How Belarus’s protesters staged a digital revolution

While Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko sent his security forces out to beat and arrest thousands of protesters last August, four young Belarusians sitting hundreds of kilometres away in neighbouring Poland sifted feverishly through images of the violence.

Lukashenko’s regime had accompanied this brutal crackdown on those disputing his claim to have won a flawed election with an internet blackout. But protesters with the right technology on their phones were able to send photos and videos of the carnage unfolding in front of them. During the chaos, many sent their clips to Nexta, an upstart media group run from Warsaw by Stsiapan Putsila, a 22-year-old blogger who had angered Lukashenko so much that he was already living in exile.

In their spartan office, Nexta’s small team were soon swamped with messages. At the height of the protests, Putsila and three colleagues were receiving 200 a minute. As fast as they could, they filtered and then published the clips on Nexta’s channels on Telegram, a popular messaging app. “It was tough. We didn’t sleep,” says Putsila in an interview in the same office on a quieter evening towards the end of 2020. “We chose the most interesting, the most important, the most awful, and we published them.”

While Belarusian state media played down the government-sanctioned savagery, Nexta’s videos laid it bare. In one, the smoke-filled night air reverberates with explosions from flash-bang grenades as three officers armed with batons dish out a frenzied beating to a man lying defenceless on the ground. In another, two bystanders try to help a wounded bus driver as thick blood from his back begins to clot on the pavement.

In a third, a young woman sobs as she recounts being detained and then beaten by 10 riot police officers. “They treated us like dogs,” she says, fighting back tears. “[They] beat me with batons, insulted me, threatened to kill me, took my trousers off, said they’d gang-rape me and fuck me so badly my own mother wouldn’t recognise me.”

A protester lies on the ground in front of security forces during a march after polls closed in Belarus’s August 2020 presidential election © AFP via Getty Images

But Nexta did not just report on the demonstrations. It also helped organise them. As with other protest movements, the internet swiftly became a battleground in the struggle between smartphone-wielding protesters and the machinery of the state.

Thanks to Telegram’s technology, the app was soon the key source of information on the protests for Belarusians. Its Russian founder, Pavel Durov, tweeted that it had activated “anti-censorship tools” to withstand the blackout. And as Lukashenko hounded the main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, into exile and jailed the few other opposition leaders still at large, Nexta’s Telegram channels did more than anyone to fill the vacuum.

In the days and weeks that followed, its small team churned out posts on everything from where protesters should gather to where they could hide from the police, helping to coordinate the movements of hundreds of thousands of people, in what swiftly became the biggest challenge Lukashenko has faced during his autocratic 26-year rule.

“I don’t think you can overestimate their influence,” says a diplomat who deals with Belarus. “Without Nexta we would not have seen demonstrations on this scale. The authorities simply had no means of shutting them down. And that was something people could see. The other [opposition leaders] were in a way vulnerable: some had to leave the country, and others are in jail . . . But Nexta seemed untouchable, and unbeatable. That’s what people like — and what the regime hates.”

Lukashenko came to power in 1994 in the country’s first — and only — free election, three years after Belarus gained independence from the USSR.

Within a few years, the gruff, moustachioed former collective farm boss had built one of Europe’s most repressive regimes. The security forces — still known as the KGB and largely unchanged since the Soviet era — stamped out dissent. Huge state-owned heavy industry plants dominated the economy. The suffocating system sparked periodic protests, notably in 2006 and 2010 after elections that opponents said were rigged. But while Lukashenko’s repressions drew sanctions from the EU and the US, until last year his grip on power remained absolute.

Barely 18 months out of university and with a boyish half-grin never far from his face, Putsila seems, at first glance, an unlikely threat to such a machine. But given his background, it is not an outrageous piece of casting. Born in 1998, he grew up in Minsk, where he attended the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum. Run by intellectuals and dissidents, the school was well known for its independent curriculum and for teaching classes in Belarusian — which Lukashenko, engaged in a campaign of Russification, opposed. Banned in 2003, it operated thereafter in a clandestine netherworld, with classes held in private apartments on the outskirts of the Belarusian capital.

Nexta founder and Belarusian blogger Stsiapan Putsila outside the media group’s office in Warsaw
Nexta founder and Belarusian blogger Stsiapan Putsila outside the media group’s office in Warsaw © Adam Panczuk

“[Putsila’s] father had been a sports presenter since the 1990s who was the only one who broadcast in the Belarusian language, so his family supported the Belarusian movement for many years,” says Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya who went to the Lyceum a decade before Putsila and founded the school newspaper that Putsila subsequently edited.

