In Belarus, gadgets gadgets everywhere nor any freedom to tweet

Feb 13, 2013

Perhaps you saw the funny quote in my news feed on Facebook that read: “This country looks like a post-apocalyptic world. Everyone has got gadgets, phones, and tablets – and around you see broken roads and loads of waste”.

The quote was a reference to Kyrgyzstan, but it could apply to Belarus as well – if you take the word “waste” metaphorically as the current political situation, with corrupted officials around us being the “waste”.  The roads are better than in Kyrgyzstan until you leave the city and enter a village – where I spent last Sunday enjoying grey skies that resembled those over the Pamir mountains last May – I took a small trip there before the second Social Innovation Camp that month in Almaty.

The Belarusian cheap trains ($7 one-way for a second class ticket is the maximum fee for the longest train journey in the country – Bierascie to Viciepsk – which is approximately 650 km) are full of people with smart phones, the latest tablets, and laptops. Second class from Lviv to Užhorod looks much less tech-savvy – one or two laptops for our entire cab.

This goes to show that we Belarusians use a lot of technology, but have very little freedom to use it to openly communicate our thoughts. I hear too often the phrase “this is not a phone talk” (meaning “this topic is not suitable to be discussed over the phone”). Parents took it from the Soviet times, and now the newer generation has picked it up as though they are not sure whether they are not listened to or not. This of course is a blow to proponents of the idea that more Internet and more social networks will bring more freedom. We have 115% penetration of cellular connectivity (meaning some people have two or more SIM cards), more than 2,700,000 active accounts in, approximately 400,000 accounts in Facebook and likely more than 100,000 Twitter accounts (This is difficult to determine since Twitter does not publish its stats openly).

Mobile operators have moved from a price competition to an equipment competition and have started offering new smart phones at cheaper prices, as long as you sign up for a fixed term contract of some kind. The Chinese tab maker Huawei has taken the niche of tabs sold by the cellular operators, most of which are offered by LifeVelcom, or MTS, in exchange for a fixed term contract that was produced by the company. There is no constant filtering of illegal websites and all resources usually remain accessible, with the exception of certain days of the year and/or days when they are DDoSed – allegedly by the state. That can happen when a state monopoly like Beltelecom over-routes the international traffic. In other words, the state is able to block any site at any time as Beltelecom controls all domestic and international traffic. Yet, for some reason, this doesn’t happen that often.

Now we realize that we have the gadgets, but we don’t have the freedom.

Regarding the social media; after traveling to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where Beeline, one of the leading operators there, uses the social networks extensively, I decided to look into the way the Belarusian cellular operators make use of them. My first conclusion was that all cellular operators make use of social networks. My second was that all of them use social networking as a channel of information in parallel with their call centers (if something is broken, not working, or unclear, a customer may just ask on the community via the company’s “Wall” or in personal messages – and he will likely get a reply. E.g. the MTS Twitter feed  is simply a whirl of replies to the questions regarding new promotions, new plans, and the quality of mobile Internet today. It has quite a number of followers – nearly 9,000 people, and a large number of them comment (based on the number of replies from other users to the MTS in the Twitter feed).

Just to compare - Euroradio which has one of the best Twitter-accounts among the independent media, enjoys fewer than 7,000 followers. The Minsk police Twitter, the only live Twitter feed belonging to a state institution or a state official (which is quite different even in Russia, let alone Poland or Ukraine where every second politician or MP is social-networking) enjoys fewer than 10,000 – and these accounts are believed to be big in the Belarusian Twitter-sphere. Thus, MTS belongs to the leading Twitter users.

The Twitter account of the Austrian-owned Velcom comes in second, with approx. 3,500 followers, and the Turkish-originated Life closes the chain with a bit less than 3,000 subscribers. The use is pretty much communicative with mobile subscribers regarding the plans, costs, equipment offered by these MSPs, while users also try to resolve problems that emerge.

Thus, Twitter, which is just the third social network in Belarusin terms of the number of users, is used extensively. Facebook takes second place in the country with approximately 400,000 users; however, the activity of the MSPs accounts is quite low - Velcom’s community takes the lead with 2,200 subscribers, then comes MTS with 823 subscribers, and Life with just 150. Only Velcom’s community shows signs of life with comments and quite a number of likes.  The other two are next to silent, with users refraining from any questions at all. obviously looks much more spectacular: Velcom is approaching the 30,000 mark, with a number of other communities on Velcom and its services created by the fans. MTS has 8,600 followers, while Life has has a mere 300.

Each MSP actively uses at least one social network to communicate with and solve the problems involving their customers and the intensity will tend to grow.

Why have I picked this issue up? Numbers are numbers, but in a country where there is not a single acting politician present on the social networks, the commercial companies are making the best use of the social media communities.  That is, after the activists, of course, who were the first to pick up VK and FB.

This means that we are a strange country with a frozen political life and a comparatively free Internet.

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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