The activist of the strike movement told the truth about the situation at Grodno Azot.
Artyom Chernikau became a guest of Charter97.org' Studio X97. The host is Jauhen Klimakin.
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- Artyom, you are one of the leaders of the strike movement at Grodno Azot, aren't you?
- That's right.
- You used to work as a uni operator there for about seven years.
- An inhibition unit operator, to be more precise.
- Do strikes have a future?
- Of course, they do. The strikes are in their early stage. Starting from last August, people have been joining the strike movement. This tendency will only evolve, people don't want to live like before anymore. No one will like Lukashenka, even though he still holds power by force and constantly reshuffles the leadership. People will hate him even more. It is getting harder for people to live in the conditions of Grodno Azot.
- As for the strikes in April. The so-called authorities have decided that the Labour Code already prohibits strikes for political reasons.
- It has always been like that. The management just spelt it out again to intimidate and the media about it. The Labour Code has always prohibited it. The economy-based strike has always been allowed. However, one has to collect documents, prove it. If one looks back at history: any strike was forbidden because the authorities, who write the Labour Code, are afraid that the strike can remove them from places. That's why they prohibit strikes for political reasons.
- Grodno Azot is always on the news. There are accidents; the bosses change; something is always happening. Why?
- No matter what one says, the strike is only expanding after the events of October 26. It has a cumulative effect. The best workers who used to work for 20 years at Azot fired. Azot spat in their faces. In addition to their civic position, these people had a good command of chemistry.
We must realize that Grodno Azot is a very narrowly focused enterprise. To reach the position of a unit operator, engineer, one should know the specifics of this particular enterprise. There are similar enterprises in Belarus, such as Naftan and the Mozyr refinery. They are just similar in the process; the equipment is different; the methodology is completely different. Whatever replacement workers they send, they won't get to the appropriate level. Students can't do it either.
- The United States resumed sanctions against nine Belarusian companies. By the way, Grodno Azot is also on that list. What are the consequences? Some economists say that these enterprises do not trade much with America.
- America is the key point because they cooperate with many European countries that order these products through America. The second point is that they will lose foreign currency; they will not be able to get foreign currency for the treasury. It will have a very significant impact on wages, management and the overall economy of the country. The sanctions will affect not only the plant but the entire Belneftekhim Concern and eight additional enterprises. They will have no choice but to give in. Sanctions will help. It's an effective method.
- How did the strikes at Azot begin?
- The story began on August 12. That was the moment when a strike could start all of a sudden. People had been witnessing violence in the streets for three days; it was worth going into the city when the protests first started; I always saw my colleagues. There were not just workers gathered, but all the representatives of the managing staff, engineers and technicians, the laundresses, the locksmiths. Everyone who cared was there. There weren't many people yet. One hundred and fifty people, maybe two hundred. They demanded one thing: to stop the violence. Then a future representative of the strike committee came to the director of Azot. He asked to explain why the elections were rigged. Some of the bosses were in the committee. People booed them. People said: "We're going out now if someone from our team is detained, all these people won't go to work tomorrow". Two paddy wagons arrived. They wanted to arrest everyone. We came out in a large column. We told all the townspeople: "Stand in a column, if someone is detained - Azot will not go to work tomorrow". That was the first time when the strike issue arose.
- I even remember the pictures. Azot workers walked ahead of people very often.
- The city met us then. In the following days, we gather at 5 p.m. near the plant office and walk into the city.
- Were there provocations?
- They tried to do it at the squares, when all the people were there, not only the Azot workers. Some drunken man ran out, started shouting and waving a red-green flag, but no one reacted to these provocations. People understand. We are not aggressive.
- What moment do you remember the most?
- When we had the march. It was on the 18th or 19th of August. When Hrodna was so united. I'm so proud of the Belarusians, the citizens of Hrodna! There were so many of us as if the whole city came out. I haven't seen so many people either on any state holiday, or City Day, or May 9, or May 1, although there are a lot of people in the city at that time. And everyone is smiling.
