Why has the 2020 Belarus “color revolution” failed, and what should the Belarusian left do about it, asks Alexander Kolesnikov.
By Alexander Kolesnikov
Published in Russian on prometej.info, Nov, 2020
On October 13, former presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced an “ultimatum” to the current authorities of the Belarus republic. She threatened a general strike if the violence in the country did not stop, political prisoners were not released, and head of state Alexander Lukashenko, who won the presidential election on August 9, did not leave his post. But, as of October 25, the factories did not stop; employees, as before, came to work; and students went to their universities. The ultimatum was the last-ditch attempt by the opposition to show its power in the current political crisis in the republic. The workers remained indifferent to the words of Tikhanovskaya. The 2020 “color revolution” in Belarus, failed.
Why the opposition lost
During June and July, scores of Lukashenko’s opponents held rallies, and through August and September, held flash mobs on Sundays. Using channels on Telegram, they gathered tens of thousands of protesters, which is a great many for a country like Belarus. The motivation for the rallies and marches were the arrests of more than 7000 people and allegations of torture in the prisons between August 9 and 11. Many civil servants and workers are tired of the “last dictator of Europe”, in power for 26 years. They were attracted by the populist ideas of the protest organizers and to them the statements of the former Kolkhoz (a provincial collective farm) manager, Lukashenko, seemed outdated. But by the middle of October, the thousands strong crowds attending street processions had melted away.
The failure of Tikhanovskaya to attract workers to her side was partly explained by Gleb Sandros, a former member of the opposition “Strike committee” of Soligorsk Belaruskali (a state-owned mining company), who fled to Lithuania. He said that “people have their hands and feet tied with good salaries and the best social package” . However, this situation is not the same everywhere. Many proletarians need better working conditions and wages, and the abolition of the use of temporary fixed-term contracts. But changing this will be extremely problematic as an export-oriented economy requires low labor costs and a weak ruble.
A painter at the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) can currently earn US $500 per month , which is the official average salary in the republic. A painter at the Minsk Tractor Plant (MTZ) will be paid only 500 rubles, equivalent to $196, a milling machine operator – $300, a crane operator – $350. True, the head of the MTZ “strike committee”, member of the Presidium of the Opposition Coordination Council Sergei Dylevsky noted that “For Belarus, our salaries are not bad at the plant, plus we are somehow trying to solve housing issues for newcomers, there is some kind of priority when renting”. The “strike committee” is in quotation marks, because not a single strike took place in the republic during the unrest. What happened were political rallies without economic demands, gathering hundreds of disaffected from tens of thousands of workers .
To activate the proletariat, the opposition decided to bribe them. Each dismissed for participation in the protests was promised $1,500 and retraining courses. There were online fundraising platforms for those . But it did not help. After that, in the “protest” chats of the telegram channels, they began to discuss measures of sabotage. For example, if the collectives of the factories did not support the strike, they were advised to refuse to rent apartments or to increase the rent . The intimidation of foreign companies was suggested, in the hope of them breaking contracts . Thus, the “strike committee” of Belaruskali asked the world’s largest buyer of mineral fertilizers, the Norwegian Yara, to reconsider relations with their enterprise, whose management “continues to grossly violate the rights of workers.”
The oppositionists called their adversaries “yabatka” . The abbreviation appeared after rallies in support of the authorities with the slogans “I /we are the batka” (Lukashenko is often called “batka”, a slang term meaning “old father”). Such derogatory vocabulary addressed to opponents is reminiscent of innovations in the language of the Ukrainian ultra-right in 2014. Donbass then they renamed “Downbass”, and Lugansk – “Luganda”. In the first case, it was about comparing the residents of eastern Ukraine, who did not support Euromaidan, with Down syndrome sufferers. In the second, the region of the country was compared with the economically backward republic of Africa. Those using the colors of the St. George ribbon (a Russian and Soviet World War 2 symbol) were then called Colorado beetles , and all those who disagreed with the new authorities in Kiev were called “Vatnik” (a word for quilted jackets alluding to an old Russian man stereotype) . The use of derogatory and pejorative mocking of opponents in Ukraine continues to date .
