Belarus to tighten control over private companies through state-controlled trade unions
Amid shrinking wages, economic slowdown and mass layoffs, the Belarusian authorities seek to strengthen ideological control over employees at private enterprises through official trade unions in order to prevent social tension and dissenting moods. By creating pro-governmental trade unions at private and foreign enterprises, the authorities want to control their owners and to take negotiations with the ILO to the new level. However, this initiative is unlikely to have a long-term impact and will be implemented pro forma only.
Last week, President Lukashenka signed Decree No 4, which introduced amendments to the Decree No 2 of January 26th, 1999 regulating activities of political parties, trade unions and other public associations. The decree aims to simplify the creation of trade unions at enterprises of any ownership form.
In late May, at the Trade Union Federation Congress held in Minsk, President Lukashenka ordered to establish trade unions at all enterprises by mid-2016: “You have written to me directly which companies do not want to create a trade union – like Velcom and others. We know how to work with them... Firstly, I have transferred phones of all public officials from Velcom to MTS. They started worrying. I told them, ‘If you misbehave in Belarus, do not take into account our realities, do not work for our people, you will lose your company’”.
The Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions occupies a special place in the government model created by Lukashenka – along with councils of deputies, and pro-government youth and women’s organizations. The president has repeatedly emphasised, “I have just told the Chairman of the Trade Unions Federation that you are our party of workers. You are the primary implementers of public ideas”.
Since early 2000s, when the FTUB Chairman Victor Goncharik became a presidential candidate, the state has taken full control over trade union activities and now appointment of all FTUB leaders requires formal consent of the president.
As of late 2014, Mihkail Orda, former head of the pro-government youth organization BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), heads the FTUB. In early 2015, the Presidium of the Council of the FTU adopted a resolution establishing new posts in each region and district, which, according to independent experts, should play the role of ‘trade-union ideologists’.
The main role of the Trade Union Federation in Belarus is to control employees, ensure their integration and freeze protest activity among workers. De facto, official trade unions do not respond to significant deterioration of workers’ situation, including delays of wage payments, underemployment, reduced working hours and mass layoffs. Quite the opposite, the FTUB leadership uses the state’s arguments to explain the ongoing crisis by external factors. In addition, they call for support for the government, i.e., not to raise claims vis-à-vis management at enterprises.
According to Mr Orda, the FTUB leadership was ready to perform the role of an agent of the state in the labour movement and defend public interest. In particular, he said, “When the state had enough money, it never spared it, but, sometimes, we need to understand that we are all in the same boat, that we should support the state too. If you start protesting and shouting, nothing will come out of it. Today, we all have to work hard”.
Today the FTUB unites circa 90% of the economically active population in Belarus – about 4 million people. However, recently, the share of workers employed in the private sector has increased. The authorities therefore seek to create trade unions at private companies in order to have additional control mechanisms over the private sector.
In addition, the state is attempting to develop trade unions at private enterprises in order to create a positive background for negotiations with the International Labour Organization to lift restrictions previously imposed on Belarus. The ILO launched an investigation into violations of trade union rights in Belarus in 2003, which led to Belarus’ exclusion from the EU’s General System of Preferences in 2007. Amid shrinking exports to Russia, Belarus attaches greater importance to returning to the EU system of preferences.
The government will support greater influence of the pro-governmental trade unions at private enterprises; however, will continue to create obstacles for independent trade unions.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.