Nobody was forced there, as the authorities usually do. People came on their own; they had our white-red-white flag painted on their faces. It was great; the hosts and bloggers came. We thought that we had already won; that we were getting closer to it. The euphoria was in the air. I'm increasingly proud of those moments. They still make me feel proud of every Belarusian.
- Why do you think it all stalled?
- I think we should have announced the strike in August when we were as close to it as possible. We did such a colossal job in terms of voting; the strike committees were formed; there was a representative of the strike committee in every shop. In other words, we were ready as much as possible. I think Svetlana Georgievna Tsikhanouskaya had to act like the president and say: "Guys, I am the president! Go on strike. We should not support this government anymore".
— Why did you decide to leave?
— It was revolting for me to come to work and look in the face of the workshop supervisor, who just recently stood beside me near the plant administration, but then turned on a dime and demanded some explanatory notes from the people, talking nonsense. This is what he said: "You can't even organize a strike properly". These are his words. "Maybe you would have found support". This is a person who fully reproduces the state apparatus. It was revolting and disgusting for me to work there any longer.
— Is he still working?
— He is still working, being a pain in the neck for the colleagues. They tell me he has turned into a dictator. He's possibly taking you-know-who as a role model. Frankly speaking, I don't even want to pronounce that name. All this is disgusting.
— Are you in touch with the colleagues who are still working at Azot?
— Most of my friends, of course, resigned, or went on strike, but there are people who are still working.
— What do they tell you?
— Just horror stories. It takes much nerve to call Hrodna today. But they don't lose bravery and strength, they are just waiting for the right moment to start the strike. They will resign either voluntarily, or join the overall strike, because they don't want to work for this regime, they don't want to see the things the new CEO is doing. And he is doing horrible things, dismissing many discontent with the wording "We will not find understanding" or "we are ending our mutual work on this."
— And what horrible things he is doing?
— First, an inspector appeared at the plant, who goes around workshops checking if everything is alright even during night shifts. I believe this is what he is called - the safety inspector. Something like this. But this is done in order to prevent people from hanging a white-red-white flag on the ammonium column, like it was in August, September, before the strike. The guys hung a huge white-red-white flag on the highest column at Azot, where it is possible to climb without special equipment. It was in all the news. They are afraid of this disclosure, they are afraid that someone will find out that there are still people at the plant who are ready to strike.
— I wonder what is written in the workbook of a person whose only duty is to go and check whether someone hung a flag at night.
— I believe he's part of the security service. The worst enemies are those who hang the flag, really.
— There is a rather popular vision that nothing is going to happen, because the most initiative and motivated people left, and those who remained are either, pardon me, vics, or freewheeling types who just don't care.
— Partially, let them think so. Because they want to think so. They want to think that nothing else will happen and at the same time tighten the nuts even more. But the more they squeeze, the more the discontent grows. Yes, of course, this is a psychological moment for a person, since to leave is to radically change their life. But this does not mean that someone there loves him. This does not mean that someone will tolerate him further.
— Well, who else? I would give here a comparison with a parachute that takes off from a flat field: it rose and fell, rose and fell, but when its sail is already completely filled with wind, it still takes off. I would compare the strike with this. We will definitely take off again.
— What are the takeaways of the year 2020?
— The people of Belarus are united. The people of Belarus support each other. We are in solidarity. We try and we will make it, we will achieve our goal. This power will never be legitimate again. It has been illegitimate for me since 1996, if you deviate from it, as for many, in principle. But no one will ever tolerate him ever again.
— What steps are necessary to be taken now?
— To unite, to talk to each other is the first stage. You see, in October, when the strike was announced, people often didn't even talk about it. That is: well, it was announced, let it be so.
