Minsk street scene – Image courtesy of tut.by news and media website

Events in Minsk strike a chord in Budapest

Striking parallels between Belarus 2020 and Hungary 1956

The August 9 Belarus presidential election was a monumental occurrence for this landlocked country standing between the European Union and Russia. The nation was severely shaken as Belarusians took a distinct tug between past and future on a day destined for the history books, regardless of outcome. In the same way October 23 was, and still is, a compelling date for Hungarians, for reasons that are clearly obvious.

Both revolutions hardly need introduction, other than to say they each came with the same ideals and relate to the same demands for freedom, change and basic human rights within totalitarian regimes. Regrettably, regardless of goodwill, both horribly backfired with violence during what could have been two peaceful events.

Despite these occurrences, which came very unexpectedly, they are reminders with the same messages of peace, hope and prosperity. But as of today, the only real difference between Belarus 2020 and Hungary 1956 is that the Hungarian Uprising, despite its tragic finale thanks to “soft” dictator Kádár’s betrayal, is over and concluded. While the Belarus white-red-white flag “Solidarity” revolution is still ongoing without any knowing what will be the final outcome.

It’s remarkable, as well as unlikely, that Europe’s “last dictator”, Alexander Lukashenko, could secure an astonishing landslide victory again. His sixth consecutive “win” was clearly dubious and only accepted by a few. Hence the immediate mass protests, the largest since post-1991 independence.

Nationwide demonstrations and global rallies continue to be held at Belarusian embassies worldwide and are still proceeding in earnest 100-plus days later.

The world has watched in horror as the vengeful dictator Lukashenko, in 21st-century Europe, responded with high extremes to crush the protests. Many thousands are now in prison, some were killed and the general casualty list of those tortured remains high and continuous. Others have gone missing and numerous people have left the country to seek refuge elsewhere.

The violence and suppression took the nation by surprise, in the same way as the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. No one predicted either outcome. Coincidently, 2020 has struck a chord with many Hungarians in reference to their grandparents. And for those who, like me, can make only a minimal comparison about either life in Hungary then and in Belarus now., finally it has become clear. These are parallel circumstances on the political front: Belarus today is clearly comparable to 1950s Hungary under the brutal Rákosi Mátyás dictatorship of 1945-56.

Demonstration in Budapest – Photo: Alexander Stemp

Personally, I find this very hard to take in. In recent times I sensed there had been some political “thaw” in Belarus and general improvements with the man in question. Tourism was being promoted with budget airlines taking to operating there and visa regulations being eased, and in some cases abolished. This newfound hospitality, pre-August 9, was generally welcoming and as assuring as anywhere else Europe-wide.

Ultimately it was a matter of time before the Belarus Solidarity revolution would happen. General fatigue for dictator Lukashenko, the country’s first and only President since the office was established in 1994, and his old-style politics had taken its toll with the majority of his people, young and old alike. Most wanted to move on from stagnant, bygone times.

Demands for changes are nothing new, especially when it comes to rooting out mass corruption. Belarus 2020 is also a similar repeat scenario to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005 that succeeded in ousting the Soviet-influenced President Kuchma.

Then Ukraine rebelled again in 2013, this time with a more defining pro-Western “Euromaidan” stance, again rooting out yet another Soviet-esque relic, President Yanukovich. Despite obvious similarities, Belarus 2020 is not a Euromaidan, at least not yet. The first demand from the Belarusian people, which comes before all else, is to “simply” bring an immediate finale to the long, arduous, seemingly endless reign of incumbent Lukashenko and his monopoly on power.

This would assuredly lead on to other benefits, opening the door to long-awaited freedom and so forth. We could see Belarus pursue a meticulous pro-Western course to eventually join the EU and NATO, as is the case with present-day Ukraine, a course of action that should shake off this still living ghost.

However, in Ukraine the failure of the Yanukovich government to sign the 2013 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was a key factor in sparking the Euromaidan protest, which initially mobilised the younger generation into demanding a free European future. Even so this unwittingly soon led in February 2014 to a still undeclared Russian-led invasion of Ukraine that continues today.

But to get a better understanding of Lukashenko and his personal fiefdom, one has to examine his psyche too. After gaining power in 1994 there always was and still is a general agreement for independence and maintaining national identity. This he did by securing a “manufactured” but relatively successful system: one that retained nostalgia for the Soviet era alongside some newfound Western comforts while still maintaining a distance from each, particularly the latter.

In catering to Belarusian neutrality and non-alliance with neither the West nor, to some extent, Russia, Lukashenko wanted the best of both worlds but with little recompense. When in need, neighbours were summonsed if it suited him; when not, he resented them. This uncompromising cat-and-mouse approach of defiance worked to a certain point until fatigue towards him came from all sides. No one could determine which direction Lukashenko would ever take, other than to maintain power.

But regardless of his indecisiveness, the logic behind such “assurances” to the people that “all is well” simply meant further isolation from outside. Thus whoever votes against him, votes against “everything” that has been achieved so far. Therefore, one should always and essentially vote for him.

