Metal city: notes on Lukashenka’s stolen election from Zhlobin

In the immediate aftermath of Belarus’ presidential election, this state steel factory in Zhlobin became a centre of worker unrest

Konstantin Ostrogorsky
3 October 2020, 12.01am
Illustration: Inge Snip

In the aftermath of Belarus’ presidential elections, the country’s police force responded to street protests with extreme force - evidence of brutality, torture and inhumane treatment was broadcast around the world.

Indeed, this brutality was stopped in part thanks to worker unrest across the country, where people held open air meetings on the elections and their results at their places of work, threatening strikes and work-to-rule actions at the same time.

The Belarus Metal Works (BMZ) in Zhlobin, Gomel region, was one of the large state enterprises where workers mobilised in response to the election. I talked to city residents who were involved - about life in Zhlobin, the elections and their aftermath.

Workers up in arms

On 17 August, some eight days after election day, workers at BMZ came out for a public meeting with the head of the official trade union organisation. But members of the crowd also called for a strike. The rally was being held outside the plant, but at a certain moment people started moving towards its goods entrance, shouting “In we go!” According to one participant, a fight almost broke out with the security staff, but the workers did manage to get inside and started marching past the construction buildings. They were stopped in their tracks by a large metal-moving vehicle. According to witnesses, all three of the plant’s kilns were shut down between one and five pm. Management came out to talk to the workers and it was only after several hours of protests and blockade that they dispersed.

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The workers’ action may not have turned into a full-scale strike, but it spooked local government leaders and plant management. Up till now, none of the workers active in the event has been fired, and although there have been threats, for the moment it has just been a question of losing bonuses. On 23 September, one worker, Vitaliy Savelyev, was sentenced to 12 days of administrative arrest for his role in the “unsanctioned mass action”. In the future, however, activists at BMZ tell me that they believe that their contracts may not be extended.

Video from 17 August showing how people approached the plant following a public rally.

Sergey is a young engineer, working as a shop steward. He tells me that a lot depends on middle management. When management demands that workers “explain their actions” vis-a-vis the protests, for example, shop floor leaders have helped them write letters that could minimise the threat of retribution. At the same time, the strikers’ demands were of a purely political nature – Lukashenko’s resignation, the release of all detainees, an end to violence against peaceful citizens and the withdrawal of riot squads and all non-local police from the city.

Protests with similar demands have been going on in Zhlobin since early August. One of those taking part is Svetlana, a local business owner. During the presidential campaign she worked as an independent election observer, and was detained by the police more than once. On the morning of election day on 9 August, she was arrested as she left her house - and couldn’t get to her polling station.

“When I was being held in the pre-trial detention centre, supposedly for a ‘preventive chat’, I tried to judge the number of detainees by the sound of the police wagons, and it seemed to be around 140,” she tells me. “Then one of the police chiefs revealed that they had arrested 320 people. And it wasn’t just activists that were being pulled in – just ordinary passers-by as well. One man left his house to meet his wife and was arrested 15 metres from his front door. Many of them had been severely beaten.”

According to Svetlana, two people found themselves in intensive care after the police crackdown in Zhlobin, and several more in surgery. But only ten people made complaints about police conduct. Events in the city provoked a reaction among workers at BMZ, and plant workers held their first meeting to discuss the situation in the country as early as 8 August.

At this meeting, plant management was warned that if the presidential elections weren’t free, the workers would go on strike. The harsh arrests and beatings that followed 9 August aroused a real storm of rage. On 14 August, BMZ workers came out en masse to the management building, where the company’s CEO met them and even provided a sound system. Gennady Solovey, the regional governor, was helicoptered in and promised to look into every instance where police power had been abused. This government interference was, however, too late to curb the groundswell of discontent at the plant – enough workers had experienced the injustice of Lukashenka’s “social contract” in their years at BMZ.

Bad winds

I spoke to two BMZ workers, Vladimir and Konstantin, at length about their work experiences.

Vladimir has worked at the plant since it was built in the 1980s, but five years ago his contract wasn’t renewed – he says because of his civic activism. His first job was as a fitter, but then he patented an invention – a gas-fired cutter that replaced the previous clapped-out and expensive Italian equipment. Vladimir is also a pretty well-known local musician in Zhlobin.

The second person I spoke to, Konstantin, has been at the plant since the 2000s, working in the steel smelting department, pouring molten metal and processing metal parts. His family also worked here previously.

“A trail of smoke from our pipes sometimes flies into the air over a dozen kilometres and pollutes everything around it”

According to Konstantin, he acquired a serious illness as a result of working in harmful production processes, and doctors banned him from working in the steel-processing part of the plant. But they didn’t give him an “occupational disease” diagnosis. And it’s not easy to find a completely harmless part of a steel smelting plant. For a long time, Konstantin worked in a less unsafe area of the plant – but the pay was much lower there. And unfortunately, he was a few months from the point where his years in the furnaces would have given him early retirement.

