oDR: Feature

Strike, exile, arrest: what happened to Belarusian workers?

Workers who went on strike following the rigged elections of 2020 speak about their experiences under Lukashenka’s regime

Alexey Shuntov
23 June 2021, 12.00am
Workers at Grodno Azot in August 2020
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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

After Belarus’s presidential elections in 2020, two waves of labour protests swept across the country’s businesses – a few days after the announcement of the voting results in mid-August, and then in autumn when politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for a nationwide strike.

Hopes for strike action, however, never truly matched the reality, as enterprises pressured workers, and Belarusian law enforcement targeted citizens in the aftermath of the presidential election.

Mediazona, a media outlet focusing on law and justice, spoke with workers at three different enterprises who took part in last year’s protests to find out how they happened. As part of our coverage of Belarus, openDemocracy has translated and republished this article with permission here.

Alexey Karlyuk, Belaruskali

Alexey Karlyuk, 35, is from the town of Salihorsk, where he has worked as an electrical fitter at the state-owned potash company, Belaruskali, since 2006. On 9 August, he went to vote and at 10pm headed to the mine for the night shift.

“When we get off work, we will be living in a different country,” he remembers his colleagues joking. But when Karlyuk’s shift ended at 7am the next morning, he found the news “was not at all rosy”.

“It was hard to believe the numbers that were there,” he said. “Any sane person understood that something was wrong: these beatings... that this was happening in the country.”

The previous night, Belarus’s Central Election Commission had announced that 80.1% of voters had voted for Alexander Lukashenko, president of the country since 1994. Then, on 10 August, Belarusian security forces violently dispersed post-election protests with rubber bullets and stun grenades. The interior ministry reported that 3,000 people had been detained throughout the country, more than 2,000 of them in the capital, Minsk.

Karlyuk said that he “did not really follow the details” of Belarusian politics until last year, when he began noticing how independent presidential candidates collected signatures in their support.

“Everything was stable until the summer of 2020. As it turned out, in addition to the current leader, other leaders who could run for president began to appear,” he explained.

When presidential candidates Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka were detained before the election, Karlyuk began to ask himself “deeper questions, and take an interest in what was happening in the country.”

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Belaruskalii: a meeting to prepare for strike action, August 2020 | (c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“Those arrests affected me... well, the way competitors were just being eliminated. And how the speeches by Svetlana Georgievna [Tsikhanouskaya] were cancelled very abruptly and for unknown reasons. It was very… let’s say I didn’t like it,” Karlyuk said.

Karlyuk’s next shift fell on the night of 10-11 August. By this time, Karlyuk recalled, detentions were underway in Salihorsk.

“Well, it’s hard to call them detentions... employees were being rounded up. A girl who is probably 25 years old who works [for Belaruskali], who gives out lamps. I went to a cafe before my shift to drink coffee. Just at that moment, the police started a raid. The girl only just managed to escape and came to her shift. She showed us her leg with bruises on it,” he recalled.

The idea of ​​going on strike at Belaruskali, says Karlyuk, was in response to “police round-ups in the city”. On 14 August, Salihorsk residents gathered outside the plant’s main building for a meeting with the company’s general director, Ivan Golovaty. On that day, Karlyuk recalls, Anatoly Bokun, a mechanic who later became the co-chairman of the company’s strike committee, spoke for the first time. He read out their demands in public: to end the terror against the protesters, to remove riot police units from the city, to bring officials and security officials who had exceeded their powers to justice, to declare the official voting results invalid, to release all political prisoners, and to hold new elections.

According to Karlyuk, Golovaty replied that he could not accept their demands. Dismissing the president, he said, was not in his power. The next weekend, on 15-16 August, foremen held meetings to decide how to organise the strike.

On Monday, 17 August, the heads of the company’s mining departments were informed that the workers were ready to go on strike. That same day, strike committees began to be set up at Belaruskali.

“The question of how to safely stop work was being decided: you cannot suddenly come and turn off the switch and everything will stop. It took time for a safe shutdown,” recalled Karlyuk.

"They said that if we wanted to go on strike, we had to work our shifts and then go to the square to express our opinions. ‘But don’t stop the company, you don’t need to mix work and civic life’"

According to the company itself, 120 employees did not start work on 17 August, and 671 employees did not start work on 18 August.

Karlyuk says this figure is close to the truth. The company administration did not threaten striking workers, he said, but “exerted pressure”.

“They said that if we wanted to go on strike, we had to work our shifts and then go to the square to express our opinions. ‘But don’t stop the company, you don’t need to mix work and civic life,’ they said.”

The strike lasted two days. Production of potash fertilisers was halted, and several workshops and mines stopped working. According to Karlyuk, the workers went down to the mines only to preserve the equipment “so that later it would be easier to start production”.