“Lukashenko called the school a nest of the opposition,” Viacorka says. “I was there when they closed it down . . . so I had two years studying officially and two years underground. When Stsiapan was there, it was entirely underground.”

Belarus did not recognise students from the Lyceum but Poland did. So when Putsila finished in 2015, he moved to Katowice to study film. There, aged 17, he set up a YouTube channel called Nexta — which means “someone” in Belarusian — to post music videos. His first was a cover of a famous Russian song from the 1990s, rewritten as a scathing attack on Lukashenko’s two decades in power. At first the channel garnered few views. But after Putsila began uploading videos on current affairs, it began to gain attention — from both subscribers and the regime.

In 2018, a criminal case was opened against him for insulting the president in a video in which he dubbed Lukashenko “LukaSherlock” after the president claimed to have solved an old murder case. He was also accused of copyright infringement for his use of pictures of Lukashenko from state TV. “The authorities helped build the popularity of this channel,” says Putsila with a wry laugh.

The official pressure did little to change his tone. Today, his videos are just as critical, and the walls of Nexta’s Warsaw office are adorned with cartoons mocking Lukashenko. But it had two other consequences that proved significant when the protests flared last summer. First, after his YouTube channel was blocked during the copyright probe, Putsila switched his activities to Telegram, an app that allows channel administrators to message huge numbers of people at once. Second, he settled in Poland for good after his home in Belarus was raided in 2018 in connection with the LukaSherlock case.

On Telegram, Nexta built a reputation for challenging the regime’s narratives. Disaffected insiders began to leak everything from official documents to videos of Lukashenko’s residence. “[People liked] the bravery of Stsiapan and his friends . . . he was the only [prominent Belarusian blogger] not in Belarus, so he could afford to publish criminal documents,” says Viacorka. “Most were leaks, some were fakes. But in the vacuum of information, people wanted such news. People wanted to understand what was happening inside the system.”

When the protests against Lukashenko erupted on August 9, after he claimed 80 per cent of the vote in a fraud-stained election not recognised by the US or EU, Nexta’s ability to evade the internet blackout proved crucial. With other bloggers jailed, it had become Belarus’s biggest independent news source, with 350,000 subscribers. After the election, its subscriber base surged to 2.17 million — more than a fifth of Belarus’s 9.5 million population.

Opposition protesters in Minsk take part in a demonstration against Belarus’s fraud-tainted presidential election results
Opposition protesters in Minsk take part in a demonstration against Belarus’s fraud-tainted presidential election results © Natalia FedosenkoTASS via Getty Images

When the internet came back on three days later, the full horror of Lukashenko’s crackdown emerged, triggering a renewed wave of protests. Putsila says decisions about where protesters should gather were taken by a group of 15 people, including activists and administrators of other big social media channels. “I don’t sit here and decide that they will protest here, and here,” he says, gesturing as if ordering people around on the rickety table in front of him. “There are lots of different people . . . and we discuss all these proposals together, and then pick the option that most people agree on.”

Some journalists have criticised Nexta’s blurring of the line between activism and reporting. But Putsila says Lukashenko’s decapitation of the opposition leadership — key figures such as Maria Kalesnikava and Pavel Latushka were either jailed or forced abroad like Tsikhanouskaya — left them no choice. “We are, above all, journalists,” he says. “But we had to take some responsibility for where the protests were going and in what way people were protesting, because they asked us for this.”

Indeed, as Lukashenko cast around for ways to regain control, it seemed to some of his opponents that the fact protesters could organise without a leader in Belarus might even be a source of strength. By early September, the entire opposition leadership was in jail or abroad. But every Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters — sometimes hundreds of thousands — took to the streets of Minsk and other cities to demand Lukashenko resign, in the biggest demonstrations Belarus has witnessed in its history.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in September 2020
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in September 2020 © Thierry Monasse

“They were sure that once [I] was in exile, everything would calm down,” says Tsikhanouskaya, during a meeting on a cold December day in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she has been based since Lukashenko’s security services forced her abroad in August. “It didn’t. They arrested more people. Everything continued. They tried to make Kalesnikava flee. Nothing stopped. Because what matters is not the leader, but [what] is inside the people. And the regime couldn’t believe it.”