“The requirements for annual medical check-ups have been tightened up since 2019,” Konstantin tells me. “On the one hand, that’s a good thing – they are supposedly looking after us. But on the other hand, they really need to create safe working conditions – the situation is far from ideal at present.”

The tightening of medical requirements is common not just for the Zhlobin plant, but for many other Belarus businesses. Sometimes it happens that someone works as an electrician for 20-30 years and then discovers that their failing eyesight or raised blood pressure means they’re not allowed to change a lightbulb or fix a plug. So, they’re fired, and finding a good job at retirement age isn’t easy. They’ll just be replaced with a young person, or if the job is well paid, there could be some nepotism or cronyism involved.

Among the threats to metal workers’ health and the local population is harmful air pollution. “You can find every element in the Periodic Table in the smoke from our plant,” Vladimir and Konstantin smile. While all three kilns at the plant are provided with purification filters, they are not yet able to remove all harmful by-products.

pjimage (5).jpg
Source: BMZ / YouTube

According to the workers, environmental inspections constantly fine the company for exceeding the admissible concentration level of harmful waste. Back in 2017, the Gomel Natural Resources and Environment Commission, following complaints from the public, opened a criminal case against the plant over its waste. It lasted several years and went right to the Belarusian Supreme Court. As a result, the company was fined the equivalent of half a million dollars.

“A trail of smoke from our pipes sometimes flies into the air over a dozen kilometres and pollutes everything around it,” Konstantin says. “And waste material also settles as dust on car windscreens near the plant. And cleaning this stuff off is no easy task. One local garage has invented a special liquid to deal with it, called ‘BMZ-foam’ after the plant, and this stuff can remove any grunge from your windscreen.”

Vladimir, the plant veteran, tells me that he has spent long years demanding that company management take more effective measures against harmful industrial waste. He even photographed the emissions trail and posted it on social media, suggesting that president Lukashenka should pay attention to air pollution. “Give us funds for filters – we’re being poisoned!” he wrote. It was after this episode that Vladimir was fired.

Crony capitalism

In Belarus, the country’s contract system for hiring people is a very effective means of keeping staff under control - as Vladimir found out, despite his long time working for the plant.

The Soviet-era practice of concluding a permanent contract with an employee remained in force for quite some time in the country, but in 1999 president Lukashenka issued Decree No: 29, introducing short-term contracts, which considerably worsened workers’ legal position. Now an employment contract may be concluded for a period of one to five years, and the employer usually sets it at the minimum length. The threat of non-renewal or sudden annulment makes an employee totally dependent on their employer, making them work for pay and conditions dictated by the latter.

Scenes in Zhlobin during aftermath of 9 August presidential election.

Independent trade unions, whose membership is negligible because of pressure from employers, have always been against the contract system. Since the 2000s, some left-leaning groups have held demos over employment law (“Contracts are chains for the working masses. Break them all apart!”), but the Belarusian government limited itself to cosmetic changes in the contract system, recommending employers to conclude contracts only with “good” workers for a longer period.

In 2020, Belarus’ parliament included a new section on contracts in the country’s labour code, so that Belarusian workers had every opportunity for political activity. Nevertheless, economic demands – an end to the contract system, for example – weren’t included in the BMZ protest.

Left activists are critical of this position, but we need to mention that among workers, especially younger ones, liberal views are pretty widespread. Sergey, for example, feels that privatisation could help BMZ, while another plant employee I spoke to believes that Belarus is a capitalist state, and that workers need to demand their rights before any employer, whether it be the government or a private person. Indeed, the idea of creating an independent trade union is very popular at BMZ at present. Some workers are leaving the official trade union and joining a Free Metalworkers’ Union.

Low wages

At the same time, another reason behind Belarus workers’ protests is the serious social problems they’re facing, such as low wages. BMZ used to pay its staff very well. A few years ago, skilled rolling mill workers could earn 1,000 dollars a month, but then wages began to fall.

“Many workers now earn just around 800 roubles [£240] per month, without bonuses,” says Konstantin. “There are, of course, specialists who take home 1,500-2,000 roubles [£450-£600] But to earn good money, you need to tear yourself into pieces.”

Indeed, in the last few years, the plant’s financial situation has become more difficult, despite the fact that it is still one of the flagships of Belarusian industry, sending 41% of its production to markets in western and eastern Europe. BMZ also has subsidiary companies in Austria, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Serbia, as well as associated companies in Russia and Italy. And a good part of its profits also come from even further afield. So, what’s the reason behind the present fall? Quarantine measures in partner countries have, of course, been one factor. And although there has been no quarantine in Belarus itself, in April-May the “inauspicious situation” of the economy, the result of the Coronavirus, meant that workers went off on holiday with only 2/3 of their usual cash.

