Western Media: Revolution has Begun in Belarus
Under the impression of the revolutions in the Arab world and Greek protests against the austerity program of the government, Western media tend to jump to conclusions when writing about the current situation in Belarus.
“Following the Arab example of regime change through social networks, thousands of people gathered in the Belarusian capital to protest against the authoritarian regime”, the German news channel NTV started its report on the protests that took place on Wednesday evening in Minsk and in several other Belarusian towns.
For most Western media it seems to be difficult to differentiate between democratic transitions in different parts of the world. Protests in a country that they keep calling “Europe’s last dictatorship” are a reliable hint for them that a regime change is close. Titles like “The revolution has begun” of the British web journal digitaljournal.com leave little doubt about that. Stephan Morgan writes in his article:
"Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus and close buddy of Muammar Gaddafi, looks to be facing the beginnings of his own revolution. Like the Arab countries, protests against the dictatorship are being coordinated through social networks and they are growing in size and frequency.”
While many German print media do not report on the all-Wednesday protests in Belarus, it is Austrian and Swiss press that keep covering the gatherings. As a reaction to the arrests, the Austrian foreign minister and Vice-Chancellor Michael Spindelegger protested against the treatment of demonstrators and demanded that political prisoners should be released.
One of the best articles on Wednesday’s protests has been published by BBC online. BBC's Oleg Boldyrev underlines that changes “will come only when the hitherto indifferent working class starts raising its voice” quoting political analyst Yuri Chausov.
Still, well-researched articles of correspondents present in Minsk remains an exception in the Western press. – Boldyrev’s colleagues at BBC London, Nick Sturdee and Lucy Ash, have seen their visa withdrawn. According to Belarusian independent news agency BelaPan, the reporters, who had received Belarus' visas and got accredited by the foreign ministry, were planned to visit Belarus on 3 July, the day of official celebrations. However, a few days before the trip the Belarusian embassy in London informed them that the foreign ministry had revoked their visas without giving any reasons.
Belarusian media seem to be busy giving more practical hints: Nasha Niva has already published legal advice how to behave in case you get arrested during the protests. After the usual reporting on the protests on Thursday, media has quickly turned to the upcoming event on this weekend. Websites like charter97.org are calling Belarusians to participate in the protests staged for July 3rd, the official Belarusian Independence Day. Streets in Minsk have been blocked during evenings over the last days to prevent protesters from gathering and to allow tanks to practice for the military parade.
Not only the authorities have a tense mood. According to Minsk police, clapping, a sign of the silent protests will be seen as an offense during the parade except when clapping for war veterans. Minsk residents think it is ridiculous that the tanks destroying the asphalt of the streets in the capital of the bankrupt country. It will be interesting to see whether people will disturb the president’s speech with their clapping, as the organizers of the “Revolution through social networks” are planning.
If you are Broke and you Know it Clap your Hands
Two months of spiraling inflation have achieved what years of the KGB heavy-handedness could not. Few Belarusians stood up to protest the imprisonment of the opposition, the repression of the media, or the violation of gay rights, but now they are coming into the streets to protest the soaring prices and the absence of foreign currency.
In June, a series of silent Internet-organized rallies rippled across Belarus. The first protest gathered only about 30 people, the next had ten times more; 500 people joined the protest in Minsk this Wednesday and the discontent is spreading to other Belarusian cities. The protesters carry no slogans and shout no mottoes, they simply clap their hands in unison.
In the light of the “Arab spring”, it is tempting to see the silent protests as a sign that the authoritarian rule in Belarus is coming to a end. However, the Internet and the economic crisis are unlikely to bring change to Belarus.
To begin with, the people may have come out even without the social networks. At least before the recent crackdown by the authorities, applauding on the streets was a low-risk strategy as opposed to hanging out with the opposition leaders or carrying anti-Lukashenka placards, and protesting against high prices is different from decrying election fraud. At the end of the day, the involvement of the social networking sites may only prompt the authorities to step up their control of the Internet.
Soon there will be no low-risk protesting tactics available. Even though the protesters were silent, the authorities took no chances. Unabashed by the presence of Western journalists, the police steps in with clubs, drags people away, and photographs everyone present. The social networking sites organizing the protests were blocked, the names of all users written down, and the homes of the organizers were paid a KGB visit. Yesterday, thirty people were sentenced to detention and many more were fined. The protesters were arrested by the people in civilian clothes, making one unwittingly remember the Soviet-like suspicion for everyone and everything.
More importantly, the expectations that the timid activism prompted by economic insecurity will democratize Belarus are unwarranted. The discontent will peter out as soon as the economic situation improves, and the shaky economy is likely to strengthen the need for and the deference to the authoritarian leadership among the population.
First, it may be that the change will never come. Even though the crisis has undermined the legitimacy of the incumbent leadership, once the situation is stabilized Belarusians will be staying in their by then better-stocked kitchens with even more appreciation for the basic economic security. After all, some of those who are joining the protests today had supported the regime during the times of the economic growth achieved with the help of Russian subsidies and the delay of economic restructuring. To an extent, the long history of economic problems explains not only Belarusians’ current activism, but also their passivity in the face of political repressions in the past. Only having lived in comfort and prosperity for a few decades will Belarusians become concerned about political freedoms and liberties and start seeing problems with the authoritarian rule.
Second, if the change does come, it may not be democratic. The crisis that has today roused the people against the authoritarian regime may also reduce the possibility of their demanding a more democratic government in the future. In fact, history shows that economic crises are just as likely to induce democratic breakdowns as they are to trigger democratic transitions. With the formerly diverse interests of the people amalgamated in the face of the severe crisis, a change may become possible, but its direction and the ultimate result will be determined by the structural factors in Belarus. To date, there is little evidence that the country is ready for a democratic regime. Thus, it is not surprising that a deep economic crisis has mobilized the people, but it would be a big surprise if the current unrest nudged the country to a democratic future.
This weekend, Belarus will celebrate Independence Day. In a rare act of political generosity Minsk will allow the people to walk down the streets and clap their hands on July 3rd. As the deputy head of Minsk police Igor Yevseyev aptly said, “If it is applause for our veterans or servicemen – then of course, it is allowed.” For the incumbent leadership the Day will be another opportunity to divert attention from reality with lavish firework displays and create an illusion of mirth and carelessness. There will surely be circuses, and what concerns the bread — Belarus has seen far gloomier times.