Tikhanovskaya and her friends at their headquarters in Warsaw and Vilnius did not limit themselves to promises of payments and calls for sabotage. They held unauthorized marches in Minsk with the participation of disabled people, pensioners and students, counting on harsh dispersal of the processions by the police. But the provocation failed. In their interviews, members of the “strike committees” pointed out that blue collar professions are not prestigious today. It can be seen that Dylevsky and Sandros have a petty-bourgeois consciousness and dream of moving to another class. The opposition’s use of the white-red-white flag instead of the red-green flag is directed both against Lukashenko and in support of nationalism and anti-communism. It comes from the version of history in which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the peak of development of the Belarusian people. Many young people want to trace their ancestry not from peasants, but from the gentry.
Dylevsky in an interview with the liberal Novaya Gazeta seems partly racist, partly fascist and partly bourgeois . He is outraged that “now if you are a person with white skin color, you are repressed as the blacks in the 50s”. His colleague Sandros does not hide his sympathy for Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych . The latter is known not only as a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, but as a participant in punitive operations against Belarusian partisans during World War II. Such people stood at the head of the “workers’ protest” in 2020.
Usually, a “color revolution” requires a wide participation of the petty bourgeoisie, which is responsible for loud and creative actions to attract media. And journalists can bring the crowd out to the streets. However, this class can win if it joins the class of big owners or the proletariat. The local petty bourgeois see the big capital of Western Europe and the USA as their ally. Therefore, the Belarusians in social networks joke that IKEA is already looking at Belovezhskaya Pushcha (a protected forest). But the opposition failed to win the hearts of the working class.
What do reformers want?
In words, the opposition is in favor of expanding political rights and freedoms: for simplifying the procedure for registering parties, liberalizing legislation during mass events, etc. They see the bourgeois parliament as their ideal. Until October, almost nothing was openly discussed in its structures about the upcoming economic reforms, referring to the fact that this would distract people’s attention from the main demand: Lukashenko’s resignation. However, his opponents at some point had to talk about their program.
Ales Alekhnovich, a member of the Opposition Coordination Council, adviser on economic issues at Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters, said that he was already negotiating with The World Bank, IMF, EBRD, European Commission, OECD and foreign governments on financing the Belarusian economy during the transition period . At the meeting on October 23, he seemed to support the neoliberal reforms that took place in the post-Soviet countries. Alekhnovich does not want to privatize the companies immediately, rather to seek public-private partnerships for MAZ, MTZ, Belaruskali, and the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ). For example, he advocates closer cooperation between MAZ and the Russian truck manufacturer KAMAZ or the automobile concern MAN SE, owned by Volkswagen AG. But Alekhnovich does not say that in the course of such transactions the Belarusian company will inevitably be absorbed.
Back in the summer, the opposition announced plans to transfer a significant part of enterprises to foreign investors, turn land into a commodity, reduce the state’s share in the healthcare sector and reduce the list of treatments that can be provided for free. Sixty libertarian economists from Russia, Bulgaria and other countries where neoliberal reforms have already taken place have been invited as assistants. The list even includes the former Minister of Privatization of Slovakia in 1991-1992 . In his interview, Lev Lvovsky, an employee of the local BEROC center, who is part of the 60, is convinced that privatizations are great, and that the negative attitude towards them is associated with “some mistakes” in Russia .
There is nothing positive about this economic program of the opposition for workers. Therefore, the collectives of the factories intuitively understand that they are called to defend the interests of another class, and the coming to power of Lukashenko’s opponents for the factories and for themselves may end badly. Ordinary people on social networks joke of the upcoming reforms: “Goodbye MAZ, goodbye, BelAZ! Hello Polish toilet!”.
However, the protests showed that some of the local proletarians compare the standard of living in the republic with the rich countries of the West, and not with the wealth of people in other parts of the planet or with the situation in the post-Soviet space. They personally did not feel the plundering of the richest republic of the USSR – Ukraine, under the guise of “European integration” and the complete destruction of its economy as a result of the Association Agreement with the EU. State TV channels often talk about this catastrophe, but the authorities have lost some of their authority, they are not listened to. At the beginning of the Euromaidan, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk promised the elderly pensions of $2,000, and the students the opportunity to study at the best universities in Europe. Instead, young people and workers went to pick berries and clean the streets in Poland and Finland, and in Ukraine itself, they are discussing the abolition of pensions .
