Belarus should remind us to believe in freedom’s power

However uncertain the road ahead, these protests show how authoritarianism ultimately subverts itself

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Of all the moving scenes from Belarus, one sticks in my mind. A man, probably in his 30s, holds his child on his arm. “The election was …” he says to the camera, pauses nervously for a long moment, glances sideways at his child, and then concludes explosively, “falsified!” There you have the exact moment, crucial for any protest movement against any dictatorship, when the individual breaks through the barrier of fear. Yesterday, he would not have dared to complete that sentence in public. Today, he will find himself among tens of thousands who are shouting the same thing at the top of their voices, waving the red and white flag that stands for a better Belarus. Speak out for the future of the child on your arm.

Belarus now joins a long line of anti-Soviet and anti-post-Soviet protest movements, some of which succeeded, some of which failed. “Colour revolutions” is a flimsy, politically compromised term that offers much too short a perspective. Since Belarus is the most Soviet of all the post-Soviet states, you can reach back even as far as the East German protests in 1953. When you see workers in large state factories confronting Alyaksandr Lukashenka face-to-face, and reportedly forming an inter-factory strike committee, you are in Poland in 1980. Or perhaps it’s more like Armenia in 2018? Or Ukraine in 2014? Or – the unavoidable default reference – the central European revolutions of 1989? And don’t forget that Belarussians themselves have tried several times before. This is not the first election Lukashenka has falsified.

The self-evident truth of 1989 was that people who live for a long time under a dictatorship usually end up yearning for freedom.

Every time, we recognise elements from earlier instances of civil resistance, but there is always something new. Here it is the role of the “women in white” who join hands in human chains of non-violent protest and make a perfect theatrical contrast to Lukashenka – that pigheaded epitome of the male chauvinist bully.

To try to guess how this will end is a mug’s game, a fool’s errand. In such moments, nobody knows what is going to happen this afternoon, let alone tomorrow. But it is not too soon to spell out one clear message from the streets of Belarus.

In a review of Anne Applebaum’s very interesting new book, Twilight of Democracy, the political scientist Ivan Krastev admonishes her, and us, not to make the ideals and “self-evident truths” of 1989 the starting point for remaking today’s world. Well, it all depends on what you think was the “self-evident truth” of 1989. If you think it was that history would unfold smoothly and inevitably towards Western-type liberal democracy, then obviously that was and would always be mistaken.

I personally would love Belarus to become a liberal democracy, secure inside both the European Union and NATO, like its Baltic neighbours. But that will not happen any time soon, mainly because Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t let it, but also because there is currently no majority for it in the country itself. The Belarussian opposition wisely insists this is not a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. In Minsk a few years ago, I heard the Belarussian foreign minister evoke the shimmering prospect of Belarus being a prosperous neutral country between the EU and Russia, “something like Switzerland”. Who wouldn’t settle for being Switzerland? Yet realistically, a messy, negotiated transition to another, less autocratic leadership, as in Armenia, is probably the best we can hope for in the near future – and with Lukashenka, things can definitely get worse before they eventually get better. One worker at the Minsk tractor factory where Lukashenka was heckled, gave this impressively downbeat assessment: “the oligarch who runs the factory next won’t be any worse than the state is now”.

Yet neo-Hegelian nonsense about a predetermined direction of history was not the original self-evident truth of 1989. That kind of Western historical hubris was actually much more in evidence after the transition in central Europe seemed to have succeeded, in the early years of this century, when some neoconservatives in the administration of US President George W. Bush thought Iraq could be a new Poland, and when the Arab Spring was hailed as the new 1989.

No, the self-evident truth of 1989 was that people who live for a long time under a dictatorship usually end up yearning for freedom. And, one day, they speak. “People are tired of lies, of not having freedom of speech,” says Alyaksandr, 41, an electricity worker. “We are celebrating freedom from dictatorship,” says Marni, 23, a cafe owner. “A new collective spirit has woken and that spirit can never be put back in the bottle,” says Lesya, 24, an anaesthetist. (Hat tip to Johnny O’Reilly for these quotations from the streets of Minsk.) Here is the people’s poetry, which will of course be followed by disappointing prose.

And now we have Cai Xia, a former professor at China’s Central Party School, no less, telling the Guardian that change in the direction of democracy will one day come in China, too, because “people yearn for freedom and freedom is only possible when people’s rights are protected, right?” Not for the first time, it takes those with long experience of unfreedom to remind us of the value and attraction of freedom.

When rightly dissecting the many failings of liberal democracy over the last 30 years, we risk falling into a kind of historical fatalism: a “twilight” of democracy, after all, must logically be followed by night. That would be to make the “here’s the direction of history” mistake once again, only in the opposite direction, and to give authoritarian rulers an undeserved and significant psychological advantage. Call me an American, if you like, but I think we should believe more in the power of freedom – not least, because that belief is itself a large part of freedom’s power.

Timothy Garton Ash is a Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and an ECFR Council Member. This article first appeared in the Guardian.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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