Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Politics: the art of the nearly impossible

Twenty five years ago this week the Solidarity trade union called for a four hour warning strike, with a general strike threatened to follow four days later. Participation in the warning strike was 100 percent. Maybe the Belarusian opposition should take note..?

On the March 27, 1981, at 8 a.m., workers all over Poland downed tools and stopped work for four hours. Communist Poland came to a standstill. In the streets the flags of Poland and Solidarity hung from every conceivable point, fluttering in the early spring breeze. Every second person was wearing a badge – the red and white of the local branch of the trade union, the silver and black of a specially made image of the Solidarity monument, which now stood proudly near the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, the home of Solidarity.

At 12 noon workers all over the country picked up their tools again and re-started work. The message was clear to the communist authorities. Solidarity now had the power, and the solidarity, to bring the regime to its knees. Would they heed that warning in Spring 1981 and stop breaking the promises that they had made in the August Agreement the previous year, which officially recognized Solidarity as the first free and self-governing trade union in the communist block?

But just how was it possible to organize such a strike in what were extremely oppressive circumstances?

This is a question maybe the opposition in Belarus might be asking themselves today. The presidential election last Sunday ended in a landslide for what many call the ‘last dictator in Europe’, Alexander Lukashenko, a strange figure who seems nostalgic for the good old days of the Soviet Union. This Charlie Chaplin-esque character, who would indeed make a great comic supporting actor in a Buster Keaton or Keystone cops movie, if he wasn’t so paranoid and oppressive a personality - received 86% of the vote, according the Belarus electoral commission, that is.

Landslide? (snigger!)

Of course, nobody believes this figure, maybe not even Lukashenko himself. The OECD has said that the elections were anything but ‘free and fair’; the opposition candidates received very little coverage on the state controlled television channels at all; candidates were harassed, and in some incidences, beaten. Independent newspapers and other media have been shut down.

Lukashenko was not taking any risks with the actual result of the election, so he appears to have all but fixed it before hand.

Many in the West and certainly Poland were waiting, hoping, that another Orange or Rose Revolution would take place as it did in Ukraine or Georgia, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in a show of ‘People Power’.

On the night of the election, about ten thousand filled the main square in Minsk, the capital. The next day, however, the numbers had slipped to only around five hundred.

It looks certain there will be no ‘Denim Revolution’ this time.

But why? The opposition complains, rightly, that there isn’t a level playing field and that people are scared to say and act as they really feel.

All true, but how did Solidarity do what they did in even more difficult circumstances 25 years ago?

Between August 1980, the beginning of Solidarity, to just eight months later in March 1981, the union had organized itself into what was an alternative civil society in waiting. Out of 12.5 million workers eligible to join, the Solidarity trade union had nearly ten million members.

There were underground newspapers: Solidarnosc printed in Gdansk, Niezaleznosc (Independence) printed in Warsaw. There was what they called 'Solidarity Radio' in Wroclaw, which was actually a cassette recording duplicated and played over the works radio all over the region. There was a Solidarity Press Agency. There was the underground printers Nowa, churning out translations of Orwell's Animal Farm and other forbidden material. There was telephone and fax networks connecting up all parts of the union, which was organized into regions and local chapters, with a Central Committee coordinating the whole thing, and Lech Walesa sitting, almost king-like, at the top of the pyramid.

Geo-political reality

After the warning strike on the Friday, twenty-five years ago, a hectic weekend of negotiations with the communist government followed. Eventually, and at the very last minute, Walesa decided that the risk of a general strike was just too great. Not because he though that the strike would not get the support it needed – people were ready to take the plunge – but because of what they called then the ‘geopolitical reality’. That meant the Soviet Union and the tanks on the border; that meant 1956 in Hungary, it meant 1968 in Prague.

But it shows that in Poland then, politics was not the art of the possible but the nearly impossible. If it weren’t for the constant threat of an invasion from the East, the communist state in Poland would have been history.

Today, for sure, President Putin would not have been too happy about the prospect of another show of ‘people power’ on Russia’s borders, but nobody is suggesting that he would have sent in the tanks if he didn’t like the result of the Belarus presidential elections.

The reality in Belarus is that, though Lukashenko definatly doesn’t have 86% of the people behind him he does have a significant amount of popularity – especially among the old, the unemployed and in rural areas. He is also faced with a fragmented opposition.

In those circumstances it’s a mystery why he feels so paranoid that he has to use the oppressive measures he does. Maybe he could have won the election without them.

The difference between Solidarity twenty-five years ago and Belarus today is one of imagination, organization and ultimately, Solidarity.


beatroot said...

Thank you, sir. Although that is the first time anyone has called me 'sober'!

Ukraine was not a 'peoples' revolution'. It was the half the country that had western backing. And they have turned out to be not much better than the previous bunch of cronies.

Solidarity worked because it was a genuine grass roots movement. It wasn't a revolution by ex-Soviet bankers like they have in Ukraine.

And the Belarus opposition are hopeless and not very popular. Lots of the vulnerable in that country just don't want capitalism.

Frank Partisan said...

Very well written post.

sonia said...

Belarus opposition are hopeless and not very popular

Maybe the people of Belarus look at the Ducks and ask themselves: is it worth overthrowing Lukashenko only to end up with bozos like those 16 years later ????

All revolutions (socialist, communist or "colored" ones) always end up disappointing their supporters...

beatroot said...

You are damn right about that Sonia. Look at the Ukrainian fiasco. Look at Serbia. That's becuase these were not mass movements in the sense that they were led from the bottom-up (unlike Solidarnosc)...they were essentially changes in the ruling elites...and those types of 'revolutions' quickly loose momentum.

sonia said...


Yes, but I would go further - even authentic mass movement revolutions like Solidarity's end up disappointing people - especially in the country where they actually take place. Revolutions are like fires that might warm some neighboring countries's hearts, but they often devour their own children.

beatroot said...

Correct. The parties in power now are all from solidarity...and the main opposition is from Solidarity. But at least it was a grass roots thing, whuch means it represented the will of the people...and it got society ready for what would come after communism.

So it was a good start and not democracy imposed from outside.

Anonymous said...

"You are damn right about that Sonia. Look at the Ukrainian fiasco. Look at Serbia. That's becuase these were not mass movements in the sense that they were led from the bottom-up (unlike Solidarnosc)...they were essentially changes in the ruling elites...and those types of 'revolutions' quickly loose momentum."

Oh, its even worse than that. There used to be 150 million Russians. There's 143 million now, and there's about 750,000 more deaths than births there every year. There used to be 52 million Ukrainians. There's 46 million now, and there's about 350,000 more deaths than births there every year.

There used to be 10 million Belarussians. And there still are, precisely because their government rejected "reform". And that's what has the US and other Western governments upset... Luka's made their minions look bad.

beatroot said...

'The Orange Revolution was spontanious'? I don't think so. Do you think the concert stage and all the equipment was magiced out of think air? It was planned for months. And it was not a 'revolution' at all. It was a battle within the elt. bThe western supporting part won, the Russian supporting part lost. And then the western part split over corruption and broekn promises and now we are back where we started.

Revolutions ain't what they used to be.