he thus focused on strengthening his power in Belarus. At the same time, Minsk’s strong economic and political dependence on Moscow forced the Belarusian authorities to keep on with the pro-Russian rhetoric – including a Russia-friendly interpretation of Belarusian history.
Thus, dates such as 9 May – Soviet Victory Day in the Second World War, and 7 November, which commemorates the October Revolution of 1917 (and still remains a national holiday in Belarus) were seen as the most important historical events.
What changed after the Ukraine conflict?
The status quo only began changing starting with the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s rhetorical use of the ‘Restoration of the Russian World’ as an excuse to occupy Crimea and invade a large part of the Donbas frightened the Belarusian authorities. They suddenly realised that Moscow could very easily take political power in Belarus as well. Resistance from Belarusian society – Russified and disoriented in matters of national identity – would be minimal.
Following the invasion of Crimea, the authorities increasingly began to allude to Belarusian sovereignty, the importance of respecting the Belarusian language, and the nation’s historical roots. Thus, on the eve of the official Independence Day in 2014, a few months after the occupation of Crimea, Lukashenka, who usually uses only Russian language, gave a speech in Belarusian, referring to Belarusian independence from both Russia and the West.
According to Belta, in February 2017 Lukashenka stated that history books should discuss the true roots of the Belarusian nation, and not just the Soviet version.
Moreover, since the start of the Ukraine conflict, the level of conflict between Lukashenka and the Belarusian opposition has decreased. This is partially due to a change in Lukashenka’s rhetoric: he continually emphasises the sovereignty of the Belarusian state.
Russia’s aggression in the region has resulted in a kind of compromise between the opposition and the authorities. First of all, the opposition have recognised Lukashenka’s international influence and ceased to bring up issues which had once been fundamental. The authorities, in turn, are maintaining a policy of soft Belarusisation and revising their discourse on Belarusian sovereignty.
In September 2016, the Belarusian president noted that he always encouraged Belarusian officials to speak Belarusian, writes Nasha Niva. Later, during a May 2017 meeting with Minsk school children, Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusian schools would benefit from more use of the Belarusian language.
Thus, representatives of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) have started to appear in ‘vyshyvanka’ (shirts featuring the national ornament), which had previously been considered taboo in official circles. Besides the Vyshyvanka Festival, BRSM also organised a campaign to present small vyshyvankas to new-born children.
Certain clubs in Minsk have started hosting ‘traditional-style’ parties, at which ‘vyshyvanka’ plays an important role. At some informal meetings, even Lukashenka himself has donned the national pattern.
The apogee of this new policy of turning away from Russia was the arrest of several journalists working for Regnum, a Russian website which promotes the revival of the Russian Empire. They were suspected of inciting ethnic hatred – a charge which carries long prison terms.
Another sign of the authorities’ re-allignment was the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei, at the World Congress of Belarusians on July 15. The event is organised by the World Association of Belarusians, traditional opponents of the current regime.
Russian propagandists were quick to interpret these signals from Minsk as ‘the machinations of the West’ and local nationalists, who are plotting to organise a Belarusian ‘Maidan’. Incensed by the contacts between Lukashenka and Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Russian nationalists began labelling Lukashenka a ‘traitor’ to the ‘Russian World’.
Rethinking statehood: imitation or real change in official rhetoric?
Belarusian authorities have apparently changed their position towards Belarusian nationhood. However, phenomena such as the Festival of Vyshyvanka, organised by the pro-governmental Youth Union BRSM, the shift of emphasis in history textbooks, and pro-Belarusian statements by officials could be just another attempt to hang on to power. The aim of these signals seems to be mitigating confrontation with the opposition in the context of possible annexation by Russia.
Belarus continues to be at the mercy of the Russian information space, which has significantly more influence on the world-view of Belarusians than the state propaganda machine.
In order to reduce the influence of Russian propaganda and the concept of the ‘Russian World’ on Belarusian society, the Belarusian authorities could take several measures. One would be to stop suppressing independent civil society and media. However, the authorities continue to treat their own citizens as the enemy, perceiving activists as a threat to their power. Therefore, Belarus continues to balance between loyalty to the Union with Russia and the idea of national independence.