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The thirst for freedom in Belarus is unquenchable

The thirst for freedom in Belarus is unquenchable


The peaceable pro-democracy protests that swept via Belarus in August 2020 evoked recollections of Solidarity, the mass motion that had arisen in neighbouring Poland 40 years earlier. The main focus of discontent was similar: a repressive regime, aligned with Moscow, that mistreated residents and introduced disgrace on the nation. Even the patriotic colors on show within the protests have been the identical in Minsk as in Warsaw — white and purple.

Two years on, the parallels between Belarus and Poland seem much more putting. Simply because the Polish communist authorities suppressed Solidarity beneath martial legislation in December 1981, so the regime of Alexander Lukashenko has carried out a ferocious crackdown on the democratic opposition of Belarus. The prospect of any reprieve appears as distant as in Poland 4 a long time in the past, not least as a result of relations between western nations and the Kremlin are as unhealthy now as within the early Nineteen Eighties — and even worse, with a warfare raging in Ukraine.

In 1989, nevertheless, Poland liberated itself from communism with not a drop of blood shed. It was the prelude to a “springtime of countries” in central and japanese Europe, whose peoples rose up for nationwide independence and civic freedoms. Desperately bleak because the outlook is at present, is there any likelihood that one thing comparable might happen in Belarus by the tip of the 2020s?

A lot as occasions in Poland and Belarus resemble one another, the variations are necessary. One precondition for Poland’s flip to freedom was the ascent to energy in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet chief who, in contrast to his predecessors, didn’t crush dissent in nominally pleasant nations with tanks, as in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. So long as Vladimir Putin guidelines Russia, the prison-like circumstances prevalent in Belarus are unlikely to alter.

One other distinction is the acute strategic vulnerability of Belarus. It has been locked right into a “union state” with Russia since 1999. Lukashenko drew two years in the past on Russian monetary and political assist to stamp out the protests that adopted his fraudulent election victory. In consequence, he fell extra closely into Putin’s debt than at any time since his dictatorship started in 1994. In tandem with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has positioned Belarus beneath Russian navy management.

A 3rd level is that regardless that Wojciech Jaruzelski, the overall who served as Poland’s Communist social gathering chief, was reviled for imposing martial legislation, he didn’t make use of Lukashenko’s gangster-like strategies of rule. The tyrant of Belarus ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair airplane final yr to arrest an opposition activist. He orchestrated a surge of Iraqi, Syrian and different migrants to Poland’s border.

Whereas the jails of Belarus are filled with Lukashenko’s critics, Jaruzelski declared an amnesty in July 1984 that freed tons of of political prisoners. To make sure, it was a restricted measure. Dissidents resembling Adam Michnik have been quickly again in jail. The regime’s secret police kidnapped and murdered Poland’s hottest pro-Solidarity priest.

However the amnesty preceded the period of Soviet liberalisation beneath Gorbachev. It was an indication that Jaruzelski was looking for a means out of the stalemate with Polish society created by the ban on Solidarity. Nothing comparable is to be anticipated from Lukashenko.

On the similar time, there are grounds to not lose all hope for the folks of Belarus. Their want for change represents the delayed awakening of a nation to which independence got here as one thing of a shock when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. By now this course of is irreversible. Moreover, the anti-Lukashenko temper of Belarusian society will not be anti-Russian. A extra enlightened chief in Moscow may perceive that.

The variations with Poland in 1980-81 are instructive. Not like the democratic Belarusian opposition, Solidarity turned more and more outspoken beneath the affect of radical activists. At a nationwide congress in September 1981, Solidarity issued an enchantment to the employees of japanese Europe to comply with the Polish instance and arrange free commerce unions. Tass, the official Soviet information company, denounced the enchantment because the work of “an entire conglomerate of counter-revolutionaries, together with brokers of imperialist secret providers”.

Though its leaders are both in jail or have fled overseas, the Belarusian opposition has not change into radicalised. Its fundamental calls for are totally free elections, particular person liberty and justice. As we speak these rights appear far out of attain in Belarus. However they don’t seem to be completely unobtainable. Ought to change come, maybe it would occur as a result of they’re the identical rights of which Russia itself is in sore want.

tony.barber@ft.com



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