The upheaval in Gdansk was unexpected, too. At that time, Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe was unquestionable, and the only change imaginable when workers went on strike was a tightening of repression. Indeed, repression in Poland was severe: A year later, the Communist government declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity supporters. But it failed to destroy the Polish freedom movement. In 1989, with Poland’s economy in free-fall, the Communists were forced to negotiate with Solidarity and agree to free parliamentary elections, which they lost. Within a year, the entire Eastern Bloc crumbled.
To be sure, the collapse of Communism was not sealed only by Poles. The 1980s began with the Soviet Union weakened and technologically backward, leaving the entire East Bloc with growing economic difficulties. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as a reformist Soviet leader, promising profound changes within the Communist system to keep it alive. His campaign of Perestroika, or restructuring, allowed some economic and political liberalization, which enabled the Polish government to engage Solidarity in a dialogue.
Despite the current optimism of the Belarusian opposition, which has now felt its strength for the first time, following Poland’s long path seems to be the only positive scenario to gain freedom. But it is different from Poland, in that Belarus was an integral part of the Soviet Union until 1990, as was Ukraine, where huge popular protests in 2004 and 2014 led to rapid changes. By contrast, Belarusians have never tasted democracy under Mr. Lukashenko, whose country is still, in many respects, a direct inheritor of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime, dependent on Moscow.
Indeed, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has already helped Mr. Lukashenko by sending Russian television crews to Minsk to replace the striking journalists of the Belarusian state media. Last week, he also made a more worrying promise: to send a specially formed police force if Mr. Lukashenko fails to stifle continuing protests.
So what Belarus needs is a freedom movement comparable to Solidarity that can embrace the people, confront the government and resist police repression.