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Belarus – The Land Of Apolitical Internet Users

In the first week of January various media reported that  under Belarusian law browsing foreign web sites on the territory of Belarus became a crime. Soon it became clear that the new law did not target ordinary citizens....


Belarusian Internet User. Picture: azattyq.org

In the first week of January various media reported that  under Belarusian law browsing foreign web sites on the territory of Belarus became a crime. Soon it became clear that the new law did not target ordinary citizens.  A week after the worries around the new law had subsided the online research agency Gemius published the results of its November study. According to the study, the Internet audience in Belarus has reached the record 4 million people and the level of Internet penetration is already more than 50%.

Even despite the authoritarian political realities a growing number of Belarusians freely navigate the World Wide Web, including independent information portals and opposition web pages. However, the Gemius data shows that such web sites are not very popular among ordinary people. And it means that even on the background of massive political repression against civil society and the latest economic turmoil the Belarusians remain mostly apolitical.

The Internet Nation

Gemius does regular measurements of the audience of the biggest Belarusian web sites. It should be noted, however, that not all the web sites are covered by the research — only those that give permission for that. That is why the study does not feature the most popular Belarusian Internet portal — tut.by on one can find everything – from news to jobs and maps. Its daily audience is roughly 1.8 million people.  

Nonetheless, Gemius provides quite a telling and systemic overall picture of the Belarusian Internet. Importantly, the company’s archives help understand the dynamic of different data and identify various trends.

According to the study carried out in November 2011, from the gender point of view the Belarusian Internet is a zone of absolute equality: 51,3% of the Internet audience in Belarus is represented by female users and, respectively, 48,7% by male users. The age structure of the Internet audience is as follows:

Age group

% out of total audience













Thus, the Internet penetration indicator in the country is quite high and already higher than in Ukraine and Russia. Internet users are more or less evenly distributed across the gender and age groups. As a result, the role of the Internet as a source of information and communication for the majority of the population is growing. More and more Belarusians create their accounts in social networks such as Odnoklassniki.ru, Facebook and Vkontakte.ru. On Facebook, for example, the number of ‘Belarusian accounts’ grew in the last half a year by 15%. Belarusians aged 25-34 years comprise the most fast-growing group here.

The Internet is gradually displacing the traditional mass media. The latter’s role in Belarus is diminishing. This is particularly true of newspapers. The falling circulation of the biggest state paper ‘Sovetskaya Belarus’ serves as a vivid example of this trend. In January 2012 the circulation dropped by 11,8% (from 400,000 in December to 352, 860). Even though the paper enjoys large-scale administrative support  – most of its circulation is literally forced on state enterprises and institutions – these might be very telling numbers.

Free To Choose

The most interesting data from the studies conducted by Gemius concern the web sites that are most popular among Belarusian Internet users. This data reveals clear thematic preferences. According to Gemius, in November 2011 the top-10 Belarusian web sites by the number of visitors (real users) were:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

6. deal.by (online shop)

7. zaycevnet.by (music sharing)

8. irr.by (online classifieds)

9. abw.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10.by.all.biz (equivalent of yellow pages)

As we can see, among the top-10 there are different types of Internet shops (5), an email service, search engine, social network and a music portal. In other words, it is entertainment and shopping that Belarusian Internet users are mostly interested in. Only one page (livejournal_by) in the top-10 has some political content. And there is not a single news site – either governmental or independent.

One possible explanation for such a low level of interest to news and politics might be that the economic situation in Belarus stabilized in November 2011 after Belarus secured various economic subsidies from Russia after the agreements on the Single Economic Space, Beltransgas deal and gas contracts were signed in Moscow. To test this hypothesis we can look at the top-10 Belarusian web pages in, for example, June 2011. At that time Belarus was in the middle of currency crisis and the silent protests were in full swing.

Here are the top-10 web sites by the number of visitors (real users) that Gemius named in its study in June 2011:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. zaicevnet.by (music sharing)

6. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

7. naviny.by (news)

8. deal.by (online shop)

9. av.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10. charter97.org (news)

The top-10 list in June had two independent from the government news pages – naviny.by and charter97.org. However, as the statistics provided by Gemius shows, each of these sites was visited by only about 10% of the Belarusian Internet users. To compare: the top-3 web sites (mail.ru, yandex.by and odnoklassniki.ru) were each popular among roughly 50% of the Internet users in Belarus.

The data in the archives of Gemius shows that in 2009-2011 the thematic priorities of the Belarusian Internet audience were almost unchanged. Entertainment and shopping were high on the preferences list, but news and analytics were either absent from the top-10 list at all or among its outsiders.

Why Are Belarusians So Apolitical?

Despite the authoritarian political system Belarusian citizens are free to use the Internet and choose what they want to read or watch there. But the research findings demonstrate that the majority of the Belarusian Internet users do not make use of this freedom in order to access uncensored news and analytical web sites. In other words, people choose to be apolitical.

The reasons why the Belarusians are so apolitical are multiple and need to be thoroughly researched. However, one reason clearly lies on the surface – no attractive and trustworthy political group has emerged which would make the Belarusians believe that reading political news will be of any importance to the future of the country.

Yauheni Preiherman
Yauheni Preiherman
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.
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