Calls for EU to act over Belarus as union leaders are targeted

Lukashenko cracks down on increasing protests after his election is widely seen as illegitimate.

Trade unions throughout Europe are working directly with their international and European Union federations to bring pressure on the EU to force tough sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his government after independent trade unions in Belarus came under attack.  

Lukashenko is clinging on to power after independent observers reported serious fraud, manipulation and irregularities before, during and after the recent elections. The authoritarian regime has cut internet access, arrested independent trade union leaders, activists and members, protestors and independent journalists.

At least one person has been killed and many more were hospitalised with injuries from beatings and police brutality during three days of protests in Minsk and other cities in Belarus.

With the situation spiralling out of his control Lukashenko called an urgent rally of supporters. A few thousand turned up – with state sector workers forced to attend or face losing their jobs.

It was easily eclipsed by a major rally in Minsk of unions and those opposed to Lukashenko fraudulent re-election. Strikes by workers are gathering apace as the confidence of the opposition grows. Workers at state-run factories have staged walkouts and many have joined street marches against Lukashenko. There is now a call for a general strike across the country.

Lukashenko was declared the winner of the election despite evidence that the choice of the majority was the exact opposite triggering protests throughout Belarus to demand a re-run of the elections.

Belarus has a reputation for the systemic violation of freedom of association and attacking fundamental workers’ rights.

These include the introduction of compulsory fixed-term contracts with the aim of intimidating workers, the denial of basic freedoms and the suppression of independent and free civil society institutions and trade unions.

Lukashenko has stated that women do not have the capability of running a country. His opponent in the election was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who has fled the country in fear of her life and those of her family after threats to her children.

A video currently circulating among trade unions shows a factory manager stating to a meeting of workers that Lukashenko ‘won the election’. He is met by one worker shouting ‘Stand up if you voted for Tikhanovskaya’. Everyone stands up cheering and applauding.

Independent trade unions in Belarus are reporting they that thry believe Svetlana Tikhanovskaya won the elections – by as much as 64% to 26%.

Lukashenko had twice turned to Russia’s President Putin for help, claiming the demonstrations and strikes (many lead by women) are now an external threat to Russia.

But Putin is treading carefully. The opposition in Belarus are not anti-Russian or pro-Europe – they are anti-Lukashenko. Putin sending Russian troops to bolster a massively unpopular leader risks alienating the Belarusian people and creating a big anti Moscow backlash.

The former president of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus (BNP) Mikalaj Zimin, together with at least three other activists, have been arrested. Zimin was sentenced to 25 days of detention while attending peaceful protests in the city of Soligorsk. His colleague Maxim Sereda was sentenced to 12 days. Jan Roman, a journalist and activist of the Free Metal Workers’ Union (SPM), was brutally beaten and detained at a police station, after going to enquire about the fate of colleagues who had been arrested.

Over more than a quarter of a century of repressive rule, independent trade unions have been attacked, political opponents have disappeared and the economy is collapsing.

Unions are calling on Lukashenko to enter into constructive dialogue with representatives of unions, civil society. They are calling for transparent elections with free access for independent observers and journalists as well as asking the European Union, to use all necessary means to stop the anti-democratic and violent acts of the Belarussian Government, and to urgently review their current political and economic relationship with Belarus.

IndustriALL Global Union, the giant engineering, manufacturing and energy trade union federation and its European counterpart industriAll European Trade Union, along with the British TUC, the European TUC and the International TUC have demanded an end to the use of use of stun grenades, tear-gas, rubber bullets and other military equipment against peaceful protestors , a halt the violence, an end to persecution and arrests, and release of all imprisoned union leaders, activists and civil society representatives. 

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite and the TUC General Council’s Lead on Employment and Union Rights.

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