A Click Away from the KGB: Internet Revolution in Belarus?
Can the Internet facilitate political mobilization? The so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt suggest that it can. Whatever its limits, technology enables people to express their discontent safer and louder, to gather larger protests, and to better inform the outside world of the injustice perpetrated in authoritarian states.
Given Belarus’ comparable Internet penetration rate of 27 percent (24 percent in Egypt and 34 percent in Egypt) one would think the democratic transition in Belarus is just a click away. But the Belarusian government and security agencies are mastering the new technologies with no less enthusiasm than the dissidents.
Minsk is not only populating the Web with cheerful statistics and hymns to its leader, but also blocks dissenting web sites, detains sturborn bloggers, and prevents disagreeable content from appearing on the social networking sites. If back in the day many independent sites would shut down voluntarily to protest Belarus’ media laws (as happened in June 2008, for instance), today it is no longer necessary thanks to the zealous governmental officials who shut them down with or without the law. The crackdowns on the blogosphere and social networking sites have become especially heavy-handed after the December 2010 presidential election.
Just last week, the Belarusian police began a campaign against the administrators of a number of opposition groups on the networking site Vkontakte. On June 3, they arrested and later released Sergei Pauliukevich and Dmitri Niafiodau. Pauliukevich’s group “We stand for great Belarus” had over 120,000 registered members, and its “Millions March” event had gathered over 40,000 potential attendees. Niafiodau’s group "Revolution via the Social Network" was also very popular; his movement “Dvizhenie budushego” (Movement of the Future) attracted over 200,000 members. On June 4, the Belarusian authorities also detained opposition activist Ivan Stasyuk, asking him to stop posting on social networking sites.
The Internet in Belarus is regulated by Presidential Decree No 60, in force since July 2010. Officially aimed at guarding citizens’ interests in the information field, the decree establishes web content filters and requires Internet service providers to ensure registration of information networks, systems and resources and to trace and store the identity of each user. According to the decree, the Center of Operations and Analysis, subordinated to the President's office, is responsible for monitoring content before it appears online. The web site ordered for closure should be shut down within 24 hours.
Among the recently forbidden content are sites such as charter97.org and belaruspartisan.org. The General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus blocked these sites when they attempted to gather a demonstration on Belarus’ Freedom Day in March 2011. The innocent and the apolitical also fall prey to the authorities. For instance, when Minsk blocked the blog by Evgeny Lipkovich hosted by LiveJournal, nearly three hundred other blogs sharing Lipkovich’s IP address were inadvertently shut down.
Unsurprisingly, in April 2011, the Freedom House report on the Internet freedom found Belarus not free. According to the report, “The authorities blocked international connections to the SMPT port 465 and HTTPS port 443, preventing users from securely posting content on social media sites like Facebook, and sending secure messages through Gmail. In addition, the government created fake mirror websites to divert users from accessing independent news sources, and launched distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against the opposition sites.”
Belarus also continues to appear on the annual list Internet enemies compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Minsk is mentioned alongside such countries as Burma, Cuba and North Korea. Belarus’s violations come at the time when Internet access is increasingly accepted as a basic human right by the broader international community. Of course, access to the Internet would be only one of many human rights that Minsk violates.
Russia Saved Lukashenka Yet Again
The weekend brought a pleasant surprise for the Belarusian leadership. It managed to get a big loan from the Eurasian Economic Community – a post-Soviet integration bloc dominated by Russia. This week, Lukashenka will be given 800 million USD, and another 2.2 billion will follow over the next 3 years at a 4.1% interest rate.
The most important requirement of the loan is the privatization of state-owned assets in Belarus which are worth 7.5 billion USD.
Of course, there might be many demons lurking in the unpublished details of the deal, but so far this money seems to be more than just help for Lukashenka. It is his rescue.
The Belarusian government seemed to be desperate last week when it initiated contacts with the IMF about borrowing 3.5-8 billion USD. There was not much hope to get it in times like these when relation with the West are at their lowest point, and the previous loan from the IMF did not lead to real economic reforms in Belarus.
No 'Kyrgyzstan scenario'
The reasons for Russia's rescuing of Lukashenka may be very simple. After all, the Kremlin does not want to repeat in Belarus what unfolded in the Kyrgyzstan scenario with the toppling of the government. The current situation around Belarus, of course, can be compared to that of Kyrgyzstan last year in a very few but important ways.
In 2010, Moscow tried to rein in the Kyrgyz president who had at that moment lost any support from the West. Russia's policy was perceived by the opposition as a signal that the president had no backing and that the foreign powers would prefer some other rulers to run the country. Even though it did not want to do it, Moscow carried out regime change in that Central Asian nation, and the results failed to bring Russia any benefits whatsoever.
And to risk the same in Belarus is apparently more dangerous, both due to the proximity of the country to Russia itself, and due to the consequences it might have for Russian relations with the West. At the same time, Russia needed some alternatives before removing this president, and quite possibly it did not find one in the Belarusian establishment or in the opposition . Lukashenka has neutralized any such moves by building structural barriers for the development of any new politicians (there is no place for public politics in Belarus now), and by the destruction of the support base and public image of old politicians.
Towards Terminal Stability
To survive politically, Lukashenka does not need much. Just some flexibility in order to rearrange his power mechanisms – like through giving in to foreign loan requirements and selling some property. Of course, these weeks the public mood has been very much against his policies and only the lack of an opposition which could organize the discontented citizens has saved the Belarusian government from collapse.
But public grievances, however big they are, can be neutralized by one very common factor – time. That is, if the Belarusians have to live worse, they will do it, yet the decline of living conditions should occur as slowly as possible. Otherwise, even a politically sterilized society will explode and find itself new political leaders.
The country has no means to survive as it had before. In order to avoid collapse or even revolution, it has either to reform or to accept impoverishment. The former option is not feasible with the current political regime. For the latter, the Belarusian leadership has to buy time. It will mean to bring the households' incomes gradually lower, to untie the prices without shock effects, to give some subsidies and reduce them incrementally. In a word, to draw the people into poverty not in a day, but over many months.
For all these efforts he needs money. Now, he has it, and given that circumstances are as they are, Belarus may be stabilized politically for a long time.
Myth of a European Alternative for Lukashenka
Can Europe do anything? The question sounds rhetorical for Belarusians involved in politics. After all, Europe – with the remarkable exception of Poland – did next to nothing tangible, except for making some verbal statements. The best example is the myth of a European proposal of 3 billion for relatively acceptable (for the EU) presidential elections made by the Polish and German foreign ministers last year.
The proposal was not really made in any serious way. The myth was born when the Polish minister was asked how much financial support Belarus can get from the EU if it accepts the European demands. He took the figures of the EU financial help for Moldova and recalculated them considering the bigger size of Belarus to finally name this sum.
Informally, European officials admit also that this sum, if it even materialized, could not be compared with Russian loans. Moreover, Lukashenka was successful in the past not only in getting money from Russia but also negotiating flexible timetable for repayment or restructuring or even not reapying