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.
American and German Experts on How To Deal with Belarus – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Last month was rich in international events and analytical materials discussing the situation in Belarus. On 25-26 October Belarus was discussed on both sides of the Atlantic – at the US-Central Europe Forum in Prague and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. In addition, David Kramer and Hans-Georg Wieck unveiled their visions of how to deal with Belarus.
20 Years of Belarusian Independence: Current Challenges and Future Development – Balázs Jarábik, Matthew Rojansky and a number of other experts discussed popular attitudes towards the Lukashenka regime, Belarus’s economy, and Belarus’s relations with the United States, European Union, and Russia at a two-panel discussion in Washington D.C. hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Do’s and Don’t’s on Belarus – David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, has formulated 10 things for the West to do in dealing with Belarus. Kramer is sure that "Lukashenka’s departure would free the people of Belarus from Europe’s last dictator and lead to positive engagement from Europe and the West" so Lukashenka’s demise should be facilitated via "ten things the West should do and ten it should avoid".The proposed measures focus primarily on isolation of the Belarusian regime and additional economic and political sanctions.
German Association "Human Rights in Belarus" strategy report – the document focused on the situation in Belarus with recommendations for action by the European Union and its members. The unveiled report outlined its vision of European policy towards Belarus. The Head of the Association is Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE mission in Belarus. The main message of the report is broader engagement of Belarusians into Europe as a whole. Visa exemptions and reduction of visa fees, large-scale expansion of employment and educational opportunities for young Belarusians, are among the proposed measures.
Recovery, planning, consolidation: the development of political parties between elections – political scientist Yury Chavusau notes that today Belarusian political parties are engaged in the intra-party and coalition processes, rather than a struggle for power. Sharp deterioration in economic conditions and increasing dissent in society became an unexpected challenge for all opposition parties. It seems that today the political parties can only articulate alternatives but not aggregate political interests.
Belarus and Eastern Partnership: Civil Society Catches Initiative – Larisa Doroshenko analyzes the results of the Conference of the National Platform of EaP CSF (Minsk, October 29). The expert draws attention to the debates inside the civil society about the possible politicization of the Platform. She sees them as an example of dialogue within civil society aimed at achieving solidarity through democratic tools.
Analysis of Law Amendments Initiated to Be Introduced in Belarus – Belarusian Human Rights Defenders – Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs, Legal Transformation Center, BHC, Human Rights Centre "Viasna" – developed an analytical note on analysis of amendments initiated to be introduced into a range of laws of the Republic of Belarus in autumn 2011. In particular, the following Draft Laws were researched: “On Amending Certain Laws of the Republic of Belarus”; “On Amending the Law ‘On Mass Events in the Republic of Belarus’”; and “On Amending the Law ‘On State Security Bodies in the Republic of Belarus’”.
Public councils in Belarus: legal regulation and practice – an analytical paper isbeing prepared by Legal Transformation Center and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs. The paper is aimed at improving the institutional and legal regulation of public councils, which operate under government bodies at various levels. The conclusions and recommendations, contained in the note, are based on the complex political and legal studies, conducted in June-August 2011. The study includes a compilation and analysis of domestic and foreign practice of legal regulation of public councils (the analysis of legal acts) as well as a series of in-depth interviews with members of the public councils.
Roundtable: The judiciary and political repression – Garry Pogonyaylo (Belarusian Helsinki Committee), Elena Tonkacheva (Legal Transformation Center), and Oleg Ageev (former lawyer of the Minsk City Bar) discuss the possibility of Belarus' independent judiciary. Experts conclude that today the situation is developing in a direction opposite to strengthening judicial independence so it is nearly impossible for the judiciary to resist tyranny.
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.