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Social Networking Encourages 'Silent Protests' In Belarus

A protester applauds as people gather during a demonstration in Minsk organized via social networks.
A protester applauds as people gather during a demonstration in Minsk organized via social networks.
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By RFE/RL
They're called "silent demonstrations;" thousands of people clapping their hands during weekly protests in more than 30 cities across heavily policed Belarus. The applause is for themselves, for overcoming their fear of police beatings and arrest.

That's what greeted some of the 10,000-plus people who took to the streets after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's third reelection in December in voting many believe was rigged. Six opposition candidates were arrested, three of whom remain in jail.

This time, the demonstrators say they're just average citizens out walking in their cities' main squares. They've been organized by young activists in the former Soviet republic who've taken to Facebook and Twitter to bring thousands onto the streets to protest Lukashenka's mishandling of a serious economic crisis.

Few believe the demonstrations can unseat him, but the crisis is posing one of the biggest challenges to Lukashenka's 17-year rule.

Fed Up

One protester in Minsk, who didn’t give his name, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that he's fed up with the authorities.

"We came here intentionally to protest against this system," he said. "It's time our people understand the need for change."

Since December's crackdown, the Soviet-style economy in Belarus has suffered a major crisis that's seen its currency lose more than half its value. Belarusians have been lining up for hours to withdraw their dwindling savings, while panic buying has helped fuel inflation.

Flash-mob protests have been attracting crowds of up to 10,000 people.

That's prompted young activists to use Facebook and Twitter to urge people onto the streets. Over the past month, the number of protesters has grown to an estimated 10,000 people.

Crackdown

They may pose the government no real challenge, but the authorities are taking them very seriously. The secret police, still called the KGB, has targeted protest organizers by obtaining information about them from the popular social networking site V Kontakte, after detaining the site's administrator and forcing him to turn over user passwords.

Other sites have been subjected to denial of service attacks, and police have sent messages on Twitter warning people to stay home.

During the latest protest on June 22, riot police in central Minsk fanned out to arrest some 200 people. Among them was RFE/RL correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich, who described police beating protesters before forcing them into waiting vans.

"When I resisted, four policemen took me by my arms and legs and dragged me into a van," he said. "I kept screaming for help, saying I'm a journalist, but they didn’t listen."

Police have been forcing social-network site administrators to hand over users' passwords.
Veteran politicians have had little to do with the protests, but on June 23 Lukashenka accused the opposition of exploiting young demonstrators for their plans to overthrow him.

Sviatlana Kalinkina, editor of the newspaper "Narodnaya Volya," told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the authorities are concerned the situation could mushroom into "something much bigger."

"They're trying to squelch any spark of protest," she said, "because there are potentially explosive conditions in factories, educational institutions, and elsewhere."

Back Against The Wall

Belarus's worst post-Soviet economic crisis is presenting Lukashenka with one of the biggest challenges to his 17-year rule. The former collective farm boss has often tacked between Russia and the West, each vying for influence in Minsk. But his postelection crackdown isolated Belarus from Western countries, which reacted with sanctions and travel bans.

This week, the International Monetary Fund poured cold water on Lukashenka's request for an $8 billion bailout, saying Minsk would have to come up with a serious reform plan first.

Russia spent years subsidizing Lukashenka's presidency with cheap oil exports. This time, however, it has led a regional aid effort worth only $800 million. Moscow is holding out for control over Belarusian industry and infrastructure. Opposition leaders say this would essentially turn their country into Russia's vassal state.

Moscow made a big gain on June 23 when Minsk agreed it would discuss selling full control of its natural gas pipeline network to Russia, which already owns 50 percent.

Future Protests

Some are hoping the crisis that's prompting such desperate moves will spark an Arab Awakening-style revolution in Belarus. Opposition leader Viktar Ivashkevich said the protests were an important step in that direction.

"They stoke the flames of protest and inoculate people against fear," he said. "They give people the opportunity to stand up to officials who are willing to suffocate anything that breathes."

But many opposition supporters say the protests are still far too small, in a country where people are used to enduring economic hardship.

Nevertheless, Belarus's new social-network activists hope new demonstrations will bring out more people in the coming weeks.

written by Gregory Feifer, with RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: U. Shtukar from: Durham, NC
June 24, 2011 16:53
I very hope that Belarus citizens will win their fight against A. Lukashenko, the worst dictator who has stolen the presidential position 4 times. His hands are blooded, he killed some people like V. Gonchar, V. Zavadski. Do you know that?
He must stay in jail - the only place he deserves. God bless Belarus!

by: K Mini from: San Francisco, CA
June 25, 2011 18:50
Stay strong Belarus! People protesting on the streets you are very brave, smart, and energetic people, you deserve a new chance at success. Don't give up!

by: Mark from: Goodwill
June 27, 2011 14:55
"Global Support for Belarus!" action on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=231659110185352 -

by: Tanya from: Belarus
June 29, 2011 15:21
The info above is quite accurate. Thank you for spreading the word out to the rest of the world! And thank you for the support of those who commented! Join us in solidarity every Wednesday at 7 PM at the main square of your city, or in your thoughts. Belarusians appreciate it :)

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