The protests, strikes and brutal police response invite comparison to Solidarity’s campaign for freedom from Moscow 40 years ago. There are differences.
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.