In Belarus, converting online power to offline momentum

Dec 10, 2012
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Belarus is known for its peculiar attitude to its own culture (or maybe it’s better to say we have a peculiar attitude to our president who has been running the country without any changes since 1994). Last week I wrote in a previous post on the Belarusian-speaking community in VKontakte and the diminishing of the national language due to the ambitions of Lukashenka to get the Russian presidency while Yeltsin was sick. Yeltsin is no longer here, and the relations between Russia and Belarus resemble more and more the relations of a mighty lord and bankrupt client, and yet the attitude of the state to the national language persists.

The decline of language due to its marginalization by the state is just the tip of the iceberg; below the surface you will find a worsening approach to national history. Many important figures are simply left unmentioned as this would contradict the version of eternal friendship between Russia and Belarus. Therefore it was no surprise that the ministry of culture has not discontinued a project under a derogative name of “Bulbash-Hall” built right in the edge of the mass grave of victims of Stalinist repressions in Kurapaty. Historians say as many as 250,000 people may have been executed there in 1930s.

Bulbash is a derogative nickname for Belarusians—translated as “potato-eaters”—that was sometimes used by Russians. This entertainment center would include restaurants, discos, casinos – the regular set of fun.

We are used to the fact that Internet activity in Belarus remains mostly on the Internet. The state has taught Belarusians that anyone taking too much initiative will have to bear the consequences. However the online wave of resentment—from demotivators posted to social networks to the change.org petitioning—seems to have worked. Or, that is to say, the real (i.e. offline) letters resulting from this online resentment to the ministry of culture have worked.  If 1,000,000 in social networks have shown their resentment, then at least 10,000 would mail the ministry questioning this project. By law, the ministry must answer all letters in the same manner as they have been written: on paper.

Whatever happened, the construction was stopped.

A known Belarusian blogger Viktar Marcinovic said that civil society managed to stop the construction of this object because the issue itself was not politicized this problem. The mass resentment that poured out from social networks and materialized as petitions has been more effective than any political party campaign. However, in such countries like Belarus, any question might be politicized. Therefore we don’t really know what happened.

But we obviously understand that the state is afraid of publicity. Even if social-network activity remains only in social networks, it can work if the movements are large enough. Actually, the publicity around the confiscation of the “New Life” church has resulted in the state-utilities service “officially” behind the suit dropping its demands.

So again, it works.

P.S. Change.org, the petitions site, was blocked for some time this summer after the launch of a petition to release Anton Surapin, the photographer jailed for publishing photos of teddy bears dropped from the Swedish airplane. The state is afraid of publicity, and filtering of change.org was another confirmation of that. We need not be afraid of online activity remaining just online – at some point it will make its way offline.


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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