This article originally appeared in the New York Times Opinion section
It is easy to admire the courage and determination of the Belarusian people, but the free world shouldn’t expect too much from the protests that recently filled Belarus’s streets in anger at the latest of many fixed elections. If this movement follows the path that Poland, Belarus’s next-door neighbor, took some 40 years ago, the free world is seeing just the first steps on a long, bumpy road toward democracy.
Until now, Poles had underestimated Belarusians and their desire for freedom, convinced that after 26 years of dictatorship, any resistance to their president, Alexander Lukashenko, had long been subdued. Opposition protests were simply too weak to have effect, and the government was reported to have taken ruthless revenge on Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents. Some ended up in prison. Others disappeared.
Will this time be different? Starting three weeks ago, the police, true to form, brutally beat up protesters, detained their leaders and thousands of others, and tortured many in prisons. According to unconfirmed reports reaching Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper where I work, at least five people died in Belarus and dozens are missing. But not only did people defiantly return to the streets; workers in many factories important to the Belarusian economy went on strike. And some police officers quit their jobs after refusing to carry out orders to use violence against their own people. They were followed by journalists for the state media who refused to continue broadcasting pro-Lukashenko propaganda. Mr. Lukashenko seemed to have been driven into a corner.
Those events inspired comparisons to what happened some 40 years ago in August 1980, in the Polish port city of Gdansk. There, workers at the Lenin Shipyard challenged the Communist regime, went on strike and were quickly followed by people in the rest of the country. Then Solidarity, the first free trade union in the entire Eastern Bloc, was founded.
The upheaval in Gdansk was unexpected, too. At that time, Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe was unquestionable, and the only change imaginable when workers went on strike was a tightening of repression. Indeed, repression in Poland was severe: A year later, the Communist government declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity supporters. But it failed to destroy the Polish freedom movement. In 1989, with Poland’s economy in free-fall, the Communists were forced to negotiate with Solidarity and agree to free parliamentary elections, which they lost. Within a year, the entire Eastern Bloc crumbled.
To be sure, the collapse of Communism was not sealed only by Poles. The 1980s began with the Soviet Union weakened and technologically backward, leaving the entire East Bloc with growing economic difficulties. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as a reformist Soviet leader, promising profound changes within the Communist system to keep it alive. His campaign of Perestroika, or restructuring, allowed some economic and political liberalization, which enabled the Polish government to engage Solidarity in a dialogue.
Despite the current optimism of the Belarusian opposition, which has now felt its strength for the first time, following Poland’s long path seems to be the only positive scenario to gain freedom. But it is different from Poland, in that Belarus was an integral part of the Soviet Union until 1990, as was Ukraine, where huge popular protests in 2004 and 2014 led to rapid changes. By contrast, Belarusians have never tasted democracy under Mr. Lukashenko, whose country is still, in many respects, a direct inheritor of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime, dependent on Moscow.
Indeed, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has already helped Mr. Lukashenko by sending Russian television crews to Minsk to replace the striking journalists of the Belarusian state media. Last week, he also made a more worrying promise: to send a specially formed police force if Mr. Lukashenko fails to stifle continuing protests.
So what Belarus needs is a freedom movement comparable to Solidarity that can embrace the people, confront the government and resist police repression.
The current program of the Belarusian opposition is generally limited to the slogan shouted by the protesters in Minsk: “Lukashenko go away.” That must change. The opposition must tackle a much wider range of issues, starting with a recovery from the economic disaster caused by Mr. Lukashenko’s failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The ultimate goal, of course, should be to develop a free and open society, with free and fair elections.
Still, Belarus also needs a new leader soon — a charismatic, strong personality who could defy a dictator. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in the election against Mr. Lukashenko as the main opposition candidate, could fit such a role. Lack of political experience is not necessarily an obstacle to being a leader. Lech Walesa, who led Solidarity, was an electrician.
The pressing issue for the West now is to ensure that Mr. Lukashenko respects fundamental political freedoms and doesn’t repeat the early August violence against the opposition. His government is certain to strike back in other ways. On Aug. 22, ahead of large opposition rallies, more than 50 independent internet websites that provide information on protests were blocked by the regime. It could portend a giant crackdown on any future protests.
Another worrisome question is Russia’s behavior. Mr. Putin must know that developments toward true democracy in Belarus could encourage Russia’s people to challenge his rule. In the 1980s, there was a serious possibility that the Kremlin would send its tanks into Poland. In 2015, Mr. Putin sent fighters to Crimea, to grab it from Ukraine. The same could happen with Belarus. It will be the West’s task to use all diplomatic means to keep Mr. Putin away.
In turn, the European Union must open its borders to the victims of political persecution, admit young Belarusians to European schools and universities, help establish independent media outlets and help foster the Belarusian open society. In the 1980s, the West invested a lot in Poland — not only in money, but also by sharing knowledge with our universities and media and helping us toward democracy. Belarus needs the same support today.
But all Belarusians and their friends in the West must be patient. The quest for freedom will most likely last years and have setbacks. It needs the same support that the West gave Poland in the days of Solidarity.
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