KYIV – Belarus' authorities on Monday handed a jail sentence to a factory strike organizer and detained a leading opposition activist, part of a methodical effort to stifle weeks of protests against the country's authoritarian leader after an election the opposition says was rigged.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the 9.5-million nation with an iron fist for 26 years, 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 Aug. 9 presidential vote that caused international outrage, his government has avoided large-scale violence against demonstrators and switched to threats and the selective jailing of activists to stem the protests.
Anatoly Bokun, who leads the strike committee at Belaruskali, a huge potash factory in Soligorsk, was detained by police Monday and handed a 15-day jail sentence on charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest. The factory, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer 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 agents of Belarus' State Security Committee, which still goes by the Soviet-era name KGB, had pressured workers to end the strike.
“KGB agents have inundated the factory, tracking down the most active workers and using various means of pressure,” 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 Lukashenko, who has kept the bulk of the economy in state hands and relied on blue-collar workers as his main support base.
Belarus Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Nazarov acknowledged Monday that the strikes posed a problem, but said all major industrial plants have resumed normal operations.
Bokun's detention follows the arrests of strike leaders at two other major industrial plants in Minsk last week. The organizer of a strike at the Grodno Azot, a major producer of nitrogen fertilizers, fled to Poland to escape detention.