During the strike, the general director of Belaruskali met with the heads of the mining brigades and section heads. He promised that if work resumes there would be no sanctions against workers, and everyone would receive their salaries on time. On the night of 18-19 August, people began returning to work.

“Of the 670 people, most of them had already gone back to work. Therefore, it is difficult to say that the strike took place,” Karlyuk said. “After that, there was just a core left, headed by Anatoly Bokun. The rest just went to work: ‘You understand, I have a family, loans.’ Therefore, of those people who signed up for the strike, there were probably 20 left in the strike committee.”

Strike gains momentum

Karlyuk says that the workers continued to join the movement after that, but not en masse – usually only one at a time. But after 25 October, when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced a nationwide strike, “the strike began to grow.”

“I would call it the second wave. From 25 October to December, the strike increased to 100 people, I guess.” Around 60 people joined the strike in a month and a half, he calculated.

Karlyuk himself joined the strike along with a friend on 2 November.

“I just understood that there was no other way. If we didn’t go out then, did not continue to seek our rights, then later we would simply be deprived of any right at all.”

Karlyuk went on vacation and on 13 November accompanied other members of the strike committee to the city of Kosava on an excursion organised by the strike committee. About 40 people were then detained. Karlyuk, along with other detainees, was held in the city of Ivatsevichi until midnight, and then transported to the detention center in Baranovichi. The Baranovichi court sentenced him to a fine of £60 for participating in a mass event.

Karlyuk was fired immediately after the vacation. According to his calculations, since August 2020, Belaruskali has fired 120-130 people for political reasons.

After his dismissal, Karlyuk stayed in Belarus and is now beguna new profession.

“To go on strike, then to get a public sector job again... this, I think, is not very correct,” he says. “I’m studying at the moment, trying to apply myself in another area – woodworking.”

Pavel Magidov, Belarusian Metallurgical Plant

Pavel Magidov, 39, moved from Russia’s Bryansk region to Gomel, Belarus in 1998. In 2001, after graduating in metallurgy, he moved to Zhlobin and began working as a steel caster at the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant. In his spare time, since 2005, Magidov has been engaged in “various forms” of business.

“So [working at the factory] was kind of like a hobby for me. The kind of job I can’t quit,” he says.

In Belarus, Magidov first married a Russian woman. They had a son before getting divorced, and then he married a Belarusian woman, with whom he had a daughter.

Prior to 2020, Magidov says, he was not interested in politics.

“In any case, I think there are few adult men who aren’t interested in politics at least somehow,” he clarifies. “Someone would talk at home in the kitchen, someone at work, and someone would go out to protest. I wasn’t that active there. I found other things more interesting. I always considered the word ‘politics’ dirty, a swear word, to be honest.”

Magidov says that if “he lived well under any government, it would be a sin to complain.” For him, “it all began” with the 2020 presidential election campaign. At that time, he says he was watching online videos by blogger and presidential candidate Siarhei Tsikhanouski, which often showed how the police cut short his attempts at organising public gatherings and collecting signatures in support of his candidacy.

“I have eyes. They are given to each person not only to look but also to see. I did not like everything that was going on, of course,” he says.

“Alternative candidates on criminal charges... nobody expected that ordinary people would say something. I mean the authorities. And those people who call themselves leaders – whether in opposition or not – nobody expected that people in the swamp that Belarus has become over the past 10-15 years were capable of this.”

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Pavel Magidov's letter confirming his participation in the strike action, November 2020 | Source: TUT.by

"They detained my 14-year-old son"

On 10 August, Magidov’s 14-year-old son was supposed to spend the night with his mother. But Magidov’s son never reached her. According to his father, the boy was detained in Zhlobin unlawfully.

“It would be okay if they just detained him. But my underage son was kept for several hours in the police department. No one even reported it. His mother phoned him purely by chance and they let him pick up the phone. They said, ‘Come, take him,’” Magidov says. “They beat him several times in the face and put him on the floor. There were traces of the ties on his hands for several months. They insulted and threatened him.”

“Naturally, this had an effect. Today your son was detained, tomorrow your wife and daughter? We all see on the internet what happened on the 9th and 10th of August. People were tortured and beaten. Naturally, it affected me,” he says.

After the clashes between protesters and security forces, the trade union committee of the plant organised a meeting with management, which was attended by the chairman of the Gomel regional executive committee, Gennady Solovey.

“We asked what was going on; why there were falsifications of votes,” Magidov recalls. “I know one person in my circle who voted for him [Alexander Lukashenko]. That’s his position, I do not blame him. This is his position. This is one of hundreds of people whom I’m in touch with. Out of hundreds! We even argued with him, recruited all our friends – no one voted for Lukashenka. We sat around, calling everyone all evening, no one voted for him. Well, how does that happen?”

