Belarus opposition calls general strike, as protesters gird for long fight

By Anton Troianovski

For close to three months, protesters in Belarus have been beaten, jailed, pepper-sprayed, fined and exiled. But Oksana Koltovich, a bar and beauty salon owner in the country’s capital, Minsk, is undeterred.

“I get the feeling that we’ve entered some kind of tunnel,” Koltovich said by phone from Minsk on Monday, on her way to yet another protest against President Alexander Lukashenko. “There is no way back. We keep going and going and going.”

When Belarusians took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands in August, after Lukashenko claimed a reelection victory that was widely seen as fraudulent, many predicted that it was only a matter of days or weeks until the longtime authoritarian leader stepped down. Instead, Lukashenko and the large swath of the public that is arrayed against him have settled into a drawn-out test of wills, with their country’s future on the line.

Protesters continue to turn out in the tens of thousands every Sunday, chanting “Go away!” and waving the white-red-white flag of the opposition. Lukashenko responds with waves of crackdowns by the police and, backed by Russia, appears determined to wait the protests out.

“In such a tense situation, absolutely anything could turn out to be the trigger that topples the system,” said Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It could end in the course of a week, or it might not die for a year. No revolution has ever gone according to plan.”

On Monday, scattered groups of workers across the country answered the call for a general strike — the loosely organized opposition movement’s latest attempt to seize the initiative. They were joined by university students who walked out of their classes, on the heels of an opposition march in Minsk on Sunday that drew more than 100,000 people.

“The regime is not prepared to speak the truth, to answer for its words or to enact people’s demands,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s election challenger, who was forced to flee Belarus, said on Sunday in calling for the strike. “That means that this regime is not worthy of the Belarusian people.”

The course of events in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million between Poland and Russia, could prove significant for the geopolitics of Europe. Belarus is Russia’s closest ally, and President Vladimir Putin has threatened to send Russian forces to stop the protests. Russian officials have depicted the opposition movement as a Western-backed campaign to wrest Belarus out of its longtime alliance with Moscow, even though the opposition’s leaders say they do not intend to break with Russia.

As if to reinforce that notion, the Belarus authorities said Monday that they had blocked entry of 595 foreigners into the country in the last week, most of them “tough young men with an athletic build” from Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania.

The authorities’ use of violence to try to put down the protests appears to be escalating, further feeding the anger in Belarusian society. It was a bout of severe police violence early in the uprising that supercharged the protests. Subsequently, and apparently under guidance from Moscow, security officers exercised a lighter touch.

On Sunday, riot police lobbed stun grenades into a crowd of protesters, footage circulating on social media showed. Another video showed officers wearing body armor and balaclavas entering an apartment where protesters had taken refuge. One of the officers swings at a young man with a baton, to the sound of screams and then a sickening thwack.

“They understand that if they stop protesting, not only will Lukashenko win and smother everything with repression, but also, the last two months will have been for naught,” Shraibman said of the protesters.

Lukashenko has signaled that he might be ready to compromise, up to a point. He held a jailhouse meeting with Belarusian opposition activists this month to discuss constitutional reform, sitting with the political prisoners at an oval wooden table with a floral centerpiece.

But Tikhanovskaya, who ran for president after Lukashenko jailed her husband, an opposition blogger, issued a “people’s ultimatum” on Oct. 13 that promised a general strike if Lukashenko did not resign within two weeks. Reinforcing her message, the crowds at Minsk’s anti-government protest Sunday were the biggest the city had seen in weeks.

On Monday, the first day of the strike, there appeared to be no walkouts at Belarus’ state-owned factories on the scale seen in the initial days of the protest movement in August. But some workers did walk off the job, including at the Minsk Tractor Works, one of the country’s iconic companies, according to video footage from the factory grounds.

Social-media accounts backing the opposition reported that people in Grodno, in Minsk and elsewhere formed human “chains of solidarity” on Monday in support of striking workers.

Protests in Minsk continued after nightfall, even as the police roamed the city center, grabbing people and dragging them into unmarked vans, videos showed.

A key audience for the protests lies in Moscow. They send a message to Putin that the longer he backs Lukashenko, the more he risks losing the sympathy of regular Belarusians, who have closer ties to Russia than perhaps any other people in today’s Europe.

Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian lawmaker specializing in the post-Soviet space, told The New York Times this month that officials “at the highest levels of the Russian Federation” believed that Lukashenko would need to step down “sooner or later.”

Lukashenko, however, appears to be betting that he can outlast the protesters. Indeed, thousands of Belarusians, including many employees of its once-thriving technology sector, left the country in recent months for neighboring Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland.

Liza Moroz, a 23-year-old Belarusian journalist, moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, about two months ago. She actively participated in the protests in August, but lately, there has been little but some acquaintances’ Instagram posts to keep her apprised of the events back home. Most of her friends, she said, have left Belarus as well.

“I don’t know if I want to come back,” Moroz said by phone. “All that’s happening — I think it is going to go on for a long time.”

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