Belarus is on the precipice of great change – and violent repression by a leader desperate to cling to power might only backfire

Source: Independent / / Steve Crawshaw /

Alexander Lukashenko is shameless in his pursuit of power after two decades in charge, but the protesters have numbers on their side

Belarus has been on a rollercoaster of despair and hope in the past two weeks. That terrifying and inspiring journey is not yet over.

There has been violence on an unimaginable scale against those whose only crime is to demand basic truths – about the election results, and about their country, whose suffering western politicians have in the past too often ignored. Meanwhile, the courage of the peaceful crowds has achieved a miraculous opening-up that would have seemed unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.

On Sunday, another mass rally is planned, billed as a “March of the New Belarus”. The outcome will give a clue of what to expect next: peaceful progress, or an attempted return to repressive violence.

Alexander Lukashenko’s confident shamelessness after 26 years in power has helped bring his downfall closer than ever before. Lukashenko perhaps hoped that harassing or jailing his key opponents would give him an unchallenged run. Instead, three remarkable women, with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya chosen to be at their helm, stepped in and united Belarusians against Lukashenko more than ever before.

Even after the elections, Lukashenko’s apparent avarice proved also to be his weakness. If he had claimed a mere 50 per cent of the vote, that might have been that. But the absurdity of his “80 per cent” landslide, with electoral crumbs of just 10 per cent left over for Tsikhanouskaya, persuaded many on to the streets for the first time in their lives.
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Equally, the violence against those who dared to challenge the lies was supposed to stop protests in their tracks. Instead, despite the obvious risks, more came out, not fewer.

Peaceful and creative protests multiplied – not just in Minsk but across the country. Once-loyal servants of Lukashenko, from policemen and editors to ambassadors, lost their fear, saw the writing on the wall, or – as so often, with collapsing regimes – a mixture of the two.

Lukashenko, in a moment reminiscent of the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, was forced into a humiliating retreat when factory workers dared the previously impossible, telling him: “Leave!” Sulkily, the president (or ex-president) did.

The regime has in recent days seemed determined to claw back power, with renewed arrests and threats of violence. The defence minister said his commanders should be ready “to fight – with weapons, if necessary”, and warned of civil war.

Those threats are not necessarily a bluff. But violence might prove only to mark the beginning of what the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski described, with reference to the Iranian revolution, as the “zigzag to the precipice”, where official violence hastens the regime’s eventual end.

The Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel wrote 40 years ago of what he called the “power of the powerless” if people decide, despite all the risks, to “live in truth”. A decade later, while reporting for The Independent, I was privileged to witness that power of the powerless become real in the velvet revolution in Prague, in ways that have obvious echoes on the streets of Belarus today.

I saw the same transformation from hopelessness to hope when reporting from Serbia in October 2000. Eleven days of mass protests after yet another stolen election finally led to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic when he “learned” of his electoral defeat. He died behind bars in The Hague.

Victory, on this occasion at least, is not yet a given. Almost forgotten now are the huge Belgrade protests of 1996 and 1997, where Milosevic briefly seemed to have been defeated. He made small last-minute concessions, and thus survived – at least temporarily – to fight another day.

Lukashenko and his generals should, however, check their history books if they think violence can provide any kind of durable solution. In East Germany in October 1989, the authorities threatened a massacre ahead of a key scheduled protest in Leipzig. Like Lukashenko’s defence minister, the East German regime threatened to crush protests “with weapons in the hand”.

The government thought threats of a massacre would persuade people to stay at home. Instead, as I witnessed during one of the most extraordinary evenings of my life, the regime backed down at the last moment, because the courage of tens of thousands of Leipzigers had trumped their violence. A month later, the Berlin Wall came down.

As for the much-mooted possibility of Russian interference: that, too, might cut both ways. The Soviet coup of August 1991 was intended to “overcome the profound anarchy and chaos”, and to strengthen the Soviet Union. The coup collapsed after three days of popular protest, and triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.