The strike must be prepared. You need to prepare for a strike: stock up on food, stock up on money so that you have something to live on. Everyone knew that the strikers would be fired. And everyone knows it. Preparation is necessary. This must be a psychological state, and you must understand that you are not alone. Therefore, the work of the strike committee is very important. The strike committee does incredible things. They are trying to introduce people to each other. They created the Rabochy Rukh platform, which is very cool, it is necessary, and they encourage people to register, communicate, and get acquainted. Because, apart from us, we have no one.
— What are the relations between the bosses and the workers?
— The bosses are doing everything to make the workers hate them. You know, there's this thing about bosses: the boss must be such that the worker can always stand up for them, that the worker loves them, that the worker knows that they pays wages, and that the worker does not want to let them down. There must be respect. The bosses at Azot have no respect for hard workers. People are forced to do something almost forcibly, they are immediately threatened with losing salaries, deprivation of bonuses. This instills hatred in the minds of people so much that they think how to do something to get rid of this boss. They do not make it so that "what a good boss I have, I would never want to set him up like that in my life, I will do everything so as not to set him up."
— From the point of view of today, how do you understand why the strikes failed last year?
— I am 26. I have lived under this government for 26 years. I only knew what a strike was from Wikipedia. In Belarus, the last such decent big strike was in 1991.
— Besides, it was in Hrodna.
— Yes, in Hrodna. It was very powerful when all the enterprises went on a strike. Then it just happened that lunch doubled in price - this is for economic reasons that have a right to exist. Therefore, I did not know what a strike was. I didn't know how to prepare it properly. As they say, I read on Wikipedia that you can go on strike - you have to vote in accordance with the code and that's it. We knew that we need to prepare for it psychologically, we need material preparation, we need to communicate with people, we need to create a striking committee. It all took us a week. What major strike could we talk about?
— In many ways, the changes in Poland at the end of the last century happened due to the fact that just the workers rose, the Solidarity trade union. The trigger was a rise in prices and earnings, which were not very satisfying. For the guys from Belarus who work at enterprises, this moment of earnings is more or less satisfactory, or is this also not what they would like to receive?
— This has always been "not what they would like to receive". The wages were always too low for a chemical plant. Against the background of the city, it used to satisfy, but now it is almost equal. Yes, they say they are raising salaries, but they are raising the salaries of engineering technicians, which there are many.
— The bosses, in fact. And for an ordinary worker, for a hard worker, on whom all production depends, the salary is at a standstill. It can vary in one direction or the other within a certain limit. They will not be happy, and after the sanctions, salaries will drop one hundred percent, not to mention the relationship to the dollar. In Belarus, it is customary to calculate wages in dollars right away, because inflation eats everything up so quickly that you do not even have time to look back, as groceries are becoming more expensive in stores, utilities are becoming more expensive, everything is constantly growing in price.
— When will this political trash, the torture of the population, end in Belarus?
— When we win. When the workers, citizens, when we get up and just don’t let anyone hurt us, then it will end. When the workers no longer allow the bosses and the usurper to torture them, and force these people, if you can call them people, to respect themselves, to recognize them as people who have the right to live and defend their civic position, then it will end.
— Such were the forces the regime threw in your city. The former head of the Health Ministry, the former MIA head Karayeu, who has become, let us call things by their proper names, the beholder…
— … the watchdog…
— … by the region. How do you think, why has the regime sent precisely such staff there, to you?
— Lukashenka has always been afraid of the West. In my opinion, he always hated Hrodna and Brest. He always called them "Westerners", "close to Poland." In fact, a lot of Poles live in our country, and indeed at one time there were some permanent disputed territories, if we go into history. They don't like him there most of all. Because in Hrodna every second person has a visa, every second travels to Poland, because it is very difficult to live without Poland. They go to buy something, because the prices there are much lower than in Belarus. People see the West, people see democracy. Specifically, Lukashenka has special feelings for Hrodna and Brest. He always disliked us, as far as I remember. He was even the least likely to come to us.
