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Thread: Belarus & France: A tale of two protest movements

  1. #1
    Partridge Guest

    Belarus & France: A tale of two protest movements

    A tale of two protest movements
    An original piece by Partridge

    It's always instructive to look at the relationship between Power and protest movements around the world. For the past week or so we've been lucky enough to see two different protest movements taking to the streets in two different European countries.

    The protests which are garnering most media coverage at the moment are the opposition rallies in Belarus against what they claim was a rigged election. The other is the student/trade union protest that has been sweeping France in opposition to what the French Government describe as youth employment reforms. See for yourself the amount of stories each protest has generated on Google News: Belarus (over 3,500 stories) - France (419 stories). Now it is not my intention to focus on the validity of either movement - but I will state that I don't trust either side in Belarus (and have no idea whether or not the election was indeed rigged), and that I wholeheartedly support the French demonstrators.


    Belarus is a former Soviet Republic bordering on Russia, its capital is Minsk. It has a population of 10 million, and is ruled by (major media outlets agree) an 'authoritarian President' by the name of Alexander Lukashenko.There was an election at the weekend in which Lukashenko appeared to win an overwhelming landslide (80+%), while his main opponent received only 6% of the vote. The opposition cried foul and on Sunday - according to the Guardian website - 10,000 opposition members took to the streets in protest. By Monday this number had halved to 5,000, and by last night - according to the BBC - there were 150 oppositionists encamped in October Square in Minsk in scenes reminiscent of, but far smaller than those in the Ukraine's successful 'Orange Revolution'. The BBC says that although small in size, these protests are "unprecedented" in Belarus as Lukashenko has "little tolerance for dissent". Other reports put the figure at "300 - 400".

    Last night, "about 100" Belarusian riot police arrived in October Square and forcibly seized "around 50" oppositionists, at which point those remaining filed "into the [riot police] vans quietly" and were detained. According to one opposition politician, the women present were allowed to leave the area. The whole operation took about 15 minutes. According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), before last night there were a further 200 oppositionists in custody. In total this means about (lets round upwards) 600 people have been arrested in connection with the protests.

    Of course, after last nights mass arrests, there has been a media outcry, and the Pillars of Power in the EU and the US have been to the fore in their condemnation of these, in the words of the US State Department, "acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country their right to peacefully express their views".

    While this crackdown is undoubtedly a draconian attempt to stifle opposition (legitimate or otherwise) to the
    Lukashenko regime, the US statement is a typical piece of doublespeak. Delve down the memory hole and recall that at the 2004 Republican National Convention, some 1,800 peaceful demonstrators (as well as random shoppers and onlookers) were arrested and detained in inhumane conditions; in an oil and asbestos contaminated warehouse, without blankets, proper food, sanitation or medical care. As of April last year, 91% of those arrested had their cases dismissed, and the NYPD was even caught doctoring video evidence in at least one of the cases - no doubt the practice was widespread.

    This was described by the NYPD
    Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and others as a 'successful operation'. In yet more doublespeak, NYC Mayor Bloomberg addressed the RNC and lauded the NYPD for their facilitation of "the First Amendment rights of demonstrators" and declared that the protests "went largely without incident". He also made the bizarre assertation that "criminal activity remained at record low levels, and was even lower than the comparable week last year" - this while almost 2,000 people were passing through a prison camp; if they were not criminals, what were they being arrested for!? It is perhaps telling that the bulk of Bloomberg's speech to RNC consisted of a virtual orgasm over the economic benefits the RNC had brought to NYC ("a net positive estimated economic impact on New York City’s economy of $255 million").

    (I haven't even bothered to comment on the equally questionable 'legitimacy' of the Bush Presidency.)


    France as I'm sure you are aware is a west European country with a population of 60 million and currently ruled by a rightwing President named Jacques Chirac who has been following in the footsteps of his 'socialist' predecessor in implementing neo-liberal 'reforms' in the country.

