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

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment 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.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid