Vladimir Putin has long feared a “color revolution” might break out in Russia, as it did for his ally President Viktor Yanukovych next door in Ukraine, who was forced to flee the country, leaving his wealth and power behind. That scenario might yet be repeated for President Alexander Lukashenko in neighboring Belarus.
The revolutions that have overturned political leaders in a number of post-Soviet societies have followed a typical scenario: After a clearly falsified election, crowds of people, often the young and well-educated, take to the streets and city squares, demanding free and fair elections. The outcome usually hinges on whether the police and militia defend the ruling authorities, often with violence, or whether they refuse to harass and beat protesters and instead defect to the crowds. Police forces in Belarus have been employing overwhelming violence so far. But what is different this time is that workers in a number of Belarus’s largest factories have been engaging in strikes in support of the protests. That is deeply troubling for Lukashenko, and for Putin, for several reasons.
One might reasonably assume that workers are a core part of Putin’s base of support. When protests against falsified election results broke out in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011–12, with demonstrators calling for a “Russia without Putin,” Igor Kholmanskikh, a factory foreman at the Ural Tank Factory in Nizhniy Tagil, told the president on national television, “If the militia…can’t handle it, then me and the guys [muzhiki] are ready to come out and defend stability.” Putin’s administration played up this event considerably, with Putin later appointing Kholmanskikh, despite his lack of relative credentials, as the presidential representative for the Urals Federal Region. He successfully deflected those earlier protests, as some put it, by pitting “rural and Rust Belt Russia against urban and modernizing Russia.”
Since then, however, Russia’s economy has stagnated, with real wages declining for a number of years. Despite its reliance on oil and gas exports, Russia still has numerous large industrial enterprises left over from the Soviet era, including hundreds of often struggling “monotowns”—one-industry cities and towns reliant on a single factory, many built during Stalinist industrialization. A few years after workers pledged their support for Putin, the Urals Tank Factory was faced with bankruptcy.
Not every Russian (or Belarussian) is willing to go out in the streets in support of abstract political demands. But they have clear concerns about social welfare, and when political demands are combined with concrete grievances about falling wages or cuts in social benefits, they can become explosive. In Belarus, Lukashenko has remained in power since 1994 through what some have called “socialism with Russian subsidies” in the form of below-market prices for oil and gas. With those subsidies now gone, Lukashenko was forced to cut benefits and raise taxes. Presaging the current uprising, in 2017 Belarusians took to the streets in large numbers to protest a new tax on “parasitism”—essentially a tax on underground employment—with demands for Lukashenko to resign. The tax was scrapped.
Recently, Putin has also been forced to cut back on popular social provisions. In 2018 his government unleashed a rollback of pension benefits, leading to widespread protests and a significant drop in his popularity. That made the recent referendum on amending the constitution, which could allow him to remain in office until 2036, all the more challenging. The coronavirus pandemic has only made the situation worse.
Still, why might protests by workers pose a particular challenge? Beyond the economic damage well-placed strikes can impose, working-class symbolism continues to resonate in Russian society even 30 years after the collapse of Communism. The name “Novocherkassk”—a town in southern Russia where protesting workers were shot and killed by Soviet security forces back in 1962—remains synonymous with state repression against workers. Putin certainly remembers the event, because in 2008 he publicly laid flowers at a monument to the workers killed. A few months later, as the global economic crisis deepened, when residents of Pikalyovo protested the shuttering of their factories by blockading a major highway and creating a 400-kilometer traffic jam, Putin helicoptered in to dress down factory owner and oligarch Oleg Deripaska on national television, in a scene that became known as “the bending of an oligarch.” In a prolonged downturn, however, a savior can come to be seen as a villain.
To preempt workers from joining the political opposition, the Putin regime has tried to maintain what some have called a “discursive divide” between legitimate social and economic protest and illegitimate (and often harshly suppressed) political protest. Yet, as economic conditions worsen and the regime imposes austerity measures, that divide can crumble. When the government introduced a road tax on long-haul trucks in late 2015, Russian truck drivers from the Caucasus to the Far East were instantly united in opposition, and while they initially pleaded, “President, help us!,” after little more than a year they were demanding his removal from office.
When protests have become political, the rulers in Russia and in Belarus have sought to portray the demonstrators as feckless youth backed by foreign agents. Putin called the 2011–12 Russian protesters “chatterboxes” in contrast to “the real Russian people, the Russian working man, the man of labor,” while Lukashenko recently complained that the current protests were being led by “the unemployed.” Such rhetoric will fall flat when the protesters are marching in work uniforms out of factory gates. Moreover, while authoritarian rulers might rely on social divisions to encourage riot police to beat college-educated youth, overt repression against workers—the same class from which many police are drawn—could much more easily result in security force refusals and defections.
As with protests generally, strikes are difficult to carry out in such repressive regimes. In both Russia and Belarus, the major unions—holdovers from the Communist era—remain in the pockets of the ruling elite. Independent unions are much smaller and constantly harassed, though they can suddenly become a powerful voice, as they are now proving in Belarus. Large industrial enterprises in both countries are heavily dependent on state support, a dependence that the state and then managers exploit in order to garner votes for the ruling parties come election time. Yet, interestingly, that dependence is now being inverted in Belarus: In some factories, rather than shutting down production, workers are compelling their bosses to publicly denounce the police repression and fraudulent elections, essentially pulling down a crucial pillar of regime support.
Meanwhile, in Russia, protests have continued since early July in the far east region of Khabarovsk. True, the primary grievance there is political—the removal of a popularly elected governor from an opposition party—but they combine with economic dissatisfaction, and the protesters there are learning from their counterparts in Belarus and calling for workplace strikes.
In the short run, it is unclear how all this will end. The protests in Belarus and Khabarovsk may well fizzle out, as others have in the past. But as Putin looks at the events in Belarus, he no doubt sees his nightmare scenario playing out, with workers leaving the factory gates to join protesters in the city square. In the longer run, Russia’s leadership faces a dilemma: To overcome further economic stagnation that can provoke such protest, it will have to wrestle with a sizable Soviet legacy—its many large industrial enterprises, often struggling to be profitable in a global capitalist marketplace.
Yet, should Lukashenko fall, what will happen to the workers of Belarus (and perhaps in the future, to those in Russia)? Could they end up like coal miners at the end of the Soviet Union, providing muscle to bring down a dictatorship, but ushering in neoliberal reforms that threaten their livelihoods? Having now discovered their social power, they may need to keep using it.