But his overbearing dominance over this national idea of greater security and grand assurances clearly went stagnant and deprived the country and the nominal “opposition” from progressing forwards. Too slight or “radical” a change in whichever the case, either with the EU or with Russia, or with unconditional freedom to his people, would undermine the nation’s saviour.

Still, relations between Belarus and Russia are generally calm and better than most elsewhere, and if Lukashenko is to ride out this turbulent time the only way for a possible bail-out would be to turn to his eastern neighbour.

To a certain point, many agree with his basic principles and that industrious Belarus should remain independent, neutral and always maintain a strong identity with a proud(ish) Soviet past that overcame the disastrous World War II. Compare this to the opposing view in forward-thinking Ukraine, which has demanded an immediate end to all Soviet attributes. Hence the widespread and symbolic withdrawal of all Lenin statues for starters. The non-nostalgic Ukraine, under President Petro Poroshenko, wants an all-out divorce from Russia under President Putin so as to proceed to the future westwards, whatever the trials.

In Belarus, a vote for the new modern-day opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was “viewed” not only as an insult but as purely an anti-establishment resentment towards the paranoid Lukashenko. But landlocked Belarus is not a prosperous and sustainable, independent “island” such as Switzerland. The case for when the bubble would burst has always been a matter of time.

When people voted for the far more open and receptive Tsikhanouskaya it wasn’t so much for her as a presidential candidate but more for relief and defiance towards Lukashenko. In a way it did not matter too much who the opposition candidate was – be it an inexperienced housewife and teacher or someone else – as long as it was someone promising and respectful who would listen to the people and take to the modern-day cause.

It is also valid to interpret the position and behaviour of the police on the streets too. As the horrors continue day and night, they still go about their “duties” diligently, breaking up and terrorising the peaceful crowds. They have been groomed and conditioned to do so but they will be remembered as outlaws and will be mistrusted for years to come.

But putting this aside, it is considered an honour as well as past heritage to join the police. Doing so comes with generous state privileges but also a price. Once in, loyalty to the state must be for life. One does not drop out when the going gets tough or question orders, regardless if they are right or wrong. Nonetheless, some recruits did see the light and were brave enough to denounce the authorities and disrobe in support of the people. What has become of them is anyone’s guess.

In addition, the state delivers its own version of news. Often enough the independent media and much from the outside world deliver another. In this sense, despite obvious advances made with today’s communications, the principles are still the same.

In 1950s Hungary there was a radio frequency war between democracy and communism. The Soviet KGB and the Rákosi government frequently bestowed propaganda and jammed all other radio waves. Lukashenko does the same with the internet. Both regimes did everything in their powers to intimidate opposing broadcasters and journalists alike, as well as punishing local listeners.

But both approaches were lost causes, as information did finally get in. Listeners then as well as now want the latest and best quality news regardless of how it is delivered, either by a home-made crackly radio, a turbulent internet system or something written on a paper plane and thrown over the wall. All serve the same purpose and get the message across.

Therefore, like all dictators who insist on continuous control, the story is the same. Lukashenko has built a large virtual wall around himself and is surrounded by those who benefit from him, but the sheep are now approaching.

Perhaps all may have subsided after a few days if the Belarusian people’s vote had been respected, but the unacceptable violence added further hatred and fuel to the flames. The world media looked on at first, exposing Lukashenko, but interest in the US election and the coronavirus pandemic ultimately dominated the news.

So, still under cover with balaclavas, Lukashenko’s forces continue to beat their own people. The President is still playing his cards and the outcome is uncertain. Perhaps the protests will systematically end soon in a sorrowful Hungary 1956 scenario. Perhaps the frantic Lukashenko will retain power with “help” from Moscow. But if Russia does so, then Belarus and the freedom that is in sight today will be no more.

Or, on the other hand, the people may still overthrow the government, and whoever takes Lukashenko’s place will be free of his track record of human rights abuses and would have a greater chance of this nation starting all over again with home affairs, as well as restoring international relations. But if so, there raises the question of what will be the final Russian response?

Whatever the outcome, Belarus has to decide on its future. But for as long as Lukashenko is still in power he must work towards some willingness to proceed with dialogue and negotiate with the people. For many though he has gone too far and the time to negotiate is over. The demand is for all media and press freedoms to be immediately allowed, and for all political prisoners to be pardoned, possibly with compensation.

Regardless of whether he steps down or not. Belarus will never be the same again. Lukashenko’s legacy is in ruins. And with the many, still on the streets, there is no turning back.

Meanwhile support for Belarus remains around the world, as it did with Hungary post-1956. Two “Solidarity” marches in support of the Belarusian people took place at Parliament Square in Budapest this autumn, organised by the Belarusian community of Hungary. The Hungarian government has generally kept quiet during this crisis but did at least permit the protests.

Hopefully when it comes to next time, there will be something far greater to report.

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