Belarusian authorities have detained the organiser of a strike at a top industrial plant.
The arrest is part of an effort to stifle weeks of protests demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian leader of 26 years after an election the opposition has denounced as being rigged.
President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and rejected the European Union’s offers of mediation. After a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators in the first days after the August 9 vote that caused international outrage, his government has avoided large-scale violence against demonstrators and sought to end the protests with threats and the selective jailing of activists.
Anatoly Bokun, who leads the strike committee at Belaruskali, a huge potash factory in Soligorsk, was detained by police and is facing a 15-day jail sentence on charges of organising an unsanctioned protest. The factory, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertiliser output, is the nation’s top cash earner.
The Belaruskali strike committee spokesman, Gleb Sandras, said authorities had managed to halt a strike at the factory that began two weeks ago and all its potash mines are now working.
He said that agents of Belarus’s State Security Committee, which still goes by the Soviet-era name KGB, had pressured workers to end the labour action.
“KGB agents have inundated the factory, tracking down the most active workers and using various means of pressure,” Mr Sandras told The Associated Press. “The authorities have powerful economic instruments. They are blackmailing workers with mass dismissals.”
Strikes at Belaruskali and many other leading industrial plants have cast an unprecedented challenge to Mr Lukashenko, who has kept the bulk of the economy in state hands and relied on blue-collar workers as his main support base.
Belarus’s deputy prime minister Yuri Nazarov acknowledged that the strikes posed a challenge, but said all major industrial plants have resumed normal operations.
Mr Bokun’s detention follows the arrests of strike leaders at two other major industrial plants in Minsk. The organiser of a strike at the Grodno Azot, a major producer of nitrogen fertilisers, fled to neighbouring Poland to escape detention.
Seeking to stem the protests, Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the opposition Co-ordination Council, accusing its members of undermining the country’s security. Last week, Belarusian courts handed 10-day jail sentences to two council members and summoned several others for questioning, including Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
The US and the European Union have criticised the August 9 election that extended Mr Lukashenko’s rule as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.