Social Networks against Dictatorship in Belarus: Sober Balance
In an effort to avoid persecution for political activism, opponents of the Belarusian regime continue to look for new forms of protest. Sometimes such forms do not prove to be effective or even reasonable. On Tuesday, the online community “Revolution Through Social Networks” proposed to turn “Silent Actions” into “photograph actions'”. The aim is for people in cities across the country to take photographs with a message to President Lukashenka.
Organizers of another protest action, “Peoples’ Rally”, propose to hold meetings in the courtyards of residential buildings in order to elect representatives for a national rally in Minsk scheduled for November 12. This is effectively a second attempt at mobilization - the People’s Rally failed to generate sufficient turnout to stage large-scale rallies in early October.
Social activist projects like these only make it easier for state security agencies to identify and punish protestors. Observers of Belarusian civil society tend to exaggerate the role of social networks and other new forms of protest, given the ambiguity exisiting around effectiveness of these methods in bringing down brutal regimes in the Middle East. They underestimate the fact that tough activism, not the Internet, is the most effective instrument against tyranny.
The nature of social networks protests
Social networks can strengthen mass mobilization and propaganda opportunities for existing political parties and organizations, granted they are smart enough to adjust to changing conditions. Yet such networks cannot work autonomously, nor do they enable people to self-organize for protracted and potentially risky struggles against the regime.
Given the ongoing crises of inflation and impoverishment in Belarus, Belarusians have legitimate grievances. They have vented their anger through the “Silent Actions” this summer and through the “People’s Rally” in early October. But neither of these protest movements achieved much success.
The 'Silent' Actions gained momentum until mid-summer but quickly died down following harsh government crackdowns. The problem with these protests is that they were bereft of ideology and even political symbols. They were remarkably effective in attracting many people in small towns across the country, many of whom had never participated in political activism before. Yet the opposition parties publicly maintained a distance and refused to politicize the protestors’ grievances about the country’s economic troubles. As a result, they failed to provide “silent” protestors – mostly people without political experience or ideological sophistication – with an alternative political platform and organizational support to resist persecutions. On 26 October Lukashenka publicly boasted that, "Belarus learned to fight 'revolutions through social networks."
The People’s Rally was an even greater failure. It took four months to prepare and garnered the support of all political groups opposed to the regime. The movement was fueled by the worsening economic crisis – in particular the renewed devaluation of the ruble in late September - that led public discontent to reach unprecedented levels. Public opinion surveys are evidence of the lack of support for the current regime. Even so, the final turnout for the People's Rally was pitifully low – even according to optimistic estimates by the event’s organizers, no more than 2,000 people participated in rallies across the country. In Minsk, a city of 2 million inhabitants, only 600 turned out.
The “virtual fight” of political activism on the Internet may be effective against regimes that exercise only loose control over their citizens. In such cases, it can organize people to protest and peacefully demand changes. Yet against stronger regimes, there is clearly no other way but to take to the streets and hold organized actions in order to effectively disrupt social order under the dictatorship. This requires political organizations with efficient structures and political platforms, as well as a large membership base.
Not every political force is up to this challenge. When regimes control their citizens as extensively as in Belarus, moderate liberals tend not to remain in the country. No liberals survived the prolonged dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, or even Egypt. Scanning the spectrum of political parties in Belarus today, the National Democrats from the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) looks most capable of resisting Lukashenka. But it has been weakened by years of fruitless opposition. The Christian Democrats, another potential political force, have been neutralized from the very beginning by being denied the right to register as a political party by the government. Nevertheless, these parties would be most able to bear the hardships necessary to mount a revolution.
Under these circumstances, the most likely scenario is that regime insiders will seize on the political tensions to overthrow Lukashenka and act as if they had instituted democracy. For such opportunists, nothing could be more useful than a mass movement that lacks a political program and responsible leadership. Social networks are the most blatant example of this – it is pretty obvious by now that online movements cannot succeed on their own, especially when considering the attempts of “Revolution in Social Networks” activists to organize opposition without any explicitly political messages. If the political opposition does not guide these movements, the wrong people might be eager to do it for them. That will make transition for post-Lukashenka Belarus more long and painful.
Belarusian society needs new political programs, not just new methods of protest. In his analysis of the causes of failed protest, Valery Karbalevich, a veteran analyst of Belarusian politics, recently commented: “[Belarusian] society does not see any alternatives…neither in an attractive new social project more attractive than Lukashenka's, nor in credible organizations that call for protests, nor in a respectable leader.” Such an alternative can be promoted through social networks yet it definitely will not emerge in chaotic web-activity.
The alternative would be a movement that is seriously willing to challenge the regime. Fortunately, Belarusians gained experience through their struggle against Soviet and post-Soviet governments in the early 1990s. At the time, National Democrats were able to organize very quickly once clear political programs were issued and determined leaders and party activists emerged.