The internet has been heralded for some time now by political commentators and business elites alike as a unique tool capable of breeding political liberalisation and unseating undemocratic regimes across the world. From the likes of Ronald Reagan through to Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, the internet continues to be perceived as a magical democratic wand. In the post-Soviet space, however, and particularly in Belarus, such an online utopia cannot be said to be merely developing.
Movement of the Future
A case in point about Bynet (a term often referred to as the Belarusian internet) is the extensive use of social networking sites by activists opposed to the current Belarusian regime, but also by the regime itself. Movement of the Future (Движение Будущего) or Revolution through a Social Network initiative (Революция Через Социальную Сеть) is a key example which highlights this two-way potential of Bynet. Through the movement’s VKontakte group – where strategies and routes of protest were organised – the movement amassed over 47,000 members. Although this number did not turn out for all of the group’s protests, it is undeniable that the vast exposure to an endless number of young and internet savvy activists on a nationwide scale contributed to the offline success of mobilising against the Lukashenka regime.
Similarly, the use of Twitter by central organisers of the movement and fellow activists during the protests were part and parcel to their success. In particular, the organiser in Minsk (@InternetREVOLT) tweeted minute-by-minute warnings to activists during the protests about possible arrests, violence and the location of the security services. Anton Motolko, a prominent photo journalist and blogger is one of many activists who utilised hashtags in his tweets. During the June 22nd 2011 protests he notified activists about the brutality of the security forces in Minsk by tweeting a photo link of such individuals attacking an activist using the hashtag #2206v1900.
The backlash against online activism by the Lukashenka regime – but in particular against Movement of the Future – has centred on various forms of informal methods of control, otherwise known as just-in-time controls. Since the movement’s first protest action, the arrest and intimidation of activists has formed an increasing part of the regime’s actions to counter the operations of the group. Notably, the regime utilised the group’s VKontakte page as a hit list to arrest individuals prior to and during protest actions. For instance, on June 3rd 2011, one of the group’s VKontakte administrators, Dimitrii Nefedov was visited by the security services and subsequently arrested a day later.
A further part of the regime’s pro-active strategy towards the movement pertains to the utilisation of social media itself in an effort to directly monitor, neutralise and manage the group’s activities. This began in April 2011 prior to the movement’s offline activities when the Interior Ministry (@mvd_by) and the Minsk police department (@GUVD_minsk) created their own Twitter accounts. Most notably, during the protests on June 22nd 2011 the Minsk police department issued a series of tweets warning participants that by following the orders of the movement’s organiser in Minsk (@InternetREVOLT) and attending the protest, individuals would be violating Belarusian law. During the July 3rd protests, however, rather than simply playing bad cop, the police department embarked on a strategy of good cop. This involved advising and informing activists rather than warning or alarming them. Tweets ranged from notifying individuals that activists had been released by the regime, to others consisting of help for the activists.
What is clear therefore about the social networking arena on Bynet is that it represents a contradictory environment. While opposition activists have grabbed it with both hands, so has the regime. With the advent of increasing legal mechanisms under Alyaksandr Lukashenka, combined with internet power outages, website blocking and corruption, Western actors must seriously reassess the core assumption that the internet represents a unique liberalising force which can topple authoritarian regimes.
This text is published as part of the Digital Eastern Europe column.
Alex Rubin is a postgraduate of the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London, UK. His thesis titled “The Internet in the post-Soviet space: a force for opposition activism or a vehicle for regime retrenchment?” received the recognition of the Frank Carter Postgraduate Prize. His research focuses on the internet and anti-regime activism in both Belarus and Russia.