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The thirst for freedom in Belarus is unquenchable

The peaceful pro-democracy protests that swept through Belarus in August 2020 evoked memories of Solidarity, the mass movement that had arisen in neighbouring Poland 40 years earlier. The focus of discontent was identical: a repressive regime, aligned with Moscow, that mistreated citizens and brought shame on the nation. Even the patriotic colours on display in the protests were the same in Minsk as in Warsaw — white and red.

Two years on, the parallels between Belarus and Poland appear even more striking. Just as the Polish communist authorities suppressed Solidarity under martial law 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 seems as remote as in Poland four decades ago, not least because relations between western countries and the Kremlin are as bad now as in the early 1980s — or even worse, with a war raging in Ukraine.

In 1989, however, Poland liberated itself from communism with not a drop of blood shed. It was the prelude to a “springtime of nations” in central and eastern Europe, whose peoples rose up for national independence and civic freedoms. Desperately bleak as the outlook is today, is there any chance that something similar could occur in Belarus by the end of the 2020s?

Much as events in Poland and Belarus resemble each other, the differences are important. One precondition for Poland’s turn to freedom was the ascent to power in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader who, unlike his predecessors, did not crush dissent in nominally friendly countries with tanks, as in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. As long as Vladimir Putin rules Russia, the prison-like conditions prevalent in Belarus are unlikely to change.

Another difference is the extreme strategic vulnerability of Belarus. It has been locked into a “union state” with Russia since 1999. Lukashenko drew two years ago on Russian financial and political support to stamp out the protests that followed his fraudulent election victory. As a result, he fell more heavily into Putin’s debt than at any time since his dictatorship began in 1994. In tandem with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has placed Belarus under Russian military control.

A third point is that even though Wojciech Jaruzelski, the general who served as Poland’s Communist party leader, was reviled for imposing martial law, he did not employ Lukashenko’s gangster-like methods of rule. The tyrant of Belarus ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane last year to arrest an opposition activist. He orchestrated a surge of Iraqi, Syrian and other migrants to Poland’s border.

Whereas the jails of Belarus are full of Lukashenko’s critics, Jaruzelski declared an amnesty in July 1984 that freed hundreds of political prisoners. To be sure, it was a limited measure. Dissidents such as Adam Michnik were soon back in jail. The regime’s secret police kidnapped and murdered Poland’s most popular pro-Solidarity priest.

But the amnesty preceded the era of Soviet liberalisation under Gorbachev. It was a sign that Jaruzelski was seeking a way out of the stalemate with Polish society created by the ban on Solidarity. Nothing similar is to be expected from Lukashenko.

At the same time, there are grounds not to lose all hope for the people of Belarus. Their desire for change represents the delayed awakening of a nation to which independence came as something of a surprise when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. By now this process is irreversible. Furthermore, the anti-Lukashenko mood of Belarusian society is not anti-Russian. A more enlightened leader in Moscow might understand that.

The differences with Poland in 1980-81 are instructive. Unlike the democratic Belarusian opposition, Solidarity became increasingly outspoken under the influence of radical activists. At a national congress in September 1981, Solidarity issued an appeal to the workers of eastern Europe to follow the Polish example and set up free trade unions. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, denounced the appeal as the work of “a whole conglomerate of counter-revolutionaries, including agents of imperialist secret services”.

Even though its leaders are either in prison or have fled abroad, the Belarusian opposition has not become radicalised. Its basic demands are for free elections, individual liberty and justice. Today these rights seem far out of reach in Belarus. But they are not permanently unobtainable. Should change come, perhaps it will happen because they are the same rights of which Russia itself is in sore need.

tony.barber@ft.com

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