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Workers In Belarus Face Dismissal, Potential Arrest If They Join Anti-Government Walkout

Employees and students of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics who went on strike are shown holding a banner reading "Solidarity" on October 29 in Minsk.
Employees and students of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics who went on strike are shown holding a banner reading "Solidarity" on October 29 in Minsk.

Inside the factory, they face the threat of dismissal by management. Outside the factory, they face the prospect of punishment at the hands of riot police.

As they consider joining a national strike to press for longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down, workers at a major chemical plant in Belarus are dealing with an array of tools wielded by their bosses and the state to keep them in line, a strike leader from Hrodna Azot told Current Time in an interview.

From Warsaw, where he has been living since he left Belarus under pressure in late August, Yury Ravavy described a cat-and-mouse game between workers and management at the plant, which employs some 10,000 people in the western city of Hrodna.

Many of its technicians may not be publicly backing the strike, but a large number are calling in sick, Ravavy said -- putting strains on the plant, which produces chemicals for fertilizers, a major export for Belarus's still mainly state-run economy.

Workers And Students Walk Out As Strikes Begin In Belarus
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Management at Hrodna Azot, meanwhile, is using a carrot-and-stick approach to dissuade workers from walking out.

"They are ready to promise them a lot more money because they understand that this could be a trigger for all the other wary businesses," Ravavy told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on October 28.

He said the authorities were worried about the prospect of a major strike at Hrodna Azot because it produces ammonia used in oil refining, a big source of revenue.

"And if our enterprise stops, the Naftan oil refinery will also stop, which will severely hit Lukashenka's business," Ravavy said.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced a national strike starting on October 26 after Lukashenka, in power since 1994, ignored an ultimatum by the opposition to step down, halt the crackdown on protesters, and free all political prisoners.

The call for a strike across the nation of 9.5 million raised the stakes in the standoff between Lukashenka and the Belarusians who have been protesting in large numbers since he claimed a landslide victory in an August 9 presidential election that many believe was rigged to hand him a sixth term.

Security forces have cracked down hard, arresting more than 10,000 people since the protests began amid allegations of torture and abuse. Several people have been killed and hundreds injured.

Tsikhanouskaya, who supporters say was the true winner of the election, left for Lithuania days after the vote amid threats to herself and family. Many other opposition leaders have been forced to flee or are under arrest.

Strikes also took place in the days and weeks after the disputed vote, including at Hrodna Azot, where thousands walked off the job on August 14.

Ravavy, who worked at the plant and served on the strike committee, fled for Warsaw after officers of the KGB state security service came to his home amid a crackdown on strike leaders as the movement eventually fizzled out.

"I have been in Warsaw since August 24. When things first boiled over, I tried to organize the strike in a more legal way. We collected signatures, and the decision [to strike] was made by the majority of the team. But on [August] 21st, people from the KGB came to my home and tried to detain me," he said. "A few days later, I managed to get abroad."

Speaking from the Polish capital, Ravavy said about 17 workers at Hrodna Azot had openly joined the strike, while many more remain on the sidelines, worrying about losing jobs that pay between the equivalent of 300 and 500 euros a month -- a good salary in Belarus.

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But Ravavy said many of the most valuable employees were expressing their support by calling in sick. "Many simply do not come, do not pick up the phone and stay at home. Many [are] on sick leave," Ravavy said, adding that technical staff -- skilled and trained to oversee technical operations on the shop floor -- were among the largest number of no-shows.

"It's hard for me to say how many people it is, but it is close to 100. Moreover, these people are irreplaceable. They are important technology personnel," Ravavy said.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says some $7 million has been collected to help compensate striking workers if their contracts are terminated.

On the morning of October 26, about 100 workers at Hrodna Azot refused to clock in for their shifts. Police vehicles and buses soon arrived, dispensing officers who detained more than 10 workers and dozens of protesters.

Plant managers later denied the strike action was having any impact on operations.

Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchyk on October 26 belittled the nationwide strike effort, accusing the opposition of inflating its importance. Lukashenka scoffed as well, warning families that that they could lose their incomes by asking, "Who will feed the kids?"

The head of Belarus's Confederation of Democratic Trade Unions, Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, said after the first day of the action that it was hard to calculate turnout, "given the authorities' massive pressure."

Tsikhanouskaya has promised workers financial compensation "guarantees" if their contracts are terminated due to the strikes. She said some $7 million had been collected for that purpose.

Ravavy said those fired at Hrodna Azot -- 12 according to his account so far -- would be taken care of with funds collected through BYSOL, an online campaign to help those standing up to the Lukashenka regime.

"These 12 people will receive assistance from BYSOL in the amount of 1,500 euros, and they will receive food," Ravavy said, adding that such help could tilt more skeptics to join the strike.

"I am trying to tell all the doubters at our enterprise who are reluctant to embrace the strike, 'No, you will not be forgotten.'"

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on a interview conducted by Current Time correspondent Iryna Romaliyskaya