In Belarus, an undeclared revolution

Jun 21, 2011
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On June 15 the two central squares of Minsk (or “Miensk,” as many Belarusians call their capital) were barricaded and closed to the public.

The center of Miensk swarmed with special force soldiers and regular militiamen. Sitting in autazaks (an abbreviation which stands for “detention auto,” a vehicle which is used for transporting the special forces soldiers and detaining protesters after the meetings), they searched the bags of passersby while guarding the small passages created by barricades in the crowds.

The reason for their presence is quite simple in name, if not in consequence: the authorities expected a revolution. Through Belarusian social networks, users had organized to gather in the central squares of their towns every Wednesday. On this Wednesday in particular, they organized had a silent protest against the economic crisis into which Alexander Lukashenko had propelled the country. People were instructed to come without any symbols or flags, just as if they were taking a walk on a nice summer day, as seen below.

Plans for the event began circulating the Belarusian communities of Facebook and VKontakte, the most popular equivalent of Facebook in the Russian-speaking world, in early May. The first “walking and sun-enjoying action” had been planned for the late May. This action, however, did not come to fruition. Reporters from Radio Free Europe and Nasha Niva together spotted no more than 100-200 people country-wide who participated.

In a week, the situation changed.  On June 8, another Wednesday, the Stop Benzine campaign protested the rising petrol price. Protesters closed Miensk’s main artery Praspekt Niezaleznasci (Independence Avenue) with several hundred cars moving slowly and pretending they had no fuel in their tanks. For some time, OMON (the special militia security force) were unable to restore traffic.

Encouraged by that, young protesters gathered in a crowd of 300-400 people in the center of Miensk, encircling a person with a guitar who sang several Belarusian songs. The militia arrived, together with their notorious chief Evseev, but were at a loss: there were no flags and no slogans … just a lot of people listening to songs. And before they managed to shout their regular statement about the “illegal character” of this action, the youth has already finished listening and dispersed.

Oktyabrskaya Square in Miensk, where the June 15 protests took place.

But the culmination of these events occurred on June 15 when the center of Miensk was barricaded and therefore groups of young people were forced to gather in smaller groups around the center. The militiamen looked ridiculous, ordering people without any symbols or flags to disperse as “the action had been illegal.” The OMON ran after the young people all around the center without explanation or justification for their actions. When pushed out of the center, the young people simply began applauding, laughing at and cheering for the militia in jest.

It is difficult to estimate how many people have taken part in this “revolution of applause,” as many enjoying the summer sun in the center hadn’t heard of the revolution spreading over social networks. Some witnesses estimated that altogether there might have been 1,000 to 3,000 young people involved.

The idea to gather every Wednesday emerged exclusively in  social networks and had never been spread using any other channels of information. Belarus is remarkable in that of the five biggest online Belarusian communities on VKontakte, three are political.  ”We are for the great Belarus”, the “March of the Millions”, and the “Future Movement” communities together have had more than 300,000 subscribers out of 2,200,000 total Belarusian users.

Thus, the social networks have become central to civil demonstration, an outlet for the massive number of citizens unsatisfied with the situation in Belarus. The security services are also paying significant attention to the communities calling for the mass marches and gatherings. However, the scale of protests is as of yet small. But the role of social networks in our society seems to be changing in a remarkable way. In Belarus, at least, they have become a tool for mobilization instead of a tool for slacktivism, where social networks serve as a forum in which to voice discontent that never turned into action.

Finally, to address rumors circulating that VKontakte is blocked in Belarus,  I can confirm that it is still accessible. The smiling Wednesdays may continue.

About the Author

Alaksiej Lavoncyk

Alaksiej Lavonczyk is a media activist and social media expert from Minsk, Belarus. He had been in charge of the training projects for the NGOs and media on building their capacity in online campaigning and end-user security. Alaksiej had also acted as a consulting and technical expert for NGOs and media in Belarus and four countries of Central Asia (except Turkmenistan) on upgrading media/NGO websites to meet contemporary standards, and on their promotion online. Alaksiej is also running an online training centre for the Central Asians preparing the specialists in SMO promotion.
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