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Belarus’ “Denim Revolution” Will Not Be Televised

Can the internet help end President Lukashenko’s 12-year authoritarian rule?

March 13, 2006

Can the internet help end President Lukashenko's 12-year authoritarian rule?

As Belarus goes to polls on March 19, 2006, President Lukashenko faces three contestants to his 12-year authoritarian rule, including two democratic ones.

Mr. Lukashenko need not worry. A recent Gallup poll gives him the support of 55% of the population. With opposition candidates poised to lose, talks of a color (denim) revolution are in the air.

However, a Denim Revolution staged immediately after the elections is what Lukashenko wants as much as the opposition, since beating it down will legitimize his rule and will let him stay in power for another decade.

Thus, a better alternative for the opposition is to heed all the lessons of the election battle — and start a massive civil disobedience campaign, slowly building a post-elections Denim Revolution from below.

One surprising lesson Belarussians are learning from the campaign is the rising role of modern technologies (and especially the Internet) and the threats they present to the administration of Lukashenko.

Of course, the Internet is not yet used for fund-raising and by armies of partisan bloggers. After all, Belarus has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Europe. Political blogging is virtually unknown — and online giving is non-existent.

Yet, the opposition discovered — perhaps serendipitously — two other great uses for the Internet: the circulation of censored campaign materials and the coordination of grassroots movements. Thus, it became an effective tool in fighting Lukashenko's Empire of Fear.

Had it not been for the Internet, March 2, 2006, would have passed as another ordinary day for the average Belarussian. The official news did not report anything extraordinary.

However, it was on this day that one of the two presidential nominees from the opposition, Aleksandr Kozulin, was severely beaten and detained by the police — and had seven minutes censored from his TV address to the nation.

Early opposition protests against his detainment put 40 more activists behind bars and caused shooting in downtown Minsk. Shortly after, the other democratic nominee, Aleksandr Milinkevich, was told he could not hold a large-scale public rally planned for that very day.

In the early days of Lukashenko's rule, this would have gone almost unnoticed in the vacuum of the listless news reports of official media. However, what was impossible in the Belarus of 1996 is now possible in the Belarus of 2006. The uncensored version of Kozulin's speech made it online and quickly spread from one browser to another.

The censored passages of Kozulin's address even forced Lukashenko to denounce their truth in a public statement, with the censorship having an opposite effect to the one intended. Lukashenko's political censorship is effete, for today activists can buy thousands of blank DVDs and distribute them to thousands of mailboxes.

The amateur photos of Kozulin's beating and detainment appeared online within minutes of the incident. Shortly, Kozulin's website became the main source of news for the whole country, as most of the other independent news sources were attacked by mysterious hackers.

Those who came to protest Kozulin's detainment most probably learned about it from his website.

In today's Belarus, with its low internet penetration rate, the moment a piece of election news makes it online, it also makes it into thousands of phone and personal conversations. Total Internet penetration becomes almost irrelevant.

A few hours later that very day, somebody posted amateur photos of military vehicles and soldiers moving towards the capital. It was clear that the authorities were moving heavy troops to Minsk to prevent Milinkevich's rally.

This is how the venue where he planed to hold his rally — a central public square — was surrounded by thousands of special armed forces.

As a response, the focus shifted to Milinkevich's website, which kept up-to-date reports about the new venue and the time.

The rally — although it had to take place in a different place in the city centre full of special forces — attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Just five years ago, it would not have happened at all. Not because of apathy, but because timely information was lacking. Not any more.

As the Internet becomes an effective tool in the hands of the opposition, Lukashenko faces his first real challenge. A decade ago, he made a mistake of not outlawing the Internet, thus turning his dictatorship into a finite rather than an infinite project.

In an environment where news spreads regardless of whether the tyrant wants it to or not, the regime's days are numbered. Now, it is only timing that really matters.

It would be extremely dangerous now to foment a poorly and hurriedly organized revolution instead of toppling Lukashenko creatively (and peacefully).

A hasty Denim Revolution should be avoided at all costs, since it will claim more than a few lives and will clutter the reform space for Lukashenko's successor.

Instead, the opposition leaders need to work both hard and smart, expand their online work with grassroots movements, focus on students and young people who are easy to reach online — and decentralize more of the campaign's decision-making.

This will greatly speed up the inevitable demise of Lukashenko's empire, and save a few lives — unlike the other alternative.