Video from 17 August showing work stoppage at BMZ.

Problems at the plant began, however, considerably earlier. Employees themselves talk about various factors affecting the company, among them strong competition from the fast growing Indian and Chinese metallurgical sectors, the worsening quality of waste metal arriving at the plant (“sometimes the metal just doesn’t melt, but just burns out”), which reflects the quality of the plant’s production and BMZ’s acquisition of lossmaking companies, including agricultural companies. Demand for metal has also dropped throughout the world.

There is also much talk about the fact that overseas profits first land in banks and Belarus’ finance and industry ministries, and only afterwards arrive in companies themselves. Neoliberal economists use their favourite argument to explain this: the ineffectiveness of state enterprises. Presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, who is the ex-head of Belgazprombank, spoke about this at a rally in Gomel prior to the election. Here, he promised a massive privatisation of state property, followed by a job creation scheme for redundant employees from small and medium-sized business, promising them free re-training. There was just one question left – who will provide the funds for these small and medium-sized businesses, if they’re already in a bad way because of low demand? Online business is nipping at its heels, and then tens of thousands more customers will lose their state-guaranteed salaries as a result of privatisation.

With their bureaucracy-laden management, Belarusian state enterprises are not the most effective on earth. State support for BMZ dropped by nearly half in 2018. We can suppose that this is connected with both the ideological views of the former “reformer” cabinet of Siarhey Rumas and pressure from international financial institutions. In 2019, the Belarusian government allocated 1,894,000 to pay the plant’s interest on loans from commercial banks, including foreign institutions.

Economists of a neoliberal persuasion, if they even think about state enterprises’ loans as a problem, then they tend to do it in passing. And they never mention its reasons - predatory interest rates on enterprise loans. The plant’s financial audit talks about rates of up to 11% on dollar loans, up to 13.5% on euro debts and 16% on loans in Russian roubles. History is silent on how exactly these loans are “offered” to state-owned enterprises. But one thing is certain: state money inevitably ends up in private banks.

“BMZ gave the city everything”

Zhlobin is a company town. In 1984, thanks to the construction of the plant, the town acquired its infrastructure and a mass housing project. Specialist companies from Italy, Austria, Poland and Yugoslavia helped build the flagship of Belarusian metallurgy. As BMZ veteran Vladimir recalls: “Before BMZ, Zhlobin was just a small town. BMZ gave the city everything.”

But now wages at the plant are falling, and prices in Zhlobin are rising. Local residents complain that some goods in the shops are more expensive than in the capital. “Zhlobin has become a suburb of Minsk,” Vladimir remarks. And this rise in prices is assumed to be connected to the high wages at BMZ. On the other hand, not everyone in the town works at the plant. City resident Alexander is paid just 500 roubles (£148) a month, his wife is on maternity leave and expecting another child. “We don’t even have enough money for food,” he says. “We’ve even switched off our internet connection. We only have a TV so our kid can watch cartoons.”

Many households are saved by Zhlobin’s patriarchal practices: shops allow people they know to buy on credit, and family members help one another out. “But this leads to a debt spiral,” Alexander says.

As recent events have shown, the Belarusian working class may become the civic force that can nudge the country’s development towards freedom and social progress

Standing at the bus stop, I ask two young people about life in the centre. Katya and Anton are students at the local college. Katya doesn’t mince her words: Zhlobin is a boring town, there’s nowhere to go here. And then the young people here are awful. I ask about the recent political protests, and they tell me that the young people don’t support Lukashenka and actively took part in them.

The town has other companies aside from BMZ, although many of them are one the outskirts and not in the best of states. The Dniepr mechanics factory used to produce heavy machinery, but it’s gone bust now, and Zhlobin’s milk works has become part of the well-known Rogachevsky dairy empire. There’s also a furniture factory, a bakery and a meat-packing plant.

The city’s famous faux fur factory is also packing up and renting many of its spaces out. But a few years ago everyone getting on or off a train in Zhlobin would find soft toy sellers on the platform. A caravan of toy bears, giraffes and elephants would stretch along the platform at Zhlobin itself. Later, however, this kind of “unsanctioned” trade was banned. Indeed, the Republic of Belarus is a strict place, which tends to impress many Russian tourists passing through. Though while they enjoy the clean streets and polite policemen, they rarely encounter the other special features of local life – violence, inequality, absence of civil rights and poverty. Yet as recent events have shown, the Belarusian working class may become the civic force that can nudge the country’s development towards freedom and social progress.

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