PRAGUE, 7 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Internet is becoming an important weapon in the hands of the Belarusian opposition.
All of the four candidates for the March presidential election -- including incumbent President Lukashenka -- have launched campaign websites.
Syarhey Vaznyak heads the press office of the united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. He says Milinkevich's website was launched in November last year and attracts more than 1,000 visitors every day:
"News about the [presidential campaign] is constantly updated; [there is also] information about Milinkevich. There is a section on the activities of the campaign's staff," Vaznyak says. "We [also] have a section where people's opinions about Milinkevich are presented. People can also ask questions and Milinkevich answers then [online.] We [also] have various video clips [on the website.]"
Vaznyak says the Internet is more important as a campaign tool than the previous presidential election of 2001. Then, he says, only 2 percent of the population had access to the Internet. The figure now is more like 15 percent.
Oleg Manayev, an independent sociologist from Minsk, agrees. He says that without a doubt Internet will play a significant role in future election campaigns. This, he says, is only a matter of time as research clearly shows the growing popularity of new media.
"According to the latest data, nearly one-quarter -- some 23-24 percent -- [of Belarusians use the Internet]. Half of them do it on a regular basis," Manayev says. "That means around 12 percent [of Belarusians] are regular [Internet] users. By saying on a regular basis, I mean several times a week."
Internet Haves...And Havenots
But the opposition has found that Internet campaigning has a number of drawbacks -- not least Belarus's "digital divide."
Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Minsk-based Strategy political analysis center, says it is mainly opposition supporters and people who live in urban areas who usually visit Belarusian independent Internet sites: "The Internet is used mainly by democratically orientated people, people who [already] support the opposition's values. It is natural that these people are visiting the sites of the candidates. They are looking for their programs and so on and so forth. But to tell the truth these people do not need to be converted [to the opposition's cause]."
Polls indicate that the majority of those who support Lukashenka are pensioners and people who live in villages or small towns -- a group often far removed from modern technologies. According to a 2001 Internet user survey, the vast majority of Internet users at the time were based in Minsk, under the age of 30, and had slow connections. The situation is not radically different today.
However, patchy Internet penetration is not the only obstacle to the opposition getting its message out. There are also the more traditional phenomena of political fatigue and apathy.
Kiril Poznyak, the editor in chief of "Belaruskye novosti," says he thinks that society is tired of politics.
"Political activity has decreased in Belarus. There are several reasons for that and the main reason is political, when people feel repression, pressure. People are simply afraid," Poznyak says. "On the other hand, people say frankly that they are disappointed in the opposition and see no real way of changing the situation in the country."
And he says those who have Internet often surf the web for reasons other than to find political information. He also points out that Russian websites are very popular in Belarus.
There is also the role of the authorities in clamping down on opposition-minded websites. During the 2001 presidential election campaign and referendum of 2004, opposition websites were often blocked.
Many within the Belarusian opposition expect this to happen again. But opposition press officer Vaznyak says the authorities do not have a clearly defined practice of Internet censorship. Until now, Vaznyak says, Milinkevich's site has had no problems.
And what if the opposition deems the elections to be phony?
Vaznyak says that Milinkevich's team plans to use SMS to "mobilize voters" if the elections are forged: "It doesn't matter in our country what people will vote for. It is likely, as former [election] campaigns indicate, that the Central Election Commission will announce figures, which do not reflect reality. I think that people will use SMS messages to mobilize society to defend their choice."
But with President Lukashenka's still topping the polls country-wide, an "SMS Revolution" is probably unlikely. Despite all the new technology, politicians in Belarus are still relying on old-fashioned campaigning. Or, as Vaznyak says: the most important thing is still getting out on the campaign trail and meeting with people.