President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko

Security services in Belarus detained at least 16 trade union leaders last week, the Associated Press has reported.

On Wednesday 20 April, members of Belarus’ KGB stormed the Belarussian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions’ office (BKPD) in Minsk. Among those arrested are Alexandr Yarashuk, BKPD President, and Vice President, Sergey Antusevich.

Siarhei Cherachen, an opposition politician, who has run in elections against Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, said men in black clothing broke into the office. They pinned activists – whom the government calls ‘extremist’ – against the wall and searched their belongings.

Security services also arrested Aleksandr Bukhvostov, President of the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM); and Nikolay Sharakh, President of the Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB).

Many voices have condemned the arrests. Amnesty International has called on Belarus to disclose the unionists’ whereabouts, which are unknown. The International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) have demanded their release.

Lukashenko’s dictatorship has focused its ire on unions more and more in recent years. Olga Britikova, who leads an independent trade union, is also in detention for union activity at an oil refinery in 2021.

But, in the past two months, attacks on unions have gone into overdrive since many came out against Belarus’ support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March, Yurashuk condemned his country’s support for the war, and said “95% of Belarussians” agreed with him.

“The war in Ukraine has pushed into the background all the other problems Belarusians are facing.”, he wrote on the BKPD website.

“However, it does not mean that they ceased to exist. After all, one can notice the direct relationship between Belarus’ complicity with Russia in the military aggression in Ukraine, and terror, violence, repression against its own people.”

Some believe Lukashenko has been in a weak position since activists and trade unions began protesting the fraudulent election in 2020. In the same year, the COVID-19 pandemic damaged the country’s economy. Commentators claim this has left Lukashenko unable to resist further alignment with Vladimir Putin – including supporting the war.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) heavily criticised Lukashenko’s government for its stance on union rights last month. The ITUC says it is now updating the ILO on the situation.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, added,

These are yet further examples of the sustained anti-union campaign by the Lukashenko regime and appear also to be in reaction to the independent trade unions’ bravery in criticising Lukashenko and his government for their active support of Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

We call for their immediate release, the restoration of all the items seized to their rightful owners and an end to the ongoing intimidation and harassment of the BKDP, its leadership and its affiliates.

At the time of writing, 23 journalists are also known to be detained in Belarus.

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Image credit: Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News