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

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party 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.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs