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The thirst for freedom in Belarus is unquenchable

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The peaceable pro-democracy protests that swept by 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 pink.

Two years on, the parallels between Belarus and Poland seem much more placing. Simply because the Polish communist authorities suppressed Solidarity underneath martial regulation 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 many years in the past, not least as a result of relations between western nations and the Kremlin are as unhealthy now as within the early Eighties — and even worse, with a conflict raging in Ukraine.

In 1989, nonetheless, Poland liberated itself from communism with not a drop of blood shed. It was the prelude to a “springtime of countries” in central and jap Europe, whose peoples rose up for nationwide independence and civic freedoms. Desperately bleak because the outlook is immediately, is there any likelihood that one thing related may happen in Belarus by the top 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, not like 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 situations prevalent in Belarus are unlikely to vary.

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 help to stamp out the protests that adopted his fraudulent election victory. Because of this, 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 underneath Russian army management.

A 3rd level is that though Wojciech Jaruzelski, the final who served as Poland’s Communist celebration chief, was reviled for imposing martial regulation, 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 lots of of political prisoners. To make sure, it was a restricted measure. Dissidents comparable to 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 underneath Gorbachev. It was an indication that Jaruzelski was in search of a method out of the stalemate with Polish society created by the ban on Solidarity. Nothing related is to be anticipated from Lukashenko.

On the similar time, there are grounds to not lose all hope for the individuals 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 is just not 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 grew to become more and more outspoken underneath the affect of radical activists. At a nationwide congress in September 1981, Solidarity issued an enchantment to the employees of jap Europe to observe 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 companies”.

Though its leaders are both in jail or have fled overseas, the Belarusian opposition has not turn out to be radicalised. Its fundamental calls for are free of charge elections, particular person liberty and justice. In the present day these rights appear far out of attain in Belarus. However they aren’t completely unobtainable. Ought to change come, maybe it’ll 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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