Internet Activism Under Siege in Belarus
Until recently, Internet has been the only oasis of freedom in Belarus' political sphere.
But as Belarusian authorities realise that Internet is a powerful means of communication and mobilisation, more and more effort is being put into suppressing online opposition activities. The events related to the upcoming parliamentary elections prove this trend.
On the 30 August, several moderators of Internet community Nadoyel nam etot Lukashenka (We are sick of Lukashenka) were detained. The community exists in the largestRussian-speaking social network Vkontakte and has around 37,000 members. The aim of the Belarusian security services was to get access to the community's administrators and delete its content as well as intimidate activists.
Two of the group's administrators, Paval Yeutsikhiyeu and Andrey Tkachou, were sentenced to seven and five days in jail for a misdemeanor charge of hooliganism, which is a typical way to isolate activists in Belarus. Another activist, Raman Pratasevich, was shortly released as a juvenile, but reports of him being physically abused while interrogated have surfaced. Meanwhile, Siarhej Biaspaly and Aleh Shramuk fled abroad. Eventually, KGB got access to community's administrative controls and deleted its members and content.
Persecution of Internet activists garnered a negative reaction within the Belarusian sector of the web and were condemned by the international community. On 4 September the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed her deep concern with the detentions and arrests of administrators of political social media groups in Belarus, which she described as a crackdown on online dissent.
Preventive Actions on Parliamentary Elections’ Eve
A new crackdown on Internet activists looks like a response to pre-election Internet activity, and more precisely to calls to boycott the coming parliamentary elections, which are traditionally regarded as sham in authoritarian Belarus. Internet communities decided to join boycott campaign, started by other political opponents of the regime, and launched it on the web. A closer look at the current foreign policy of Belarus as well as domestic political situation suggests that a mass boycott is not the best scenario for Lukashenka.
The last two years saw a sharp decline in Belarus' relations with western democracies. This caused an imbalance, where Russia became by far the most important and influential partner. Despite numerous public claims of strategic partnership between the two countries, a fear of being seized by Russia is widespread among the Belarusian elite. This makes a need to normalise relations with the West an important foreign policy objective, though not openly proclaimed.
However, if we set aside the foreign agenda and turn to domestic affairs, a boycott is the least desirабле outcome for the regime too. In Belarus' case, where no party politics exists and the parliament has lost its political power long ago, many view elections more as a sign of support to the personalist regime. A mass boycott would openly indicate a lack of trust in authorities and their social contract with Belarusians, which has been eroding due to global crisis and economic model effects. To put in a nutshell, public support is badly needed for both internal and external reasons, and anti-electoral propaganda is clearly a challenge to the regime of Lukashenka.
The Echo of “Silent Protests”
As former administrator of the community Maxim Charniauski says, the prosecution of Internet activists began last year during famous “silent protests”. His online community was one of the online platforms which supported the protests. Such communities sprung up on the Belarusian Internet and were inspired by the Arab Spring. The initiative was named “Revolution through Social Networks” and occurred in a form of weekly peaceful street actions. Social networks, such as Vkontakte, Twitter and Facebook, played a major role in mobilisation of protests.
Although they failed to gain true mass support, the protests brought a lot of disturbance to the regime. They also revealed its repressive nature to citizens not actively engaged in opposition activity. During these events, community administrators were summoned and interrogated by KGB officers, who wanted to know passwords, logins and other relevant information. However, their efforts were not successful. Maxim himself managed to escape and currently lives in Poland.
This time the KGB had more success, but fortunately for the community, the Vkontakte social network is a Russian legal entity. This means that Belarusian authorities can hardly exert administrative pressure on its owners and managers. As a result, the community was fully restored on the 3 September at the request of administrators. The supervisory administrative rights were, as an exception, transferred to a person who did not create the community and who lives abroad.
Social Networks: a New Target for Lukashenka Regime
Until recently, the Internet was believed to be the only space for political oppositional activity and media freedom, not controlled by the Belarusian government. In fact, most of activity on the part of regime’s opponents has occurred online. The Belarusian government did not take any serious steps against such online activity, for it apparently did not perceive it as a threat to regime's stability. However, in recent years some trends have made Lukashenka regime take the Internet more seriously.
The number of Internet users reached roughly half of the population in 2012, and without a doubt the younger and more active half portion of the population. Recent studies on Internet usage in Belarus shows that it is poorly integrated into the global network and remains oriented towards regional Russian-speaking .ru and .by domains. Hence, Vkontakte is the most popular social network, while such services as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are still underrepresented in Belarus. It is no wonder Vkontakte has the biggest politically engaged communities, and becomes the primary object of pressure on the part of the regime.
Furthermore, the Belarusian authorities seem to be very “impressed” by events of the Arab Spring, where online media played a significant role. Subsequent “silent protests” only proved these fears. The regime started to introduce some regulative measures towards the Internet before the mentioned events, but after them it seems to pay even more attention to its Internet security. As a result, a policy trend of restrictive regulation of the Internet as well as pressure on active users has taken shape, especially social network activists. The last haven of political freedom is under siege.
