By Jonathan Power*
There have never been such massive crowds of anti-government protestors in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union as there are this week. In Minsk, the capital of Belarus and in other major cities they stretch as far as the television cameras can see. Not even the protestors in Ukraine seven years ago had numbers like these.
Moreover, they have a legitimate figurehead in Svetlana Tikanovskaya, unlike in Ukraine or unlike during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, (albeit she had to flee to Lithuania for the sake of her children).
She led the opposition at the recent general election when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed an obviously rigged 80% of the votes. She is perhaps more like Lech Walesa who led the shipyard workers of Gdansk in Poland, a movement that spread like wildfire and let to the demise of the communist government.
What’s marvellous about these demonstrators in Belarus is they have kept to being non-violent. Indeed, for their part, the police who started off clubbing some protestors appear now to be more passive.
It is the same in Khabarovsk, a city in the far east of Russia, where sizeable demonstrations have occupied the city’s centre in defence of the governor whom the Investigative Committee of Russia recently arrested. The police have stood by watching, as if in some sort of sympathy.
The wind of change is blowing through Belarus and maybe soon it will blow through Russia. There is no sign of that in Russia right now, but then there was no sign of it in Belarus two weeks ago.
Non-violence can get you a long way, often further than violence. Look at Gandhi whose movement compelled the British to withdraw from India years before they planned to. His famous long march to the sea to gather salt – the British insisted they run the salt industry and charged a lot for this necessary product – was the turning point. The British-led troops beat the protestors, which was reported all over the world and led to an outpouring of support for Gandhi in Britain.
Look at Martin Luther King. For decades blacks had tried to protest, sometimes with modest success. But what changed with King’s leadership is that non-violent protest became weaponised. His disciplined followers confronted the forces of “law and order” time and time again. King was imprisoned along with many followers. Some of his followers were murdered by white southern racists. The police beat his marchers on nearly every march. In the end King massed hundreds of thousands of supporters, black and white, in Washington and that turned the tide.
President Lyndon Johnson forced through Congress the civil rights act outlawing discrimination in public places. Two years later King repeated his success with marches that led to the inaction of the Voting Rights Act which gave disenfranchised blacks in the South the right to vote. (This is now being undermined by President Donald Trump who is trying to cut back the black vote which, left to itself, is likely to determine the outcome of the forthcoming general election.)
Look at World War 2. After the war the interrogation of captured German Generals was put into the hands of Britain’s most respected military strategist, Sir Basil Liddell Hart. I interviewed him for a BBC radio program on non-violence. He said that after the war he became increasingly impressed with the limitations of warfare and the power of non-violence. During his interrogation of the Generals he became aware of the difficulties they had had in surmounting non-violent resistance, particularly in Denmark, Holland, and Norway, and to some extent in France and Belgium, whereas the violent forms of resistance had posed few problems.
He wrote, “It should be recognized, more fully than it has been, that the German Generals by and large were handicapped by the relatively humane tradition in which they had been brought up. They found it difficult to be as ruthless as military logic and military theory tended to demand. Such inhibitions have to be born in mind when assessing the prospects of non-violent resistance”.
Nevertheless, Liddell Hart had some caveats about how and when to use non-violence. When I discussed with him about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where in 1968 a liberal communist government was attempting reforms and to distance itself from the Kremlin, he made some pithy observations.
The tanks were stopped in their tracks by non-violent demonstrators. There were strikes of workers and students, demonstrations and blunt refusals to meet the demands of or obey the orders of the new occupying power. But in the end the invaders won.
He argued that in a situation like this where protestors are up against tanks and infantry, apparent acquiescence that conceals and is combined with a strategy of non-compliance is much more baffling and frustrating to an occupying power than is open resistance. (As for example, happened in Denmark where they secretly smuggled their Jews to neutral Sweden while all the time keeping their heads down in daily meetings with German soldiers.)
Experience has shown that such tactics can be maintained for a longer time than any other forms of resistance, and that they depend for their effect on a cumulative sense of frustration. It’s extremely difficult, he argued, for the occupying force to pinpoint such noncompliance and deal with it effectively. “There is usually no answer to such go-slow tactics. This is why the Danes succeeded where the German Generals found it more frustrating than any other form of resistance, as they frankly admitted in post war discussions”.
Can the protestors in Belarus learn from this? I think so. First, they must have faith in a war of slow attrition. This calls for an unusual kind of vision. But day-to-day non-cooperation will wear down the government.
We don’t know if such tactics will be successful, but they have more chance than any violent activities.
This is the path an overwhelming number of opposition protestors appear to be taking. There is little that Lukashenko can do, except resign. Most likely President Vladimir Putin will hold back from sending in troops to aid his neighbour, as that would mean a large amount of blood on the streets which is not part of Putin’s character. He is a “soft autocrat”, not a dictator.
I think Lukashenko will be compelled to step down and new elections called. Non-violence will likely succeed again.
* Note: Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.