— How do you think, those guest stars from the repressive apparatus that I've recalled — did they manage to bring down this popular strive, this protest mood?
— The people's strive can not be broken by anything anymore. Even by those two guest stars who are neither clever nor witty. He came, I guess, on August 22.
— Karanik. Even the names sound somewhat punitive. They are called that for a reason. He arrived, and they started suffocating everything. The police immediately came out with mouthpieces, saying that it was forbidden, but there were no arrests at that time, because there were a lot of people. They are afraid when a lot of people come out. Because if you take one - they will not run away, they have nowhere to go. Our city is built in such a way that there is really little space to run to. The central square and that's it. Therefore, I believe that he sent them out of his fear. Due to the fact that he is very afraid of two cities - Hrodna and Brest.
— The Achilles' heel of the regime. Where is it, where is this weak point?
— It is completely weak. Nobody perceives the regime in Belarus anymore, absolutely nobody. People want to live differently. People saw that they could live differently. Therefore, his entire regime is very weak. And it will crumble when, as they say, spring comes - the regime will melt. When it gets warmer. When it gets warmer in the soul of the people.
— Do you believe in a dialogue with the regime?
— No. I don't believe in dialogue. He only understands force. Dialogue was proposed back in August, he responded with force. He does not understand peaceful dialogue. He will never do it himself, he is too stupid to talk, he is not diplomatic. Dialogue with the murderer, because of whom people died, when there were thousands of beaten, not to mention political prisoners? How many official and not official political prisoners do we have here?
— How many of them are still behind bars.
— Yes. What kind of a dialogue can you have with a murderer, with an usurper?
— In your opinion, is it possible to defeat the regime without strikes, or not?
— It is possible. But these are very radical methods. A strike is exactly what anyone can do. Radically - we do not have militarized detachments in Belarus that can respond to him by force. Strikes are economic tools, meant to deprive him of the main thing - bread. Therefore, we started with peaceful protests. We have always been supporters of peaceful protests, because people's lives matter, they are very important indeed. Forceful methods always bring along losses. Therefore, strikes for me are one of the key points of how you can win, if you take into account three factors: sanctions, strikes and rallies.
— What, or, probably, whom are you hoping for now?
— I only hope for myself. And each person should rely on themselves. Each person should understand that we all need to organize, we all need to support each other. Solidarity. You cannot count on anyone, no one will bring manna from heaven. We are already known to the whole world. The whole world is helping us. We do not leave news feeds in Europe or the United States, even in Japan they write about us. All people are ready to help us, namely people. I'm not even talking about the governments that are trying to impose some kind of sanctions, to support the strikers. How many funds have been created that exist for charitable funds. Therefore, people at the moment can only rely on the strength of the community, on the strength of solidarity.
In particular, I hope for myself that I can help with something, I can do something for the people.
— Artsiom, you know the situation at enterprises from the inside. How do you think the events will develop further?
— It is very difficult to make predictions, because predictions often do not come true. And, secondly, why give them ideas, as they say, how to develop. The first, I think, is the sanctions. They will be noticeable in June-July, they will be felt by the plant. I think salaries will fall. Because at Hrodna Azot, salaries depend not only on basic pay rates, there are bonuses, nightly, additional payments. Several workshops will be stopped, people will be sent to work at day-time so as not to pay them for night shifts.
It has already started, I'm telling you. According to the latest information, rotational work methods have been canceled in two workshops, and the equipment is idle. And it will get worse. Azot will not work with anyone. Specifically, I cannot speak with confidence about other enterprises, because I do not know the specifics. But I think that this will affect absolutely everyone, if there is no place to sell products, warehouses are already partially overwhelmed. Victory is not far off, as they say. When the regime loses its bread, it will have nothing to support the power block.
If a new strike is announced, plus economic sanctions that will work and affect everyone, people will take to the streets not for political reasons, but for economic reasons, because they need to feed their families.