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Echoes of Revolutions Past: 1989 Hungary – 2020 Belarus

András Vaski 2020.09.15.

The regime of the last dictator in Europe, Alexander Lukashenko, is on shaky legs, as protests against his controversial 80% victory in the August presidential elections continue. Accusations of electoral fraud have been levelled against the incumbent president, supported by voting data from various embassies around Europe showing that it was actually opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who won by a landslide. While the embassy results do not prove that the opposition won the domestic vote in Belarus, they, alongside other election irregularities, have lead to the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and various other countries and international organizations refusing to accept Lukashenko’s reelection. Following the start of protests after the vote, Belarusian security forces under the control of the president have been quite brutal with protesters, ranging from beating them with batons to kidnapping opposition leaders in vans.

Only 2 Percent of Belarusians Living in Hungary Voted for Lukashenko
Only 2 Percent of Belarusians Living in Hungary Voted for Lukashenko

The Belarusian opposition has gained further evidence concerning electoral fraud in the recent election that resulted in Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, winning with over 80 percent. The opposition has now released the data of the exit polls prepared at the Belarusian embassies, according to which in Hungary, 99 people voted […]Continue reading

Many Hungarians will remember that not too long ago, Hungary experienced a similar transition of power, called the “rendszerváltás”. Hungary also had widespread protests, in fact, this is where current prime minister Viktor Orbán first made a name for himself after his famous speech at the burial of martyred revolutionary PM Imre Nagy, when he called for free elections and the removal of Soviet troops. There are many photos of the widespread protests that happened more than 30 years ago, with the only immediately recognizable difference from the Belarusian protests of today being that the flags of the two countries are different, and of course different fashion has changed since then. Police brutality is also a common theme, as recordings from both the protests in late 1980s Hungary and the current ones in Belarus show police forces attempting to disperse protesters with intimidation and violence. An interesting difference is the important role that women are playing in the current Belarusian protests. While in the Hungarian case, all of the major opposition parties were dominated by men, women such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kolesnikova are at the forefront of the opposition against Lukashenko.

Chain-Bridge Illuminated in Red and White in Solidarity with Belarusian Protesters
Chain-Bridge Illuminated in Red and White in Solidarity with Belarusian Protesters

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony announced in a Facebook post yesterday that the Chain Bridge was illuminated in red and white to express the city’s solidarity with the Belarusian protesters. According to the post by Karácsony, the leadership of the capital wanted to express their solidarity with the Belarusian protesters, who “also stand up for democracy […]Continue reading

However, the question remains: why did these two events not happen at the same time? Why is it that Belarus is overthrowing dictatorship in 2020, not 1989? The answer to this question can be found in the unique culture and politics of Belarus. Contrary to Hungary, which, along with countries like Poland, has always been staunchly anti-Russian and anti-Soviet, Belarus has a much more complicated history with Russia. The Belarusian story is much similar to that of Ukraine, in the sense that the Belarusian people are a Slavic people related to the Russians, their languages are related (and most Belarusians speak Russian), and the evolution of their national identity was tied to Russia.

“The Antall government accomplished something that no one had ever done before”- Interview with Péter Antall
“The Antall government accomplished something that no one had ever done before”- Interview with Péter Antall

The years of 1989-90 are among the most important periods in 20th century Hungary, marking the end of the former communist regime and the beginning of a parliamentary democracy based on a multi-party system. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the regime change, we commemorate József Antall, who, as Hungary’s first democratically elected […]Continue reading

If we take a look at what was happening in Belarus in the late 80s and early 90s, it becomes clear that the process of democratization was nothing like what happened in Hungary. While the country did hold elections to the Supreme Soviet in 1990, the opposition only received 10% of the seats. In a 1991 referendum, 83% voted in favour of keeping staying in the Soviet Union. Voter apathy was rampant in the country, with over 60% not supporting any political party in 1993. In what is considered the only truly free election in the country, Alexander Lukashenko won on a platform of fighting corruption and uniting with Russia. “What is more useful, sausage or freedom?” was a rhetorical question commonly used at his time. Clearly, Belarusians preferred stronger economic ties to Russia over establishing a truly independent democracy. To this day, Belarus is in a “union state” with Russia, putting it in a sort of limbo state between being truly independent, or a part of the Russian Federation.

It seems that the last few decades have had a positive effect on Belarusian politics and activism, as over the past few years, protests have become much more commonplace.

Lukashenko’s “Russian sausage” policy is losing ground in the face of appeals for democracy.

It remains to be seen whether the country will reach the tipping point when the dictator is truly toppled, but with the support of the European Union and much of the international community, as well as the longest and most committed pro-democracy protests to date, freedom is definitely within reach for Belarusians.

Featured photo by MTI/AP