Related story

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

At the meeting with Solovey, Magidov says, the workers were promised that they would receive all the answers they were seeking later that day.

“Well, we talked. In short, no one said that all this would stop. We threatened to go on strike, they were given until the 17th [of August] to satisfy our demands,” says Magidov.

According to him, among these demands were the holding of new elections, an honest vote count, and an end to police violence in the streets.

When the deadline approached, the workers were approached by the deputy general director and the former head of the Zhlobin police department, who had become involved in “ideological work” at the plant.

“His pension is probably small,” suggests Magidov. “Again, these smirks, smiles. He came up and listened to people talking about painful things with tears in their eyes. But these guys are standing around, smiling. I couldn’t take any more. I said: ‘Guys, they don’t want to stop the plant, let’s stop it.’ We leave, block the road. And that’s it. The scrap trucks can’t pass, the shop will stop, the production will be stopped, the casting will stop. It was possible to stop parts of the chain, of course. In any case, we could show the seriousness of our intentions. And people did follow me.”

Magidov says he and 200-300 others blocked the plant road from noon to 5pm. The workers were promised that their demands would be passed on to the ministry of industry.

Magidov returned to work on 1 September – before that he had been ill. According to him, it was already clear to the workers that their demands would not be fulfilled. By this time, “only a few remained supportive of the strike. Repression began – one person was fired”.

On 2 November, Magidov learned that a criminal case had been opened against him and three of his colleagues: Igor Povarov, Alexander Bobrov and Yevgeny Govor –over a “gross violation of public order”. According to the investigation, together with “other unidentified persons”, the four activists “organised illegal group actions, grossly violating public order and showed clear disobedience to the legitimate demands of the authorities”. As a result, transport lines that deliver raw materials to the steel-making shops were blocked, and the steel smelting process was suspended.

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Belarusian Metallurgical Plant | CC BY-SA 4.0 1877 Maks 1878 / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

The workers’ homes were searched, after which they were taken to the local police department. In the department, Magidov recalls being interrogated on camera by an investigative group from Gomel.

“And then everyone was given the following offer: state television was supposed to come and shoot a report, [and we were supposed to say] how much we all repent, how much [we] were paid, that we had been fooled and so on. I asked: ‘What should we say?’ ‘We'll tell you,’ he says. Of course, we did not know at that time that it would be so tough. We thought, maybe six months in prison, a year, and then after several months we would be out on amnesty. But nobody wanted to become a laughing stock. No one was afraid to spend time in prison.”

According to Magidov, the security forces tried to persuade him and his colleagues to agree to an interview in which they’d repent, and promised that they would not be taken into custody, pending trial.

“In the evening I settled all my affairs, went to the plant, lingered around. It was hard for me to leave. It is difficult, difficult to decide in one moment to completely and radically change your life. Anyone, I think, would be afraid of this, to overstep yourself, your habits. Then I thought, no I don’t want to,” Magidov recalls.

On 5 November, after his shift, he publicly joined the strike, and two and a half hours later he left Belarus alone for Bryansk.

On 9 November, Magidov continues, social services came to the school where his son studied. He claims that they wanted to take the child, butthe boy was not at school that day – he had just had a tooth removed.

“They came to school. They just mixed up the dates. If they had come the next day they would have been able to take the child [...] There were good people who told me what was going on [...] The child was later brought to Russia at night,” he says.

Magidov’s wife and their three-year-old daughter are still in Belarus.

"I understand that I’m not alone. The main thing is to understand that you are not alone"

His colleagues were tried on 1 February, 2021. Igor Povarov was given three years in prison, Alexander Bobrov and Yevgeny Govor received 2.5 years each.

“I have been on a wanted list since the end of November. The head of the criminal investigation department came. We talked with him. Then I went to see them too. It seems no one will extradite me, a citizen of Russia. They summoned me both to the Investigative Committee and to the court in Gomel,” Magidov says.

He does not regret participating in the strike.

“I feel sorry for the guys. I kind of blamed myself when they were imprisoned. But in principle, I wasn’t the one who put them in jail, right? They just had to find scapegoats to intimidate people. Even if nothing had happened on 17 August, something would have happened on 18 or 20 August. And it doesn’t matter: Magidov, Povarov, Govor... the surnames aren’t important. The system would have chosen [someone].” Magidov says he has no regrets. “I have a house in Zhlobin. I bought it three years ago. I haven’t had time to grow used to it yet. Naturally, all my connections and friends are all there. In financial terms, it was difficult at first. I have a mortgage on my house. Some foundations immediately helped me. When you cannot help your family yourself, it’s a little annoying. Now everything seems to be working out, as they say. The creative crisis has passed. We also work here, trying to help people. I understand that I’m not alone. The main thing is to understand that you are not alone.”

