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The Western Paradox

May 28, 2013 - Alex Rubin - Articles and Commentary

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While Western governments continue to criticise the lack of democracy and scope of human rights violations in Belarus, it seems the governments themselves, alongside Western technology companies are aiding its development. The telecoms sector and online environment represent two key areas in which Western hands are continuing to allow President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to enforce authoritarian rule and breach human rights.

TeliaSonera and Ericsson

The Swedish telecoms company TeliaSonera has played a pivotal role in expanding the regime’s internal surveillance within the country. Through it’s 38 per cent share of Turkish operator Turkcell, which in turn has an 80 per cent share of Life (Belarusian Telecom), the Belarusian regime has been able to phone tap, track and trace the calls of anti-regime activists. A particular example pertains to the presidential election protests in December 2010 where the Life network supplied black box surveillance equipment to the country’s security services.

This equipment enabled the regime to monitor phone calls between the activists, intercept text messages and locate which activists attended the protests on Independence Square. As a consequence, activists were tracked down, arrested and prosecuted. Iryna Khalip, a notable journalist and critic of the Lukashenka regime, represents one of those activists who was detained by the authorities and later handed a two-year suspended prison sentence.

Similarly, Ericsson, the Finnish telecoms company has also helped the regime to increasingly spy on opposition activists. The independent Belarusian new agency BelaPAN reported that the company sold communications equipment to the regime vis-à-vis the run up to and during the 2010 presidential elections. Andrei Sannikov, a 2010 presidential candidate, disclosed that his phone was tapped during the entirety of the presidential election campaign that year. During his trial, the Belarusian authorities reviewed text messages and phone conversations from Sannikov’s mobile phone, which subsequently led to a five-year prison sentence.

Western governments

Alongside the secret role of Western telecom companies in Belarus, Western governments themselves are hindering their own efforts to promote democracy and human rights in the country. Notably, the training of the Belarusian police force by their German counterparts in ICT software products is at the centre of this development.

IBM manufactured software Analyst’s Notebook, used by European police forces to process terrorist information, analyse complex data sets and recognise criminal patterns, represents one of these products which has been used by the Belarusian regime. The Belarusian police force has confirmed that training in Analyst’s Notebook software is used in day-to-day operations against opposition activists within the social networking environment.

It is therefore important to distinguish between the words and actions of Western actors. What has become clear, however, is that there is a gulf between the two. If Western governments continue to denounce the actions of the Lukashenka regime, their actions must follow in the same direction. Furthermore, the European Commission must stand up to Western corporations such as Ericsson and TeliaSonera by restricting the sale of surveillance technology which continues to endanger the freedom of speech of individuals within Belarusian society.

Alex Rubin is a postgraduate of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. 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.

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