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21 August 2020

Changing society the driving force behind protests in Belarus

Social media and the development of civil society have both played leading roles in the protest movements which have emerged in Belarus in recent weeks, an online seminar heard.

Protesters have taken to the streets in Minsk. Picture: EUGENE NEVIAROUSKI
Protesters have taken to the streets in Minsk. Picture: EUGENE NEVIAROUSKI

Political channels on YouTube and messaging services like Telegram have helped would-be protestors in Belarus mobilise against the re-election of president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power in the former Soviet states for 26 years.

The development of civil society in Belarus, and the influence of diaspora, have also helped people mobilise in ways that have not been possible previously, attendees at the online seminar Belarus Rising: The Roots and Routes of Revolution, were told.

The event was organised by the King’s Russia Institute and co-sponsored by the Comparative Authoritarian Protest Research Network (CAPRN, at the University of Manchester), the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS, Berlin), and the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Volha Charnysh, from MIT, said approximately 80pc of the population was now online, a two-fold increase since the last presidential election, allowing people to circumnavigate state media as they never had previously.
One of the candidates standing against Mr Lukashenko also had his own YouTube channel, something that would have been “unthinkable” a few years ago.

Dr Charnysh added that 1.2million Belarussians also worked abroad, making information and news easier to spread amid the shutdown of the internet in the country. Structural changes had also strengthened the function of civil society.

Dr Charnysh said: “Even though we don’t really know how this moment will end, as it looks like Lukashenko is digging in, it is unlikely that Belarus will be the same after this. Civil society has been strengthened by this. Even if they fail this time, it bodes well for the long-term prospects of democracy in Belarus.”

Even though we don’t really know how this moment will end, as it looks like Lukashenko is digging in, it is unlikely that Belarus will be the same after this

Dr Volha Charnysh

Aliaksandr Herasimenka, from the University of Oxford, who is in the region, talked about the role of YouTube in the early stages of the mobilisation of the protest, with some channels like NEXTA having hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Telegram, he added, had since played a leading role in co-ordination in protests, attracting tens of thousands of users.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Minsk and surrounding cities in the former Soviet state to call for the resignation of Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. This unprecedented unrest has been growing since Mr Lukashenko announced his victory on 9 August, with allegations of poll-rigging levelled against the president.

Tatsiana Kulakevich, from University of South Florida, said: “Diaspora played a huge role in supporting and protecting people who wanted to defect and were faced with losing their jobs. The diaspora has been showing solidarity every day.”

Nationals living abroad had also gathered millions in funds, Dr Kulakevich said, which had been “reaching people on the ground” and online fundraising pages had been set up to support people who were at risk of losing their jobs.

Dr Kulakevich said: “Lukashenko made at least two huge mistakes in the election. The first one is overconfidence by ignoring the grass roots movement that was showing signs of existence before the election and by claiming 80pc of the vote, which angered the people.

“The second mistake was when the violence backfired. Never in the history of Belarus have 7,000 people been detained at once.”

Olha Onuch, from the University of Manchester, has been running a social media survey and had received thousands of responses. Of the 1,032 complete responses received, women made up 65pc of her respondents, with a mean age of 47.

YouTube and Telegram had been the top sources for the protest population prior to the internet blackout, with 63pc now relying on word-of-mouth for protest information. Ninety-five per cent said Lukashenko had been too long in power, while 98pc of people said violence against their fellow citizens had prompted them to protest.
Sixty per cent of people said they attended protests on their own, the first time they went, a result which had proved to be a big surprise Dr Onuch said.

In this story

Samuel Greene

Professor of Russian Politics