It was not just in the protests that Belarusians’ self-organisation and effective use of technology was evident. Mikita Mikado, the Silicon Valley-based founder of Belarusian software start-up PandaDoc, launched a crowdfunding initiative to help security officers pay the heavy fines required to quit the force and retrain for new jobs. Within a few days, he was receiving hundreds of messages from riot policemen who were disgusted by the violence and needed his help. “It was emotional,” he says. “You constantly watch videos of people being beaten up and you want to do something to stop it.”

Another campaign, BY_help, raised $4m to support Belarusians fined or injured during the protests after London-based project manager Alexey Leonchik launched an appeal on Facebook. By February, the campaign had received 16,000 requests for help, its volunteers had assessed 9,670 of them and $3.5m in aid had been paid out. The work gave Leonchik and his colleagues a chilling snapshot of the cruelty of Lukashenko’s regime. One protester aided by BY_help needed his foot amputated after it was mangled by a stun grenade. Another had her face disfigured by a similar blast. A third had been raped by police with a truncheon.

Belarusian riot police detain female opposition activists at a protest in support of their leader Maria Kalesnikava in Minsk
Belarusian riot police detain female opposition activists at a protest in support of their leader Maria Kalesnikava in Minsk © EPA-EFE

Public anger at such brutality was one of the factors that fuelled the support for initiatives such as BY_help. But Leonchik says that the flurry of self-organisation was also spurred by Lukashenko’s bizarre response to the coronavirus pandemic. As most of Europe scrambled into lockdown last spring, he dismissed the virus as a “psychosis” and suggested trips to the sauna or driving tractors as an antidote. Abandoned by the state, Belarusians self-organised, raising millions of rubles to buy equipment for hospitals. That experience, Leonchik says, paved the way for further acts of solidarity when the state actively turned against them.

The coronavirus fundraising campaign “was by far the biggest volunteer campaign in terms of money collected”, he says. “If it wasn’t for that, we probably wouldn’t have such huge campaigns as we do now. The feeling that Lukashenko has been there for too long is overwhelming among all groups of society. This feeling was amplified by his stance on the pandemic, and the feeling that we can actually do something ourselves.”

For a while, Lukashenko seemed at a loss about how to deal with the largely leaderless protests. After his initial crackdown only spurred bigger demonstrations, he backed off for several weeks in August and September. He dropped the internet blockade even more quickly. Some observers think he felt he could cope without it. But the filtering technology the regime was using to throttle internet traffic had also caused online banking — and thus much of the service economy — to grind to a halt. NetBlocks, an advocacy group that monitors internet searches, said the shutdown cost Belarus as much as $56m a day.

“How do you fight back against Telegram channels? Do you have the ability to block them? Nobody does, even the Americans, who came up with this whole web,” Lukashenko told a group of Russian journalists in September, before alluding to Nexta. “Even if you get rid of the internet today, those Telegram channels will keep working from Poland. So don’t let your guard down.”

A protester confronts a law enforcement officer at a march disputing the presidential election results in September 2020
A protester confronts a law enforcement officer at a march disputing the presidential election results in September 2020 © AFP via Getty Images

Soon, however, his regime reverted to time-honoured authoritarian tactics against grassroots movements: flooding the airwaves with propaganda while violently arresting as many protesters as possible. Human rights groups say more than 30,000 people have been detained since the start of the protests. At least four protesters have died.

“It’s much more dangerous now than it was in September. Much more dangerous,” says Aksana, a 47-year-old protester from Minsk. On one occasion, a woman standing next to her was detained purely for wearing a red coat and a white scarf that matched the colours of the opposition’s flag. For anyone, but particularly men over 18 or 19, she says, encounters with the police are fraught with danger.

“[The police] ask you to show them your telephone, and you have to because otherwise they will take you to prison. And you have to show them that you don’t have any pictures from Nexta or pictures with [opposition] flags and so on . . . If you don’t have a phone, or you just have this old phone — because some boys now have these old-style phones — they say maybe you are the head of some group and so we will take you to prison as well.”

