One of the great lessons of the revolutions of 1989 was that regimes built on lies are astonishingly fragile. In the German Democratic Republic, presided over with grim determination by Erich Honecker from 1971 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, there used to be an old joke: despite its name, the state was neither German, nor democratic, nor a republic. The humour expressed a popular awareness that East Germany was not just a bullying state. It was also, in a crucial way, a bogus one. When the opportunity to do something about that arrived, structures of power disintegrated overnight. Literally, in the case of the Wall.
Three decades on, it seems that something similar is taking place in Belarus, the country that 1989 forgot. In the eight days since a rigged election awarded him a sixth term as president, authority has drained away from Alexander Lukashenko, the former collective farm director who has ruled since 1994. Suddenly, Mr Lukashenko’s traditional deployment of veiled threats and preposterous claims to mass consent has lost all power to intimidate and coerce.
A nation energised by speaking truth to power is asserting itself. The brutal violence unleashed on protesters in the days after the election was answered at the weekend by huge columns of flower-waving women, all wearing the red and white colours of the opposition movement. On Monday, as Mr Lukashenko attempted to address factory workers in Minsk, most of his audience chanted: “Leave now!”. As calls for a general strike gathered momentum, morning newsreaders for Belarus’s state television company left their seats empty. The Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia has taken the side of the protesters. Other members of Mr Lukashenko’s state apparatus will also be wondering how to place themselves on the right side of history.
There is, however, no guarantee of a benign outcome to these extraordinary events. Mr Lukashenko’s menacing response to the factory workers was to say: “There won’t be any other elections until you kill me.” He also spent a good part of the weekend on the phone to Vladimir Putin, upon whom much now depends. Belarus is not Ukraine, and its citizens are largely pro-Russian. It is to be hoped that a humiliated strongman’s requests for eventual military assistance fall on deaf ears. Playing a role in a peaceful transition of power may suit Moscow’s interests better than acting as enforcer for an ally no longer fit for purpose.
The west, and the European Union in particular, must play the crucial days and weeks to come very carefully indeed. Speaking from Lithuania yesterday, the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, declared herself ready to lead Belarus through a transition period to a new election. EU leaders will meet in an emergency summit on Wednesday. They should calibrate their approach in consultation with Ms Tikhanovskaya and other opposition figures still in Minsk. The absolute priority should be to avoid the ramping up of EU-Russia tensions, and to give Belarusian civil society the best opportunity to control the course of future events.
There is good reason to believe that this is the end of the line for Mr Lukashenko. But the road ahead for a population which is demanding its democratic rights is perilous and uncertain.