According to Magidov, since August 2020 about 20 people have been fired from BMZ (Belarussian Steel Works) for political reasons.

Yuri Rovovoy, Grodno Azot

Yuri Rovovoy, 28, has been working as a chemical production operator at the Grodno Azot plant since 2013.

Until the summer of 2020, according to Rovovoy, he did not attach any importance to politics: “I could not influence it in any way – just like everyone else for the most part.”

“I was chatting in the kitchen or in a circle of acquaintances about what was happening in the country,” he says. “But when spring 2020 came, I wanted to somehow participate in this matter, to help the situation change.”

In the spring, Rovovoy decided to become a member of the election commission in the district where the workers of Grodno Azot vote.

“But the administration did not take me. I then went as an observer,” he says. “After the elections, I told the plant how they had falsified [the results].”

When it turned out that employees of Grodno Azot were among those detained in the first days of the protest, the plant management organised a workplace meeting on 13 August. The workers invited representatives of the police and local authorities to talk, and also demanded that the detained colleagues be released within an hour. The last demand, according to Rovovoy, was fulfilled. At the same meeting, he says, the director promised that there would be no arrests of protesting factory workers.

“In fact, they did not touch us. People joined the march of the Azot workers, which passed from the outskirts of the city to the centre. They joined this column, and it seemed as if people felt more protected because it was passed on quickly: the plant director said that no one would touch the Azot people,” he recalls.

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August 2020: people protest outside Grodno Azot plant | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

People in Grodno Azot overalls went out into the street until 20 August. Then, according to Rovovoy, the plant administration refused to give permission for the next march and began avoiding contact with activists.

“People came to the square. The policemen didn’t grab anyone, but they started circling with megaphones, saying that all this was unauthorised. They asked us to disperse,” he says. “It was like that for two days. On 22 August, Lukashenko was already having his get-together there, bringing people with red-green flags by bus from all regions and performing on Lenin Square.”

Rovovoy recalls that when the workers' activists read out their demands at a meeting on 13 August, the document ended with the words “otherwise we reserve the right to strike”.

"We realised we must take action"

“And even at this point it was not clear how to proceed,” he admits. “And already on the 14th or 15th of August we realised that yes, we must act. Everyone was lost, emotions had to be fought. We somehow self-organised ourselves, because it all looked spontaneous – all these walks. [We decided that] if we don’t do something, then no one will hear and it will all end badly.”

Rovovoy says that “everyone was outraged”. Divisions and workshops nominated candidates who had to decide whether the plant was going on strike. In total, according to him, the strike committee of Grodno Azot numbered more than 100 people in August.

On 20 August, Yuri says, threats were sent to workers from a Russian number via the instant messaging app, Viber. He was sure that this was a provocation by the factory bosses.

“The text went something like this: ‘If you do not support the demands of the strike committee, then we will butcher all of you.’ And besides that, the children of these workers were mentioned,” he recalls.

The next day, on the morning of 21 August, Yuri continues, police in civilian clothes were waiting near his house to “arrest him secretly”.

“But I was warned about it. I asked some people to come over. This way I was able to avoid detention. There were fewer and fewer people on the streets in Grodno. They had already taken their bearings and wanted to take those who appeared to be protest leaders in order to extinguish it all, and ban people from organising,” the activist says.

On the evening of 24 August, after several days on the run, Rovovoy left for Poland, where he requested political asylum.

“Our organisation fell apart because it was organised around one person: me,” he states. “You can’t do that. But at that moment everyone was scared. And you yourself do not understand who can be trusted. Only now, with the passage of time, is it slowly becoming clear who’s who, and what they’re capable of. That’s why it happened.”

The decision to strike at the enterprise was never made.

“People revealed themselves, of course, and then they got it in the neck. But everyone who was silent at that moment or did not have enough courage are slowly ripening now and are trying to act on the situation from the inside,” he says.

There are now more than 50 people who have been dismissed from Grodno Azot for political reasons, according to Rovovoy.

For the strike committee, Rovovoy says the desire to comply with all the norms of the law was a mistake.

“The Labour Code – and now it has become even worse, it is not clear why they have strengthened it so much – will in no way allow a single strike in Belarus to happen,” he explains. “And so everything we did was against the law.”

After Rovovoy left the country, he was called for questioning as a witness in a criminal case. Later, he says, it turned out that the case was related to the distribution of threats via Viber.

Whether his legal status has changed since then, he does not know.

“But the fact that they are very much waiting for me [is clear]. I hear this from some people who are helping. Still, they are waiting for me.”

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