A while back, for my assessment work at uni I contacted some bloggers to ask for their opinions on the impact of the internet on the Belarussian elections. I hadn't been able to publish the article on the blog until all the marking procedures were done with, but they're all done now so as promised, here it is:
A quiet revolution has been stirring in Minsk. The US labelled Alexander Lukashenko’s regime the “last true dictatorship in Europe” and called for change in Belarus. After years of media repression there’s a new way of communication that has made a difference to those who want reform.
Communities of opposition activists have been building on internet sites like LiveJournal, Blogger and Flickr, which provide a crucial way to get around the barriers that Lukashenko put in place.
Television, radio and newspapers are under state control so follow Lukashenko’s every word, and in his twelve-year rule he has almost entirely abolished independent media.
Despite this, on 19th March President Lukashenko received 82.6% in the presidential election, but the results have been rejected by many Western nations. The US and EU placed travel and financial penalties on the former Soviet republic after an estimated 500 people were detained by the authorities following a five-day protest against the poll.
Including those arrested were Mariusz Maszkiewicz, a former Polish ambassador to Belarus and Alexander Kozulin, a runner-up in the election. It is widely believed that riot police used unnecessary violence and tear gas in their response to the protests.
Foreign journalists from Poland and Ukraine who attempted to report the election from inside the country were also targeted and detained while other foreign reporters have been expelled.
But internet groups like the one on LiveJournal have helped to galvanise protesters against the regime. During the protests thousands of people gathered at Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk in a small ‘tent city’ to protest the fraudulent presidential election, demand a new vote and support the opposition. The state-owned media either ignored or misrepresented the protest, and much of the virtual discussion took place in Belarusian LiveJournal communities.
Veronica Khokhlova, who translated LiveJournal posts from Belarussian to English on globalvoicesonline.org, said: “I think that the internet has been very important for the activists and that the lack of access to information has played a very negative role in the election.
“LiveJournal and its communities have been a way to coordinate many activities; they serve as a means to spread information but also provide certain anonymity which means relative safety [from government forces].”
Surveys suggest that just 18 percent of Belarussian people have access to the internet either at home or at work, which means that less than two million of Belarus’ ten million citizens have access to the internet.
But at the end of 2005 it was estimated by the Belarussian Association of Journalists that the total circulation of independent press was just 200,000, meaning that the internet could potentially have twenty times the audience as the independent press.
Sales of independent newspapers became even more difficult in the run up to the election with subscriptions banned, newspaper kiosks ordered not to stock them and tens of thousands of copies seized. But the internet has given a lifeline to the oppressed campaigners.
“Though it is hard to estimate how many of those who are using the internet are seeking or finding political information there, even with a rather small portion this should mean that the internet is of an importance which is comparable to that of the printed independent press” said Belarus blogger Tobias Ljungvall.
News websites such as Charter-97, which is available in Belarussian, English and Russian, led the online campaign for democracy. The website had a banner across the top of the website reading ‘we want a new one!’ referring to the election. The words are printed against denim – the material that protesters hoped would be the symbol for the ‘denim revolution’.
However, a revolution similar to that of the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine in November 2004 is unlikely to happen in Belarus after the election which Lukashenko still insists was fair.
Although at its height protesters numbered around 10,000, bitter winter temperatures and a fear of the regime saw numbers dwindle to around 1,000 who were dispersed with force. The Belarussian army may have been able to move 1,000 people away from the main square but they might have had more trouble displacing the 50,000 assembled in Kiev.
The Belarussian elections got a few headlines in the West, but reporting was largely speculative and nothing on the scale of the Ukrainian elections in 2004. For a country of a similar size and facing similar democratic problems the coverage in the UK has been poor.
Other internet news sites such as Belorusskiye Novosti, Belorusskiy Partizan and the br23.net blog which operates in English and Belarussian have provided some news and reports on the human rights violations in Belarus but much is based on rumour and personal reports rather than traditional journalistic news writing and facts.
The internet is not as free as you might believe in Belarus. Independent websites have complained of attempts to censor and block them so many of the sites are hosted abroad to bypass the censorship.
Since the protests have quietened following the arrests, users on LiveJournal have continued to stage smaller acts of defiance including urging for readers to honk their horns as they pass Oktyabrskaya Square, wear black and hang black ribbon out of their windows at Lukashenko’s coronation. LJ user ‘hondurazian’ suggested that people let free paper origami boats with messages at the Svisloch River embankment.
Experts are unsure as to how much impact the internet has had on Belarus. It is doubtful that if another entirely democratic election were to be held tomorrow then Lukashenko would lose. But if the kind of press freedom that other Soviet states have got can’t be achieved in Belarus then the internet could just be the way to spread knowledge and lead to his downfall in the future.