The current program of the Belarusian opposition is generally limited to the slogan shouted by the protesters in Minsk: “Lukashenko go away.” That must change. The opposition must tackle a much wider range of issues, starting with a recovery from the economic disaster caused by Mr. Lukashenko’s failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The ultimate goal, of course, should be to develop a free and open society, with free and fair elections.
Still, Belarus also needs a new leader soon — a charismatic, strong personality who could defy a dictator. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in the election against Mr. Lukashenko as the main opposition candidate, could fit such a role. Lack of political experience is not necessarily an obstacle to being a leader. Lech Walesa, who led Solidarity, was an electrician.
The pressing issue for the West now is to ensure that Mr. Lukashenko respects fundamental political freedoms and doesn’t repeat the early August violence against the opposition. His government is certain to strike back in other ways. On Aug. 22, ahead of large opposition rallies, more than 50 independent internet websites that provide information on protests were blocked by the regime. It could portend a giant crackdown on any future protests.
Another worrisome question is Russia’s behavior. Mr. Putin must know that developments toward true democracy in Belarus could encourage Russia’s people to challenge his rule. In the 1980s, there was a serious possibility that the Kremlin would send its tanks into Poland. In 2015, Mr. Putin sent fighters to Crimea, to grab it from Ukraine. The same could happen with Belarus. It will be the West’s task to use all diplomatic means to keep Mr. Putin away.
In turn, the European Union must open its borders to the victims of political persecution, admit young Belarusians to European schools and universities, help establish independent media outlets and help foster the Belarusian open society. In the 1980s, the West invested a lot in Poland — not only in money, but also by sharing knowledge with our universities and media and helping us toward democracy. Belarus needs the same support today.
But all Belarusians and their friends in the West must be patient. The quest for freedom will most likely last years and have setbacks. It needs the same support that the West gave Poland in the days of Solidarity.
Bartosz T. Wielinski is deputy editor in chief of the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, founded in 1989 by former members of Solidarity.
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