    Not for the first time, this has sparked outrage among the trade union and student movements, and they have taken to the streets in mass protests with the trade unions threatening a general strike. The object of scorn this time is the governments proposed new youth employment law, which it states will cut youth unemployment which now stands at 23%. It will preform this magic by allowing all employers to sack young people (without explanation or recourse to wrongful dismissal law) at any time during a two-year 'probation period'. It is already in force for small businesses but not yet for the bigger ones. According to an opinion poll published in Liberation, 73% of the French public are opposed. This law - known as the CPE - has drawn widespread criticism for eroding job security and increasing exploitation, but perhaps none have put it as succinctly as the Parisian students who chanted: "The CPE: C as in losing your job! P as in having no job security! E as in exploited!"

    The French protests have been going on intermittently since February 7 when between 200,000 and 400,000 protested. On March 8th there were 1 million on the streets all across France. By Saturday 18th there were upwards of a million and a half, with 400,000 in Paris alone. Coupled with this have been widespread occupations of universities, including Paris' Sorbonne University which was eventually de-occupied by riot police, their truncheons and tear gas (one report in L'Humanite goes so far as to raise the spectre of provocateur actions). According to the Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy there have been a total of 1,420 arrests and (surely an underestimation) 453 injuries since the protests began. One trade unionist is comatose after, eyewitnesses say, he was "beaten viciously by police". Police say he told them "on the way to hospital that he had been attacked by other demonstrators" (one cannot but recall the 'stretcher confession' of Mumia Abu Jamal).

    Of course, the international media has focused mainly on the violence of a small minority ("dozens" according to the BBC; "hundreds" according to other sources) - violence which some reports indicate has been directed against both police and other protestors (even robbing from them), leading one to question the motives behind these actions. Of course, they may simply be baseless reports aimed at discrediting the movement, but this writer would not rule out the possibility of neo-fascist and/or security force infiltration.

    The EU

    The EU has of course been quick to denounce the Belarusian elections as illegitimate, and are now bent on imposing sanctions against the Lukashenko government for it's (perceived) defiance of the democratic will of the people. There have been no such condemnations of Chirac's two-fingers to the 73% of the French population who oppose his new law. Today there have been EU condemnations of last night police raid in Minsk. There have been no such denunciations of the 1,420 arrests in France and police violence against demonstrators. (Nor was there, to best of this writer's knowledge, any vocal EU outrage over the 2004 RNC mass arrests).

    It seems that one protest is an internal matter and nothing to do with the EU (despite it taking place in an EU member state), while the other (not taking place in an EU state) is a matter for anyone and everyone to get in a fit over. Might I suggest to EU leaders - without, I hope, sowing any illusions in the EU as a progressive force - that they look after the wellbeing their own householders first before complaining about the neighbours?

    One final thing. I cannot help but compare the blanket coverage of the Belarusian protests to the almost total media blackout of Saturday's worldwide anti-war protests.

  2. #2
    Partridge Guest
    Does anyone have any opinion (good/bad/indifferent) on this piece? It's the first long piece I've written in about a year, so I'd like to get some feedback...

  3. #3
    PhilosophyGenius Guest
    First off I didn't realize that you wrote this, good piece. I thought it was a nicely written article with good insight into these situations...but one thing I don't get is what the purpose of comparing these 2 protests is.

  4. #4
    Partridge Guest
    Eh, good point. Double standards in the media/power I guess - I was just fucked off that I was getting all this Belarus stuff shoved (totally uncritically) down my throat on tv, and all I was seeing from france was some masked-up rioters causing damage.

    And the EU being all pissed about Belarus, but not giving a fuck about the 73% majority of the French people against which a government is trying push through a highly unpopular law. Like, 10,000 people inBelarus should be enough to remove a president, but 2 million in France can't even stop a law from going though... or something!

  5. #5
    Partridge Guest
    And thanks for your comments.

  6. #6
    PhilosophyGenius Guest
    Ya know I watch cable news a lot and I had absolutly no idea there were massive protests in Belarus over possibly rigged elections.

