Jonathan Power, a foreign affairs columnist

Mass protest in BelarusThere 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  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 lead to the demise of the communist government.

What is marvelous about these demonstrators in Belarus is that they are 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 center in defense 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 winds 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. Gandhi’s 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.

For decades in the USA, black Americans protested, sometimes with modest success. But what changed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership was that non-violent protest became weaponized. His disciplined followers confronted the forces of “law and order” time and time again. King was imprisoned along with many followers, some of whom were murdered by white southern racists. The police beat his marchers on nearly every march. In the end, King amassed hundreds of thousands of supporters, black and white, in Washington and that turned the tide. President Lyndon Johnson forced the Civil Rights Act through Congress outlawing discrimination in public places. Two years later, King repeated his success with marches that led to the enactment 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 attempting to suppress minority votes by alleging that voting by mail lead to voter fraud because he knows that they are likely to determine the outcome of the forthcoming general election.

After World War II, captured German generals were interrogated by one of Britain’s most respected military strategist, Sir Basil Liddell Hart whom I interviewed 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 the interrogation he became aware of the difficulties the generals had in surmounting non-violent resistance, particularly in Denmark, Holland, 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 borne 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. For example, in Denmark, the resisters 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 are more effective due to their cumulative frustrating effect. It is 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 was 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”.

Belarus president and PutinCan 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 noncooperation will wear down the government. This is the path an overwhelming number of opposition protestors appear to be taking. Most likely President Vladimir Putin will hold back from sending in troops to aid his neighbor, 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.

Copyright: Jonathan Power