Ideological Restrictions on Employment in Belarus – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Belarusian experts analyse discrimination in the workplace based on political convictions, social networks preferences of Belarusians, the effect of income increase on political loyalty and media coverage of parliamentary elections among other topics.
Idiological Emloyment Restrictionsin Belarus -Tatiana Vodolazhskaya Andrei Shutov (Centre for European Transformation) present an analysis of politically motivated employment restrictions in Belarus. The experts consider employment ban as any barriers to employment based on ideological and political reasons. One of the main ways to implement employment discrimination is a fixed term contract system which is a cornerstone of employment relations in Belarus.
Using "the profession ban" the regime punishes for unauthorized social and political activities, gets rids of ideologically disloyal citizens of areas in which we are working with education, formulation of policies and ideas, fights emergence and activities of influential public figures who manifest disloyalty.
What social networks like Belarusians? – Andrei Dubanevich based on the research of the Ignite Social Media concludes that the Belarusians, as before, are conservative in their choice of social networking and related online resources. In particular, the Belarusians love free content, including music, for example, portal Last.fm. Belarus occupies 3rd place in the list of Livejournal; Belarus takes a prize-winning 3rd place in the top of the region's most educated Web users – 36.5% of them have higher education.
Belarusian Security Brief – Belarusian Security Blog has released its monthly review of national security of Belarus. The experts note a new conflict between Belarus and the West in August increased by a new "front", this time with Sweden. Political crisis is complicated by the doubtful ability of a regime to ensure the development of the country as well as growing lack of people to work in government positions
Are “Bobruisk Anarchists” victims of “the patriot games”? Anatoliy Sanotenko writes for Mediakritika.by recalling the two-year-old case of three youngsters sentenced to 7 years in prison for an alleged attempt to set the KGB building on fire. Given the different backgrounds of the three young men, and leaked to the internet examples of KGB-assigned straw-men attempting to recruit young activists to commit unlawful actions, the author makes an assumption that the whole story might have been set up and staged by the KGB.
Draft bill on the political parties and NGOs. On July 31, 2012, the Council of Ministers introduced it in the Parliament, but the development of the bill was not discussed in public, it had been published only in the end of August on the National Legal Portal. The analysis showed that the bill provides some positive changes compared with the existing legislation, but generally not focused on the improvement of the situation with freedom of association and the introduction of regulations to promote their development.
The Coverage of the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in the Belarusian Media. The Belarusian Association of Journalists concludes that electoral campaign and its coverage demonstrate political stagnation, which the authorities try to depict as political stability. Candidates’ presentations are announced in printed TV programs as “Elections-2012” – without naming the candidates or the parties. There is a noticeable depersonalisation of the main participants of the electoral process is taking place. Communication as exchange of opinions is absent – it is rather an exchange of pre-defined messages, but not a free exchange of thoughts.
Weekly Report of Electiom Observation Results, September 3-9. Human rights defenders for free elections campaign in its weekly report notes that election campaigning takes place in the climate of pressure on democratic candidates and civic activists from the state bodies. TV-presentations of the opposition candidates and their platforms continue to undergo censorship in the state press. Observers note massive use of administrative resources in support of pro-government candidates.
Why Belarus Ignores "Eastern European Davos"? – Yuri Zisser (TUT.BY) visited XXII Economic Forum in Poland, and shares his impressions. In particular, the author wonders at the lack of Belarusian officials on such a large and prestigious event: "Our state finds millions on ice palaces and control teenagers in social networks, but did not want to find a penny to forward experts to participate in the Belarusian section on "Eastern European Davos".
Belarus Aims to Rebuild Its Ties with the West – Grigory Ioffe analyses two top personnel changes – the Belarusian foreign minister, Sergei Martynov was replaced by Vladimir Makei, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s now ex-chief of staff, whose position was assigned to Andrei Kobiakov, until recently Belarus’s ambassador to Russia. The analyst concludes that despite the years of Western sanctions leveled on Belarus following the December 2010 post-election crackdown, efforts continue by both sides to maintain and resurrect withering ties between Minsk and the West.
Political Business Cycle in Belarus, or the Political Economy of Confidence to the President – Alexander Avtushko-Sikorski (BISS) investigated why many Belarusians' support the political status quo. The expert notes that the growth rate of real wages directly affect the level of confidence in the president: an increase in the rate of growth increases the level of trust, and their reduction – to reduce the number of citizens supporting Lukashenka.
The growth rate of real wages affect the "market" orientation of the Belarusians with slowing growth increases the number of supporters of the economy with little government regulation. With the acceleration of the growth rate of real wages opposite trend: people want to see in the economy there is a "strong hand" of the state. Income growth does not affect the dynamics of the geopolitical orientations Belarusians.
Belarusian Monthly Economic Review, #9, September 2012 – IPM Research Centre has released the September review of Belarusian economy. In particular, the experts note that GDP growth on the demand side still relies on external factors – the increase in exports and a reduction in non-energy imports – but the trend of recovery in domestic demand and a proportional restore of imports is traced quite clearly. The report highlights the decreasing share of high-tech production and vulnerability of Belarusian economy caused by its dependence on Russian oil imports.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.