The revolutions that swept across Central and Eastern Europe during 1989 had, besides the goal of attaining freedom, one thing in common: sound. This was expressed in different ways.
The irrepressible Poles, after many years of opposing the ruling communist party and enduring martial law in 1981–1983 for standing up for freedom, made the transition to democracy with the sound of roundtable negotiations with the regime.
During bitterly cold November nights in 1989, tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. There, they held up their keys and jangled them. What sounds! They told the beleaguered communist leadership to lock up, throw away their keys, and leave.
It was a different sound in Romania. The sound of sniper gunshots. President Nicolae Ceauşescu tried desperately to cling onto power by resorting to force. Snipers from the dreaded and ubiquitous Securitate secret police tried to create chaos and fear. In the end, Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, were executed. It’s hard to forget those images—and sounds.
There were other sounds, too. The hammering away at the Berlin Wall that had divided Europe. The cutting of the barbed wire at the Austrian-Hungarian border, signaling the way to freedom.
There have been several revolutions since—in Ukraine, in Georgia, in Armenia, and in the Western Balkans after a terribly violent civil war in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Each country has since taken its own path to democracy. Some of the transitions are unfinished. Some of the transformations are incomplete. But freedom, with all its flaws, exists.
And now it is Belarus’s turn.
Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994, has lost all authority. And in such a short space of time. After winning the presidential election on August 9, 2020, maybe he calculated that he could intimidate those demonstrating for freedom by locking them up, beating and torturing them. That he could intimidate opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya enough to force her into exile in neighboring Lithuania.
The detentions, the police brutality, and the scores of people who are still missing have emboldened the citizens even more. Lukashenko’s traditional power bases—in the factories and in the countryside—have melted away.
When he visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant on August 17, Lukashenko said he would prepare a referendum to change the constitution: “I’ll transfer my powers under the constitution to you. But not under pressure from the street.”
The workers were having none of it. They told Lukashenko to resign. “Are you saying the elections were unfair and you want fair ones? Here’s your answer,” he replied. “We had an election. Until you kill me, there won’t be another one,” Lukashenko added. The internet was switched off, but not before staff at the state-run television walked out, leaving viewers with the sight of a vacant news presenter’s desk.
Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya—still in Lithuania—has found her real voice again. She said via YouTube that she was ready to lead Belarus during a transition period. She didn’t want violence. Instead, she said that “we all want to get out of this endless circle we found ourselves in twenty-six years ago.”
It is this appeal to a peaceful transition that the opposition is seeking. But there are so many unknowns. Will Lukashenko relinquish power and those hardliners around him agree to a transition that would lead to new elections?
There’s also the very big question of Russia’s intentions. Lukashenko, who over the years has danced between the EU and Russia, is taking a big risk if Russian President Vladimir Putin intervenes militarily. Putin would have to calculate very carefully the potential consequences of trying to prop up Lukashenko though the use of force. Yet the reality is that the Belarusian president is on the way out. It’s only a question of time.
Lithuania, which has been a stalwart defender of Belarus’s opposition, has said it is willing with Poland and Latvia to mediate between the government and the opposition. In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin by phone on August 18, clearly worried about his intentions toward Belarus. She called for the release of political prisoners in Belarus, an end to violence against peaceful demonstrators, and the need for the government to start a dialogue with the opposition and society.
Let’s see how far that will get when EU leaders hold a special European Council meeting on Wednesday, August 19, and what Russia will do. Time is of the essence.
Tikhanovskaya and the hundreds of thousands calling for change cannot afford to have their aspirations hijacked or radicalized. They have already been accused by Lukashenko of being influenced by so-called foreign agents and NATO—as if that carried any credibility. The Belarusians are being motivated by their own quest for freedom.
The EU already said it does not recognize the outcome of the presidential election. The idea of new elections would rattle Putin, whose own record on free and fair elections has been challenged—so far unsuccessfully—by protesters in Russia.
Much now depends on when and how Tikhanovskaya returns to Belarus to start a transition that has already started on the streets. The movement needs leadership for Belarus’s turn for change to come.