Since there was no economic crisis in Belarus, and the opposition was traditionally left without a leader and a party, the “color revolution” in 2020 initially looked like a gamble. The authorities’ unpopular fight against the coronavirus, when quarantine was not introduced, turned out to be lifesaving. Factories, trade and catering sectors continued to work. The republican “strike” in October was technically impossible, because for several months of protests it was not even possible to organize a city one. The discontent associated with the authorities’ violence against those who disagreed with the election outcome resulted only in simple forms of resistance – street processions, personal hunger strikes, despair gestures and paper threats. Nobody has ever taught Belarusians more difficult things – the struggle for their economic interests in the workplace. There is no western-style trade union culture in the country. Therefore, dissatisfaction with their financial situation boils down to the overthrow of the government, and not a war with capitalism for real democracy and socialism.
Historically, the government of Belarus was formed around state capitalism, which solved a number of important social and economic problems. Over the past 26 years, the imperialism of the West, and in the last campaign also part of the Kremlin elite, through the former head of the Belgazprombank Viktor Babariko, has opposed the national capital – Lukashenko’s friends. The authorities got a lot of help against those from the special services. They did not allow any “extra” financial flows or groups of militants to enter the country.
What can the Belarusian left do?
The local left needs to support not the state capitalist regime of Lukashenko, despite it being better for the workers than the dictatorship of Western imperialism, but to wage a revolutionary struggle for socialism. However, their state is a disaster. The only thing that the struggling local left could do in current events was the “Zabastbel” telegram channel. Obviously, to attract supporters in the opposition camp, they used white and red in the campaign, the word “people”, not “class”, etc. This example shows the general sentiment of the protesters and the lack of strength of the local left, who make big compromises in order to attract people to their side. There is not a single group of Marxists in the country with serious political tasks.
Local Trotskyist groups see what is happening in the republic as an uprising for bourgeois-democratic freedoms, as the first Russian revolution of 1905 . Yes, the constitutional reform of Nicholas II was largely due to the all-Russian strike of workers and employees. But the strike committees and councils organized around the Social Democrats and Social-Revolutionaries demanded not only the destruction of the autocracy, but also an 8-hour working day, higher wages, and better working conditions. Belarusian proletarians do not have such slogans today, and they do not exist in “color revolutions”. The New Communist Party of Yugoslavia rightly pointed out that the events in the republic developed according to the scenario of the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. And Olga Kovalkova, a member of the Presidium of the Opposition Coordination Council, in an interview with Alekhnovich, confirmed this. When asked about what she was doing, she pointed to the textbooks on non-violent resistance by the architect of the “velvet revolutions” Srdzhi Popovic – “civil, international and economic pressure” on the authorities.
The so-called independent Belarusian trade unions, created in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have become puppets of right-wing parties in the last thirty years. On September 3, at a press conference in Soligorsk, the leaders of The Belarusian Independent trade union of miners, chemical workers, oil-refiners, energy, transport, construction and other workers (BITU) invited workers to ignore the current strike legislation since the authorities falsified the election results. The chairman of the trade union, Maxim Poznyakov, believes that today there is no legality in the republic and that one should be measured not by the criteria of legality, but by justice. According to him, the best decision of Lukashenko would be to leave and “provide an opportunity for other qualified people to be engaged in building a new democratic Belarus” . That is, to the people of Tikhanovskaya.
Very peculiar statements were also made. Such as the trade union leader Alexander Dovnar, who was present at this meeting, suggesting a memorandum between the West (that is, the Coordination Council of the opposition) and the East (that is, representatives of the authorities) with the participation of independent trade unions (that is, BITU) and local religious leaders.
