The peaceful pro-democracy protests that swept Belarus in August 2020 evoked memories of Solidarity, the mass movement that had emerged in neighboring Poland 40 years earlier. The focus of discontent was identical: a repressive regime, aligned with Moscow, that mistreated citizens and shamed the nation. Even the patriotic colors displayed in the protests were the same in Minsk as in Warsaw: white and red.
Two years later, the parallels between Belarus and Poland seem even more striking. Just as Polish communist authorities suppressed Solidarity under martial law in December 1981, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has carried out a fierce crackdown on the democratic opposition in Belarus. The prospect of any compensation seems as remote as it was in Poland four decades ago, especially since relations between Western countries and the Kremlin are as bad now as they were in the early 1980s, or even worse, with war raging in Ukraine.
In 1989, however, Poland freed itself from communism without shedding a single drop of blood. It was the prelude to a “springtime of nations” in Central and Eastern Europe, whose people rose up for national independence and civil liberties. As hopelessly bleak as the current picture is, is there any chance that something similar could happen in Belarus in the late 2020s?
As much as the events in Poland and Belarus are similar, the differences are significant. A precondition for Poland’s turn to freedom was the rise to power in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader who, unlike his predecessors, did not crush dissent in nominally tank-friendly countries, such as Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. as Vladimir Putin rules Russia, the prison-like conditions that prevail in Belarus are unlikely to change.
Another difference is the extreme strategic vulnerability of Belarus. It has been locked in a “union state” with Russia since 1999. Lukashenko turned to Russian financial and political support two years ago to end the protests that followed his fraudulent election victory. As a result, it fell further into Putin’s debt than at any time since his dictatorship began in 1994. Along with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has brought Belarus under Russian military control.
A third point is that although Wojciech Jaruzelski, the general who served as leader of the Communist Party of Poland, was reviled for imposing martial law, he did not employ Lukashenko’s gangster-like methods of rule. Belarus’ tyrant ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane last year to arrest an opposition activist. He orchestrated a wave of Iraqi, Syrian and other migrants to Poland’s border.
While Belarusian prisons are full of Lukashenko’s critics, Jaruzelski declared an amnesty in July 1984 that freed hundreds of political prisoners. It was certainly a limited measure. Dissidents like Adam Michnik soon returned to prison. The regime’s secret police kidnapped and murdered Poland’s most popular pro-Solidarity priest.
But the amnesty preceded the era of Soviet liberalization under Gorbachev. It was a sign that Jaruzelski was looking for a way out of the stalemate with Polish society created by the ban on Solidarity. No need to expect anything similar from Lukashenko.
At the same time, there are reasons not to lose all hope for the people of Belarus. Their desire for change represents the belated awakening of a nation that was surprised by independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. By now, this process is irreversible. Moreover, the anti-Lukaishenko 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 Belarusian democratic opposition, Solidarity became increasingly open under the influence of radical activists. At a national congress in September 1981, Solidarity appealed to workers in Eastern Europe to follow the Polish example and create 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 the imperialist secret services.”
Although its leaders are in prison or have fled abroad, the Belarusian opposition has not been radicalized. Their basic demands are free elections, individual freedom and justice. Today these rights seem out of reach in Belarus. But they are not permanently unattainable. Should change come, perhaps it will happen because these are the same rights that Russia itself badly needs.