News / Europe

Belarus Protests Fueled by Internet Freedom, Bad Economy

Former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev gestures as he speaks to the media after leaving a court building in Minsk, Belarus, May 20, 2011
Former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev gestures as he speaks to the media after leaving a court building in Minsk, Belarus, May 20, 2011
James Brooke

Internet freedom and an economic free fall are combining for unprecedented protests in Belarus, a nation historically locked up by a Soviet-style leader.

Falling living standards are swelling protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who has long ruled Belarus through a combination of charisma and intimidation.

Overcoming fears of the police, drivers have purposely paralyzed traffic in Minsk, traders have wrestled with guards at the Polish border, and every Wednesday evening silent protests become weekly events in all major cities.

An opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, emerged from a jail cell last month to find he had to catch up with the fast-moving Internet resistance movement.

Neklyaev and other activists predict harsh police crackdowns on upcoming silent demonstrations. Police vacations have been canceled, they said, as Lukashenko seeks to keep Soviet-style control over celebrations next Sunday marking Belarus Independence Day.

A Neklyaev aide, Andrei Dmitriev, said protest information spreads anonymously through Facebook and Russian social network sites.

“It is very dangerous to show that you are active, because you can easily be put in jail for any reason,” he said.

Internet usage has exploded in this increasingly urbanized nation. One third of Belarussian adults are now on social network sites. Last year, the number of people seeking news on the Internet jumped by 82 percent, according to Iryna Vidanava, who runs an opposition news and entertainment website.

She said the total audience of independent and opposition news sites now matches the viewership of one of the Belarus' top state-controlled TV channels. Looking ahead, Vidanava predicts the deteriorating economy will sharpen protests even more.

"The peak of the protests will be in the fall, not in the summer," said Vidanava. "Definitely the government does not know what to do about the financial crisis.”

In Belarus, discontent is as near as the closest food market.

On Saturday, 57-year-old pensioner Lilia sat with her plastic bags after shopping at the massive Komarovski Market. She said prices on locally produced mushrooms are jumping, but she is afraid to complain.

If you open your mouth, she said, you will be taken to prison.

Lilia says she now gets most of her news from independent sites on the Internet. She said that she and her adult children believe the economic situation will only get worse. But after last month’s 50-percent devaluation, there is no way they could afford to emigrate.

At the vast open-air market, shoppers throng sections selling locally grown vegetables and fruit. But at the fish and meat sections, business is slow. Saleswomen chat with each other or read magazines.

A 24-year-old Polish language teacher, Irina, said she is downsizing.

“People can buy some macaroni and rice, but not meat for sure,” she said.

At a music store nearby, music is thumping, but buyers are scarce. Store manager Evgeni said prices have not gone up much, but customers are cutting back on non-essential purchases.

Belarus devalued because it ran out of hard currency.

At the Korona shopping center, people stand outside a foreign-exchange booth, waiting for someone to come and sell dollars.

Galiya, a mother of a handicapped child said she had been waiting two months to buy hard currency to buy medicine.

To save time, people sign up on waiting lists. When dollars, euros, or Russian rubles come in, they get a call.

Outside the Lithuanian Embassy, 21-year-old college student Anastasia paused in her quest to get a visa that would allow her to travel to the European Union.

“The students I see are very unhappy with the situation," she said. "They cannot pay for their apartments, pay for their food.”

The International Monetary Fund predicted that inflation in Belarus will be 50 percent this year.

The former head of the National Bank, Stanislav Bogdankevich, ran through the debts that will come due in coming months.

Objectively, he said, the situation is going to get worse.

For now, he said, Lukashenko is printing money to pay for salary hikes, giving people the illusion they are keeping up with inflation.

The government’s long-term strategy is to find a large source of hard cash - fast. The president is offering to sell Belaruskali, the country’s largest company, to Russian investors for $30 billion.

But opposition leader Neklyaev said the company currently earns Belarus $3 billion a year. He said that at current rates, its potash reserves could last 200 years. Selling this state company, he charged, would be treason.

An economy spiraling downward, plus a new freedom to communicate, appears to be pointing to turbulent times ahead for Belarus, often called the last dictatorship in Europe.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More