Workers and students across Belarus have launched strikes in a further show of defiance at the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who continues to hold on to power despite two months of mass protests since he declared victory in the presidential election in August.
The strike was called by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the united opposition candidate who took on Lukashenko in August after her husband and other would-be candidates were either jailed or forced to flee. She left for Lithuania the night after the vote after receiving threats and called the strike after an ultimatum for Lukashenko to step down by Sunday night unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears.
Initially a stand-in for her husband, a popular blogger barred from running and jailed by the authorities, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the main opposition candidate to the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, as part of an all-female opposition campaign spearheaded by herself, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo.
She fled to neighbouring Lithuania in early August, from where she posted a video indicating she had faced an ultimatum involving her family.
In September, in a video appearance before the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, she vowed that the country’s movement for democratic change would not give up, even in the face of continued intimidation and violence from Lukashenko's regime.
A former Microsoft employee, she was the campaign head for her husband Valery Tsepkalo before he was forced to flee with the couple's children to Moscow before the election. Having campaigned alongside Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova, she joined him there on the day of the election.
Apart from a one-day stopover in Belarus, when she says she was threatened with jail, she has remained in exile in Moscow. She told a radio interviewer in early August "I think I can do more being in Moscow, being free, and being able to speak up for Belarus' people to the international community."
Kolesnikova had been head of the presidential campaign for another opposition politician, Viktor Babariko, also barred from the elections and jailed by the government. She was the only one of the three women to remain in Belarus in the aftermath of the disputed August election.
On 7 September, it was reported she was abducted by unidentified masked men from the street in the capital, Minsk. Kolesnikova’s press aide, Anton Rodnenkov, confirmed her abduction to the media, then reportedly vanished himself about 40 minutes later. According to a Ukrainian minister, Kolesnikova then ripped up her passport at the Belarus-Ukraine border in order to frustrate attempts to deport her. She is currently being held in Minsk.
She had announced on 31 August she was forming a new political party, Together.
“Today, the people’s strike begins – the next step for Belarusians towards freedom, an end to violence and new elections,” Tikhanovskaya said on Monday. “Belarusians know that the main task on 26 October is to show that nobody will work for the regime.”
However, despite the sight of large columns of protesters in the streets again – and the sense that the protest has regained some of the momentum it has lost in recent weeks – there was no sign of significant numbers of workers at state-controlled plants joining the strike for any sustained length of time.
In those places where workers did try to strike, authorities stepped in brutally. At Grodno Azot, one of the country’s leading chemical factories, more than 100 would-be strikers were arrested, the human rights organisation Vyasna reported.
At the Minsk tractor factory, one of the big plants that are the pride of Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet economy, most workers appeared to be clocking on as normal for the Monday morning shift. The leader of an earlier strike at the factory in August was forced to flee the country under pressure from authorities, and many workers fear reprisals for striking. At most, some workers briefly expressed support for the protest before or after their shifts, but did not actually refuse to work.
Many private businesses closed for the day, and some employees took a day of holiday in solidarity. In Minsk, a number of restaurants and cafes closed, but others opened as normal. “Of course I support all of this, but we discussed it and decided it wouldn’t be fair to our customers to close down,” said Dmitry, a waiter at a cafe in central Minsk.
Students were active participants in the strike, with protest columns moving through the city all day. Outside the state linguistic university, several hundred students spent the morning standing by the road, waving flags and signs and shouting, “Strike!” Occasionally, a police car or minivan full of men in balaclavas would pull up, causing the students to scatter briefly.
The strike came a day after huge crowds took over the centre of Minsk on Sunday in one of the biggest demonstrations since August. On Sunday evening, riot police threw stun grenades into the crowds and chased protesters through courtyards after dark. The interior ministry said on Monday that more than 500 people had been detained across the country on Sunday, of which 160 were in Minsk. About 350 remained in custody ahead of being charged with minor offences.
On both Sunday and Monday, authorities allowed large groups of people to march without interfering, but pounced unexpectedly on smaller groups or those still out in the evening. It continues a pattern that has been going on for two months, in which neither side seems unable to break the uneasy stalemate. So far, the protesters have remained almost entirely peaceful, while the riot police have failed to suffocate them completely.
“The authorities are scared that the numbers on the streets are rising again, and will be forced to change their tactics,” the political analyst Artyom Shraibman wrote on his Telegram channel. “Either they’ll have to make more concessions (release more political prisoners and speed up their constitutional reform) or they’ll have to raise the level of repression … This will be an interesting week.”