Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko – who is sometimes referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” – for the last 26 years. However, 2020 saw the confluence of particular circumstances that gave rise to the ongoing mass protests against Lukashenko, and in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and democratic reform.
The first of these factors was Lukashenko’s administration’s mismanaged COVID-19 response. Unable to rely on the government for aid or supplies, people had to turn to civil society for everything from information to PPE deliveries. Trust in independent media and bloggers rose, as people began to consider them more accurate than the regime, which they knew was purposefully underplaying the dangerousness of the situation.
Secondly, Lukashenko underestimated the strength of his political opponents. He dismissed Tikhanovskaya as a woman who could pose no threat to him, rather than a legitimate candidate, and discounted the role of women as a voting bloc.
The brutal crackdown on the initial protests only fueled further demonstrations, but the strength of this year’s uprising didn’t develop overnight. Civil unrest in 2017 taught activists how to politicize digital social space, how to use social media to organize, and how to avoid surveillance and anonymize themselves.
Censorship requires people to become more creative in how they communicate. Digital communication allows for less centralization and the formation of “weak ties” over the stronger ties formed with in-person organizing. While sometimes weak ties are considered a negative in the context of organizing in democracies, in the case of Belarus, they are actually a positive: if any given individual or group isn’t linked to other groups within movements or within civil society, it becomes harder for the regime to trace them back to other groups.
Similarly, while the concept of “clicktivism” is usually considered a negative in free societies, it’s a critique that isn’t applicable in the situation in Belarus, where even one click is a political act. While online organization can fall apart in situations where the regime can control the narrative, the Belarusian authorities don’t necessarily have that capability.
Telegram, specifically, has been a keystone of the Belarus revolution. Telegram was created by Russian brothers who were critical of the Putin regime and wanted to create a space for freedom and the secure communication/broadcast of messages.
As part of the deep web, which isn’t open to Google or other search engines, Telegram offers activists an uncensored platform to communicate without filters. When the Internet in Belarus was shut down following the elections, Telegram was the only messenger that was still usable; forcing people to use Telegram, since no other options were available, was an ironic consequence of regime censorship.
However, even Telegram is not completely safe: users still provide a phone number, which the regime could potentially track, for instance, and some individuals risk arrest based on their Telegram usage. The driving channel behind the protests, Nexta, is considered trustworthy because the individual running the channel is located in Poland, beyond the reach of the Lukashenko regime.
Knowing that Nexta was more or less immune to Lukashenko’s retaliation permitted more active sharing of information, photos, videos, etc. In some ways, this showcases the evolution of a modern form of journalism, with individuals on the front lines of the demonstrations sharing their footage. This form of citizen journalism involves just a few individuals, such as the people behind the Nexta channel, doing the work of an entire newsroom on their own.
Despite Telegram’s undeniable importance in the revolution, it is important to remember that this uprising is driven first and foremost by people, not technology. While the regime has been propped up by the strength of the police state, and Russia as a “black knight” foreign actor that attempts to prevent democratization, there is an optimism in society about emerging as a better country after this crisis.
The role of women in the demonstrations has sparked a broader awareness of women’s rights, redefining women’s role in society. No matter the results of these particular demonstrations, there is now undeniably a consciousness among Belarusian citizens that they can take matters into their own hands, that they have the ability to achieve something and to affect change through collective action.
The pandemic was a catalyst that allowed citizens to unite around a common cause, coming at a time when people were beginning to recognize the repression of their government. That is a sense of freedom that cannot be taken away, regardless of the outcome of Belarus’ 2020 uprising.
Below, watch the panel discussion on this topic at the 2020 Oslo Freedom Forum featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian, and journalist Anne Applebaum, Belarusian journalist and analyst Franak Viacorka, Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova, and University of Oxford researcher Aliaksandr Herasimenka.