Prague - For the past nine weeks, Belarusians have been getting out in the hundreds into the main squares of big and small cities across the country on Wednesdays at seven in the evening. They clap, or let their mobiles ring all at once. The ‘Revolution through Social Networks- movement’ started by five students, and growing on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte, is posing a new threat to the Lukashenko regime.
"This is not a movement of the traditional Belarusian opposition: the participants are people who were never involved in opposition actions and never protested before," Mikita Krasnou, one of the five founders of the movement, told IPS. "People in Belarus were looking for new organisers, for new representatives.
"The traditional opposition is also interested in playing a role in this movement, and this has caused them to become more united," adds Krasnou.
The tactics of the group have confused the authorities. On Independence Day parade Jul. 3, the police announced strict restrictions on clapping: you could only applaud the parade if you were a veteran or an ex-serviceman. Otherwise, you would risk being arrested.
The authorities have also been placing limitations on the Internet: more than 40 percent of Belarusians have access to the Internet, but those using it from work, if this is for a state company, cannot access independent sites.
Since last year, those wanting to use Internet cafes need to present their passports. And, from this June, all Belarusian websites are forced to use the national domain, ‘.by’, making them easier to control. All Internet services are from the state provider, and the connection is both expensive and of low quality. More recently, access to Vkontakte has been blocked on Wednesdays.
But the KGB (security services) has employed more brutal repression tactics against the online activists: on Jul. 3, many were arrested on the spot; others, whose mobile phones were tracked down to have been used in the main squares at the time of the actions, have been brought in for interrogation.
Getting arrested in Belarus is no longer unusual. Many opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko have been arrested at least once; since the clapping protests began, around 1,500 people have been detained. Some are arrested for a few days, others receive year-long sentences.
"Fifteen years ago, if you belonged to the opposition, you were either a politician or a fighter, but now you just have to be a fighter," Aliaksey Shydlovski, one of the first political prisoners of post- independence Belarus and co-founder of Young Front and Bizon movements, tells IPS.
Shydlovki is a revolutionary from the previous wave. In exile in Prague for the past two years he says, "people getting out on the streets today in Belarus are braver than us, especially the women. The regime has gotten more insecure and hence tougher."
The insecurity of the regime stems largely from the economic crisis gripping the country since last year, after Russia spiked gas prices at the end of 2009-2010. This year, the Belarusian currency has been devalued by over 50 percent; prices for basic goods and gas have increased, and people are hoarding staples and other products. Having been shunned by the International Monetary Fund, Belarus has instead taken a 3 billion dollar stabilisation loan from the Russian-controlled Eurasian Economic Community.
The conditions for this loan involve privatisation of state assets. Beltransgaz, the national natural gas and infrastructure company, already half owned by Russian state monopoly Gazprom, could be sold entirely to the Russians, who want to save transit fees for their exports to the West currently cashed in by Belarus. About a fifth of Russian gas used in Europe comes through Belarus.
"What Russia is now doing is using economic sanctions to weaken Lukashenko and get control of the Belarusian economy for Russian oligarchs," says Raman Kavalchuk, another opposition leader from the Young Front generation.
"Lukashenko will fall over the next years," Kavalchuk tells IPS. "It will definitely take more than online mobilisation, it will take trade unions, independent initiatives, seeing tens of thousands in the streets. But this can slowly happen – most Belarusians are not going to accept not being able to eat meat any more because of prohibitive price increases."
The mood among opposition leaders seems to be one of preparation for the post-Lukashenko era. Ales Michalevic, a politician currently in exile in the Czech Republic after a two-month stunt in jail following his participating in the December presidential elections, is honest about his current campaigning. A pragmatic type, Michalevic says he is now reaching out to lawyers, bureaucrats and even military and police in Belarus: garnering their trust in the opposition is strategic.
According to Michalevic, while the West could help by clearly calling for the end to politically motivated prison sentences, the promise of an IMF loan, no matter its size, can make little difference in Belarus, as the whole economy is shattered. "Only massive sale of state assets to Russia can make a difference, and the crucial issue for the opposition is how much will be sold by Lukashenko and how much will still be left in the hands of the Belarusian people," he tells IPS.
Selling state assets to Russia will weaken Lukashenko’s grip on power. But, without it, he has no way out of the economic crisis that is turning the most sympathetic sectors of the population – those appreciating the economic stability offered in the past by the regime – against him. There seems to be little room for manoeuvre for the dictator, and this is showing.
"The three most important political events this year have been the revelation of KGB torture of political prisoners, the Stop Petrol protests of motorists against gas price hikes (which are nominally a protest against higher gas prices but really an anti-Lukashenko action), and the Revolution through Social Networks," says Michalevic. "All three events were made by the opposition, with the government merely taking a reactive stance, and committing many mistakes while at it."
"We have different means to bring Lukashenko down," says Krasnou. "First, we tried to do these actions by the law, not giving any excuse to the regime to arrest and beat us. Now that we have many supporters and active people who are communicating to us via social networks that they are ready to get together and solve problems, we will try to move from mass support to organised groups that are ready to work all the time."