    As far as the France protests, that was pretty big news. The media made it clear that the protesters were young people protesting over a bill regarding jobs, but I never really understood what exaclty the proposed bill does, and what exaclty the protest was about.

  7. #7
    Partridge Guest
    Hmmm. Maybe its a Europe thing. I watch BBC, ITN, Euronews, CNN Europe and the Irish news and they were all full of Belarus (at the risk of sounding like 'conspiracy theorist', maybe it has something to do with Belarus being tied to Russia, and the EU wanting it to break and adopt 'western' values like increased privatisation, and also lessen Russia's influence).

    Interetsing to note that in yesterday's elections in the Ukraine (remember the Orange 'Revolution'), the party of Yanukovich - the pro-Russian who was accused of rigging the Presidential election last year - got the most votes (though not enough to form a government, and it looks like the pro-EU parties will form a coalition government).
    And Yushchenko's (Mr. Orange Revolution) party only came third.

  8. #8
    Partridge Guest
    Interesting opinion piece in today's Guardian:

    You cannot be serious

    The Belarus saga exposes the hollowness of the west's support for human rights and democracy

    Neil Clark
    Monday March 27, 2006
    The Guardian

    When is an election not considered free and fair by the west? Answer: when it delivers victory to a government that rejects neoliberal orthodoxy and refuses to orientate its foreign policy towards Washington or Brussels. There is no other conclusion one can come to after both the US and the EU announced swingeing sanctions on Belarus after the re-election of President Lukashenko.Many may believe the sanctions deserved - after all, the election has been condemned by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the country's human-rights record has been attacked by Amnesty International. But even if we believe the worst about Lukashenko (and it is widely accepted by opponents that he has majority support in Belarus), the democratic failings of the former Soviet republic pale into insignificance compared with those of other governments that the west, far from penalising, has rewarded generously.

    There is no talk of sanctions on Egypt, despite sweeping restrictions placed on opposition candidates, its thousands of political prisoners and widespread use of torture; on the contrary, Hosni Mubarak's country is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid. And while Condoleezza Rice quotes with approval OSCE reports on Belarus, she seems less keen to respond to its verdict on central Asian states such as Turkmenistan - a country that an OSCE official, Hrair Baliyan, has described as lacking even a "semblance of pluralism".

    The US and its European allies have long used the smokescreen of democracy and human rights to undermine regimes of which they do not approve, while turning a blind eye to undemocratic practices and rights abuses in countries that do their bidding. A succession of governments have been labelled undemocratic by the US despite holding free elections: Guatemala in the 50s, Chile in the 70s, Nicaragua in the 80s, the rump Yugoslavia in the 90s. Pro-western dictatorships such as the Shah's Iran, Pinochet's Chile and Suharto's Indonesia have been generously bankrolled.

    Even winning three democratic elections in a country where 21 parties operated freely, and there was a thriving opposition-run media, is no guarantee you won't be labelled a dictator by the west, as Slobodan Milosevic found out. The reason Slobo was so labelled was not because he ran a one-party state or even because of his role in the Yugoslav wars, but because he represented the "unreformed" Yugoslav Socialist party, of which the west did not approve.

    The west has the same problem with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Although Chávez was backed by 58% of Venezuelans in a referendum endorsed by the former US president Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair called on him to "abide by the rules of the international community". The "rules" seem to be shorthand for accepting the social and economic template the west insists on imposing throughout the world.

    The 83% vote for Lukashenko is said to be far too high to be taken seriously; yet there was no such western incredulity when the pro-Nato and pro-EU Mikhail Saakashvili polled 97% in Georgia's 2004 presidential elections. When Georgian civil-society leaders protested about the authoritarian direction in which the country was heading, the west stayed silent.

    In Ukraine, the scene of elections this weekend, the western-backed orange revolution of just over a year ago has also left a bitter taste for many. For all its talk of spreading democracy, respecting the rights of independent peoples to choose whichever social and economic arrangements they wish really is the last thing the west wants.

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