Today, the 25th of March, the Belarusian people celebrate Dzień Voli – Freedom Day, on which they mark the 103rd anniversary of the proclamation of Belarusian independence in the troubled aftermath of the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918. Commemorating the foundation of the Belarusian People’s Republic, a nascent state soon dismantled by the USSR and the Red Army, Freedom Day witnesses mass rallies and protests almost every year since the inception of the modern Republic of Belarus.
Unfortunately, as they have for more than two decades and a half now, the Belarusian people are forced to celebrate their Freedom Day in bondage. Since the rigged election of August 9 last year, the people of Belarus languish under the self-imposed sixth term of professional ballot stuffer Alaksandr Łukašenka. Łukašenka, whose other great historical achievements include being the third-longest-reigning head of state in the former USSR and maintaining the only regime in Europe that retains the death penalty, has, since the outbreak of mass protests against his rule last year, unleashed an absolute bacchanalia of state violence on ordinary citizens.
Backed up by fellow known disrespecter of international human rights norms, Vladimir Putin, Łukašenka has continued to cling to power over the decades despite his popularity wasting away faster in recent years than the scouts the Scottish Tory Party sends out into the wilderness to look for a positive case for Scotland’s continued participation in the United Kingdom. He has struck a canny foreign policy which combines pragmatic and cultural Russophilia and general hostility to the West with occasional periods of détente with Europe, while distancing himself from Russia when the latter attempts to pull Belarus closer, but this looks set to end as he becomes increasingly dependent on Russian financial aid.
Under Łukašenka, markers of Belarusian distinctiveness – their language, the history of minority communities such as Poles and Jews, and the history of Belarusian struggle for independence from Russia – have all been marginalised in a partly tactical, partly ideological pursuit of the Russophile sympathies of older generations regretful of the collapse of the USSR, which Belarus stumbled into by accident in something of a premature national birth in 1991. He runs a regime steeped in Soviet nostalgia even as striking workers demanding labour rights and democracy are replaced with strike-breakers.
This Freedom Day, it is vital for us as social democrats, as democrats in general, and as residents of Scotland to express our solidarity with the people of Belarus, who at time of publishing are expected to restart regular mass rallies in the major cities of the country. “Legal” rallies under the dictator’s law have not been authorised – Ihar Barysaŭ, chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, was arrested after an attempt to submit a formal request to hold a rally to commemorate this day vital to Belarusian self-assertion – so they will go ahead without the usurper’s permission. The aims of the protesters – to live in a fair, just, free, democratic and sovereign country no longer bound to the whims of neither Łukašenka nor his friends in Moscow – are close to the heart of any SNP member and any true social democrat worthy of the name. Just as our friends in Belarus are fighting for their freedom, we must do everything in our power to support that fight from here.
This means not just making lots of positive noises about the principles of democracy. We must do everything in our power to make a democratic transition in Belarus both as viable and as successful as possible. This we owe to another small European country that has dared to dream democratic, European and egalitarian dreams. We must continue supporting targeted sanctions on the regime figures and demanding that the UK investigates oligarchs based in England that are credibly accused of links to and financial support for the Łukašenka regime.
We must help the Belarusian people address the shackles of debt to Russia (compounded by Belarus’s membership, produced by Łukašenka in past decades, of two supranational structures, the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union, and an industrial base dependent on Russian raw materials) that bind Belarus and will continue to bind it even if Łukašenka leaves, by working together with European and other partners in supporting what Belarusian opposition activists are calling a Marshall Plan for Belarus – a plan to provide extensive financial aid to its beleaguered economy once the regime falls. The need for this is not academic – freedom to choose their foreign policy orientation without active inhibition from their former imperial master in Moscow has repeatedly proven vital to the democratic successes of former Soviet bloc states such as the Baltics.
On this Freedom Day, we must say, with the conviction of any true democrat – зь Днём Волі, люд беларускі! As members of another nation in a hundred-year-long struggle to self-define ourselves, as those who believe that all peoples have a right to determine and control their own fate, let us offer a heartfelt greeting, absolute solidarity, and total unconditional dedication to the Belarusian people of aid in their struggle. Long live an independent and democratic Scotland – і жыве вечна незалежная і вольная Беларусь!