Workers at state-owned enterprises across Belarus went on strike on Thursday as protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed victory in the country’s presidential election continued for a fifth day.
The action came as some of those arrested amid the demonstrations that followed the announcement that Mr Lukashenko had won 80 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s poll described being tortured in jail.
Belarusian media reported strikes at some of Belarus’s largest factories, including the BelAZ truck plant in Zhodino, the Minsk Tractor Works, and the Minsk Automobile Plant as anger over the violent police crackdown against the protests mounted.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya refused to recognise the election result, before fleeing to Lithuania on Tuesday after what her campaign said was pressure from Belarus’s security services.
On Thursday videos circulated on social media showing workers angrily shouting down bosses and standing up en masse when asked who among them had voted for Ms Tikhanovskaya.
Hundreds of workers at the BelAZ plant confronted their bosses, chanting “We demand a general strike!” and complained that BelAZ’s buses were being used to round up protesters, according to independent site Tut.by.
In Grodno, in western Belarus, workers at a state-owned housing company surrounded its director to call for an end to the violence and fresh elections, and implored the government to “find the strength to negotiate with the civilian population.” Workers at the Minsk Tractor Works chanted “Resign!” as they marched.
The protests, the largest in Belarus’s history, appeared to have been galvanised by a severe police crackdown during which more than 6,000 people were detained, hundreds injured and two people died.
The violence appeared to be an attempt to intimidate protesters, who demonstrated peacefully before police attacked them with truncheons, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
On Wednesday, six young people in handcuffs with clear bruising were paraded in front of state television and asked by a distorted voice off-screen, “Are we going to keep doing a revolution?”
“Never again,” they nervously replied.
Four state-television presenters announced their resignations on social media. Crowds gathered outside Belarus’s state media headquarters to sing “We Want Changes”, a rock protest anthem from the final years of the USSR.
Several protesters released from jail this week after being detained at the demonstrations told the Financial Times that police beat them with rubber batons, held them in small cells with as many as 120 people in them, gave prisoners no more than a litre of water and a loaf of bread to share, denied disabled people medicine and beat them when they asked for help.
The US and EU have condemned the crackdown and said the elections were neither free nor fair, though Russia and China congratulated Mr Lukashenko after his declaration of victory. Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition candidate who was barred from running, told the FT that he was negotiating with the EU and Ukraine to recognise Ms Tikhanovskaya as president.
“We really hope that recognising Tikhanovskaya will open up the possibility of holding new elections [ . . . ] in the presence of independent observers and the press,” Mr Tsepkalo said. “If Lukashenko didn’t falsify the elections and really has 80 per cent support, why should he be afraid of an open, fair process?”
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, said on Thursday that Moscow was “concerned by the incidents of violations of public order on the streets of several Belarusian cities” but condemned “clearly discernible attempts [by western governments] to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state with the goal of splitting society and destabilising the situation.”
Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has said the protests are being organised by foreign “puppetmasters” and claimed those involved were “people who had criminal pasts or are out of work”.
But the strikes by the factory workers at Belarus’s highly subsidised state enterprises, Mr Lukashenko’s traditional base throughout his 26-year rule, indicated that anger was spreading beyond the urban middle class, such as the thousands of women dressed in white and clutching roses who linked arms and marched peacefully through the capital on Thursday.
Relatives looking for prisoners held incommunicado, sometimes for days on end, chanted “Hang in there!” outside a jail on Okrestina Street in south-west Minsk where screams could be heard outside.
Yaroslav, who declined to give his full name over fears for his safety, was released from the jail on Wednesday. He told the FT that riot police beat all detainees immediately after they arrived, then laid them face down on the ground and beat them again for three hours.
“If someone said anything or moved, he got hit with truncheons from several guards at once,” he said. Several prisoners were brought inside with broken arms. Others were left outside in the yard with no access to water or a toilet and told to relieve themselves where they stood.
“The first to be arrested were the luckiest, because they didn’t hit them so badly,” Yaroslav said. “With every passing night the people they brought were treated worse. Two or three people might beat them, one guy even got hit in the face with a truncheon.”
“You wanted regime change and democracy? Here you go!” the guards said, according to Yaroslav, before they tortured detainees by forcing them to do 100 squats, beating those who failed to comply.
Ilya, an 18-year-old student in Minsk, said police arrested him and several others who were not even taking part in the protests. When he went to meet a friend on Monday, police began launching grenades nearby, prompting them to hide inside a nearby residential building.
After several hours, friends came to rescue them in a car, which made it no further than the driveway before riot police swarmed on them, beat them with batons, and took them to a prison in Zhodino. “Then I got lucky, they just picked eight people to release first,” Ilya said.