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Lukashenko addresses workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), August 17, 2020

‘The oligarch who comes next won’t be any worse’ ‘Meduza’ speaks to four workers at the Minsk factory where Lukashenko was booed while trying to rally his base

Source: Meduza
Lukashenko addresses workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), August 17, 2020
Lukashenko addresses workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), August 17, 2020
Nikolai Petrov / BelTA / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On Monday, August 17, Alexander Lukashenko continued his efforts to save his presidency by addressing a group he undoubtedly hoped would welcome his message: workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT). Instead, he stumbled through what was probably his single hardest speech in 26 years as the Belarusian head of state. “You are working people. You have always supported the president!” Lukashenko said from atop a tractor-trailer. The crowd booed him and chanted “Resign!” despite the fact that police officers arrested several factory workers before the speech in an attempt to remove “unreliable” elements who might instigate the publicity nightmare that unfolded anyway. These people were interrogated for six hours and ultimately released with a warning. Meduza spoke to some of the staff at MZKT — including one of the employees who was arrested before Lukashenko’s speech — to learn more about the mood among workers at the plant now and how badly the president miscalculated by relying on the unequivocal support of “the working people.”

The MZKT workers who spoke to Meduza all asked us not to publish their surnames for fear of reprisals from their employer. Some of these people also asked Meduza not to share their first names.

Dmitry, MZKT design engineer

First of all, workers are unhappy with the regime, just like people in other industries. We want to express our will freely, but our votes have been stolen.The decision to go on strike [was made] inside the labor collective. Through personal channels, we’re also coordinating strikes with other enterprises.

According to the government’s official results, Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) won a sixth consecutive term with a landslide 80.1 percent of the vote, while opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya) collected just 10.1 percent. Lukashenko is the only candidate in the race who now recognizes these results. Since the end of the election on August 9, increasingly mass protests have swept the country, as demonstrators demand Lukashenko’s resignation, a new election, and the release of all political prisoners. Police initially tried to suppress the rallies with extreme violence, but law enforcement backed down after four days and the opposition is now stronger than ever.

Most of the people who work here don’t support the opposition, but we’re definitely against Lukashenko. The management says they’re apolitical, so they asked everyone who attended the meeting with Lukashenko to remove their white bracelets and ribbons — [protest] symbols for free elections.

People are waiting now to see what will happen, and they’re thinking about what they should do. What Lukashenko says about [production] orders and how they’ll disappear if there’s regime change — it isn’t true. These orders won’t disappear and the oligarch who runs the factory next won’t be any worse than the state is now.

After the meeting with Lukashenko, everyone went back to their workplaces and discussed how it went. People understand that he’s going senile and doing all this just for show. How do most workers feel? You heard it when we chanted “Resign!” These dialogues with the people are just theatrics, deep down. 

It’s difficult now to say what comes next. The ideal option would be to transfer power to the person elected by the people. But Lukashenko himself says he won’t give up power.

“Nikolai,” MZKT engineer

The people who work in our factory don’t believe the [official] election results, and they’re outraged by recent events and the beatings of peaceful citizens and detainees. They’re outraged by articles in the mass media where MZKT, supposedly speaking on behalf of its workers, expresses support for the authorities and their methods. As far as I know, there are no centers coordinating the strikes — everything is happening spontaneously somehow, from within.

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of workers at the factory are against Lukashenko. Personally, I know only a few people who support him. At the meeting, our management swore that there will be no reprisals or firings, even for people who are arrested. But we’ll see what actually happens. We weren’t given any instructions about how to behave at the meeting. They just asked us to be respectful and ultimately they admitted everyone who wanted to attend. The only [demand] they made was to take off the white bracelets.

We weren’t afraid to go out there; we’re used to this regime now — to this horror story. Honestly, we couldn’t even imagine that they’d arrest someone. But we will continue to take part in peaceful demonstrations. In the near future, we’ll hold meetings to determine our next steps.

“Kirill,” one of the arrested MZKT workers

On Friday, we presented our demands to the plant’s senior management. I think that’s why Lukashenko visited us now. We ourselves don’t know why they arrested us. We guess that somebody from the factory complained about us to the authorities, saying that we might blurt out something embarrassing with Lukashenko standing there. 

They arrested two more people besides me. It was like this: our foreman called us over and asked us to leave the factory grounds, escorted by officers. They told us they’d bring us to the front security gate and let us go home. The management also asked us not to make a scene. But what happened is they put us in a police van and brought us to the station. In the van, they took our phones and started checking them for oppositionist pictures and videos. They didn’t use any violence against us. In fact, they tried to show that the authorities weren’t involved [in all the beatings] and that the protesters themselves are to blame for everything.

They released us after six hours in detention and warned us against acts of terrorism. They never said a word about fines or any other punishment, and there was nothing to punish us for, really. Me being unhappy with the “victorious” candidate gives them no right to punish or arrest me. 

“Mikhail,” MZKT machine tool operator

Everyone I talked to at our factory wants the president’s resignation. We’re all tired of listening to his deception. The situation at the plant now isn’t the best — it’s very hard to put food on the table. Our salaries aren’t at all what the government says. 

The workers who support the opposition maybe aren’t 100 percent, but I think it’s [no less than] 85 percent. When we first started saying how angry we are about how the elections went and how they treated the protesters, the line managers threatened to fire us. 

We don’t understand exactly why Lukashenko came here of all places. Probably because of Friday’s meeting with the factory’s management where we presented our demands. People self-organized on the spot for that meeting. Many of us noticed stand-ins in the crowd [today], and we had a lot of questions we didn’t get to ask. For example, where are the 85 people still missing?

During the first four days of opposition protests after the August 9 presidential election, police officers arrested between 3,000 and 6,000 demonstrators. (The number is so uncertain because many people were detained, held in detention centers and prisons for several days, and released — all without a proper paper trail.) Some of these protesters are still missing, despite days of searching by friends and relatives. In all this chaos, it’s also unclear how many people are missing (the number ranges from 60 to 90). The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda Belarus says the whereabouts of 81 demonstrators remain unknown, but neither the Belarusian Interior Ministry nor human rights activists have been able to confirm this.

Interviews by Ani Oganesyan

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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