The way to an unknown land
Brave protesters in Russia and Belarus need leadership and support. Courage and idealism are necessary but insufficient conditions for combating tyranny. This is a science from Moscow and Minsk.
A leading Russian anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, has been jailed along with 3,000 supporters who have been protesting in support of him for days. In Belarus, key opposition leaders are also behind bars, and another 200 have been arrested during protests sparked by rigged elections in August.
Indeed, courage and idealism inspire and fuel the struggle. I remember glimpses of resistance against the Soviet empire in the 1970s and 1980s: snippets of news about dissidents behind bars or starving to death, and pathetic little demonstrations in the windy streets of London, Washington and elsewhere. People scoffed at the idea of independence of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania or Ukraine. Even the improvement of Vaclav Havel’s imprisonment was considered a great victory.
However, other ingredients will be needed for success. A large dose of luck will help: the Kremlin has lost the desire to kill under Mikhail Gorbachev. Internal contradictions, which are an integral part of dictatorships, can work in favor of freedom. The economic collapse of the Soviet system contributed to its delegitimization in the eyes of even people like Vladimir Putin.
But the most important thing is strategy. Those who try to overthrow autocratic regimes (outside, below or even inside) need iron determination. They need to gather resources, set priorities, find allies, formulate requirements, take advantage of achievements, deal with failures. Mass protests may be an important part of this strategy, but they will not change it.
THOSE WHO TRY TO OVERTHROW AUTOCRATIC REGIMES NEED IRONCLAD DETERMINATION. THEY NEED TO GATHER RESOURCES, SET PRIORITIES, FIND ALLIES, FORMULATE REQUIREMENTS, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ACHIEVEMENTS, AND DEAL WITH FAILURES. MASS PROTESTS MAY BE PART OF THIS STRATEGY, BUT THEY WILL NOT CHANGE IT
I am afraid that the opposition in Belarus made this mistake. She failed to split the regime at the top and demoralize the people who carried out her orders. The opposition lacks the coherent structures that have been the foundation of the Polish Solidarity movement since 1980. Belarusians rely too heavily on a flurry of weekly demonstrations and photo reports on how their charismatic leader in exile, Svetlana Tikhanouska, meets with foreign officials.
This approach may work if the number of protests and their participants increases, as in Czechoslovakia in 1989. However, this is a risky game. Without such a convulsive popular uprising, the protesters, like infantry in World War I, bravely march towards the enemy, with little chance of victory. There are plenty of batons and prison cells in the regime. Thus, the protests emphasize the weakness of the opposition, not strength. The authorities are gaining experience and drawing conclusions on how to deal with their opponents – and instead implement their own plans. This is exactly what happened in Hong Kong and Venezuela. Without a great deal of luck and a rapid change in strategy, I am afraid the same fate will befall Navalny’s supporters.
One important ingredient is missing: hard, determined political work to build networks of trust and solidarity among thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally millions. Activists learn leadership and discipline. Debates are being held, ideas are being expressed. The political course is developing. Minor victories become the foundation for the big ones. In fact, this is what Belarus needs.
In Russia, too, will not prevent activism among the people. However, the weakest point of the regime is that its ostentatious anti-Western course conceals its dependence on wealthy democracies. Kremlin-affiliated companies place their shares in London and sell gas in Germany. Their bosses are vacationing in France and saving money in US dollars. Western governments can, if they wish, overthrow the Putin regime by freezing and seizing its assets, banning its associates (and their families) from traveling abroad, and, most importantly, tying the hands of kleptocratic aides: their bankers, lawyers, and accountants.
We in the West can arrange all this. If we do not do this out of cowardice and greed, the fate of brave idealists will be on our conscience.
In one of her first speeches, the new spokeswoman of the US White House, Jane Psaki, voiced the attitude of the new Administration towards the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream-2. According to her, Joe Biden considers this project a “bad deal” for Europe. Therefore, to stop it, the Biden Administration plans to review the sanctions previously imposed on Gazprom and its latest gas pipeline. In addition, according to Psaki, changes in security and defense regulations are not ruled out. It was emphasized that Joe Biden was against the implementation of “North Stream-2” during his tenure as vice president under Barack Obama. Joe Biden himself during the first telephone conversation with Russian President Putin discussed the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the possible involvement of Russian hackers in the recent large-scale attack on American systems and the possible assistance of the Russians to the Taliban in organizing terrorist attacks against the US military in Afghanistan. According to Biden, the United States is ready to impose additional sanctions against the Kremlin in light of these incidents.