The Russian comrades, who themselves are in a deep ideological and organizational crisis, have a great influence on the Belarusian left. Thus, in the summer, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) unexpectedly supported “strikes” in Belarus. Its leader Mikhail Shmakov could or did not want to see the proposition for elimination of state regulation in the sphere of labor in the programs of the opposition and said that “the Belarusian people will benefit from political strikes”.  These words were unusual, since the chairman of the largest employee organization in Russia had never spoken about strikes in his country before.
Nevertheless, everything becomes clear if one knows the past of the FNPR. Shmakov was a representative of Vladimir Putin in the last presidential elections, and the Kremlin benefits from protests at “their younger brother” in order to tighten control over the republic’s economy.
The FNPR did nothing against raising the retirement age in Russia two years ago. Then Shmakov refused both striking and supporting a referendum on the pension reform. He understands the struggle between labor and capital as follows:
Of course, every employer wants his employees to work 24 hours a day and at the same time he would not pay them wages. And every employee wants not to go to work, but to bring his salary home regularly. Truth is in the middle” .
Two years ago, the FNPR proposed transferring the Russians to a four-day working week, without reducing their working hours, which would inevitably turn them into slaves . Fortunately, their idea has not yet been implemented.
A similar statement about the events in Belarus was made by another large trade union – the Confederation of Labor of Russia .
Pavel Kudyukin, co-chairman of the Russian trade union “University Solidarity”, who sat in the government of Boris Yeltsin, is today the “Honorary Chairman of the Program Commission” of the Belarusian party “People’s Community”. This organization is headed by one of the most famous local nationalists, Nikolai Statkevich, and is the political force supported by the blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, the husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was denied registration as a candidate for the post of head of state. Officially, the organization has a social democratic position, but there are many ultra-rightists in its ranks. In video footage of the party  we see the activist Solyanik, who at one of the summer rallies in Grodno admitted his sympathy for Adolf Hitler and said that the Belarusians needed such a leader . He represented Tikhanovskaya during the election campaign and was expelled by her only after outrage on social networks.
Activists of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) in September wanted to take part at a festival organized by anti-communists under white-red-white flags to help the Belarusian opposition . The concert “Partizan-fest” in social networks was called “Politsai-fest”. These “leftists” supported the unrest in 2020, as they did with the Kiev Euromaidan five years ago.
They were not taught anything by the events of May 1, 2014 in Odessa, when the ultra-rightists burned dozens of people alive in the house of trade unions. The Russian Communist Workers’ Party (RKWP) rightly reproaches the RSМ for, instead of organizing the labor movement and putting pressure on the authorities with specific demands, calling for surrendering the republic and the working people to a new “Maidan”.
In his pamphlet «What Is to Be Done», Vladimir Lenin criticized the proponents of the economic struggle for not adopting political demands. But in those years the labor movement was much stronger than it is now. At this stage, the Belarusian proletarian does not have class thinking, it cannot formulate its interests, does not know how to fight for them. Therefore, the neoliberal forces are trying to use it as cannon fodder to achieve its goals. Trade unionists and part of the “left” chose the petty bourgeois instead of the proletarian working people, and they not just demand Lukashenko’s resignation, but also welcome a “color revolution”.
Disappointment with the left around the world is driving workers to the extreme right. And a party without the support of organized labor movement becomes a club of intellectuals. If the old trade unions are to blame for reformism, then the new, seemingly radical, movements do not understand the “labor question”. The Belarusian left needs to decide whether to win back the leadership from the rightist trade unions, and then the faith of the proletarians in these unions, or create new ones. However, it is obvious that in the coming years the economic struggle will be discredited: the authorities will call any such protest a “color revolution”. Moreover, the left will have to wage a war on two fronts. Lukashenko already said that his current presidential term is the last. The opposition understands that his successor will be weaker, which means that the struggle of the imperialists for Belarus will continue.
Translated into English by the author.
Alexander Kolesnikov was born in 1987 in Minsk, Belarus. He graduated from the Institute of Journalism of the Belarusian State University and also studied sociology and art history. Since 2014 – he has lived in Moscow, cooperating with leading Russian publications. Currently he is an investigative journalist at the Octagon.media.