The pressure on protesters has been accompanied by official harassment of their supporters. Independent journalists and bloggers have been detained. Putsila and Nexta’s editor Roman Protasevich have been put on a terrorist watch list, Nexta’s logo and Telegram channel declared “extremist materials”. Meanwhile, police arrested four of PandaDoc’s Minsk-based staff on nebulous fraud charges, raided the office and interrogated a further 150 employees. State TV ran a hit piece — redolent of Kremlin TV’s attacks on the Russian opposition — suggesting the group was laundering money for the CIA to help overthrow Lukashenko.

Worried for his staff’s safety, Mikado abandoned his crowdfunding efforts. “I knew that I might be risking my ability to come to Belarus. I knew my relatives might be in danger and I took care of that,” he says. “But these four people had nothing to do with this initiative. I didn’t think they would be jailed.”

Leonchik’s campaign was also targeted. In November, some Belarusians who had received aid from BY_help found that their bank accounts had been frozen. One of the campaign’s staff was briefly detained before fleeing abroad. Another had a narrow escape after friends distracted a policeman who had come to search her house just long enough for her to escape. Leonchik himself was charged with financing an “extremist group” set up by Tsikhanouskaya and her allies with the aim of deposing Belarus’s rightful government. “I’m supposed to be bin Laden’s wallet,” he says sardonically.

Lukashenko also received a helping hand from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Moscow had long been irked by Lukashenko’s resistance to its drive for deeper integration between Russia and Belarus. But after briefly allowing its proxies to muse out loud that his time was up, the Kremlin soon concluded that he was less trouble than the alternatives.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, left, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in November 2017
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, left, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in November 2017 © AFP via Getty Images

In August, Putin pledged to send police forces to support his wobbling counterpart if the protests turned violent. And when Belarusian state TV staff went on strike in protest at their channels’ coverage of the protests, Belarus flew in a group of Russian journalists from what Lukashenko called “the most advanced Russian television” to help “take it back”.

Almost overnight, local pro-Lukashenko experts and most news coverage entirely disappeared from the airwaves in favour of interviews with hardline guests usually seen on Russian TV. The stand-in newscasters referred to Belarus as “Belorussia” — a term almost never used in Belarus itself, even by Lukashenko’s supporters, but common in Russia. With many of its cameramen on strike, state TV made increasing use of footage supplied by Ruptly, the video news agency of Russian state TV network RT.

RT claimed its employees were only there to cover the protests for the channel — even though Russian news outlet RBC reported that RT correspondent Konstantin Pridybailo was an intermediary between RT and the Belarusian broadcaster. RT says that its crews “were able to provide some technical expertise to the local media, as well as share some video content as we have been doing with thousands of media outlets worldwide for many years” but adds that “connecting recognition for that with anything else is incorrect”.

Lukashenko, however, had his own take during a televised interview with Pridybailo. “You understand how important you were for us in this difficult period. What you did technically, your technicians, and your journalists, your correspondents, and your leader — it really means a lot,” he said. When Pridybailo awkwardly interjected to say that “we’re not taking anyone’s place”, Lukashenko wryly raised a brow: “I know, I know, you’re working as part of the group. I know all about it, that’s why I’m so grateful.”

The measures may have been crude but, ultimately, they helped Lukashenko reassert control of the streets. “In the regions, unfortunately the activities have almost died out,” concedes Tadeusz Giczan, part of Nexta’s team in Warsaw. “We still receive pictures every day of 20, 30 or 40 people who get together and take a picture. Sometimes they organise a little march, but that’s it.” In Minsk, sporadic protests continue, but on a much smaller scale. Unable to form the huge columns they did until November, protesters have resorted to impromptu gatherings in their districts, which Giczan says stretch to at most a “few hundred” people.

Nexta journalist Tadeusz Giczan at its Warsaw offices in January
Nexta journalist Tadeusz Giczan at its Warsaw offices in January © Adam Panczuk

In recent weeks, Lukashenko has redoubled his crackdown in a concerted attempt to crush these last outcrops of opposition. The houses and offices of dozens of journalists and activists have been raided. Key figures in last year’s protests have been put on trial or hit with new charges. Last week, two journalists in their twenties were sentenced to two years in jail for filming protests last November.

“The decentralised and grassroots character of the protests was very important and helpful at the beginning,” says Viacorka. “But at some point, when it faced the very organised, very tough power [structures] of Lukashenko, this decentralised movement was not strong enough.” The struggle now is both an information war and a psychological one. “Whoever is exhausted first will lose,” he says. “Both Lukashenko and the people have limited resources. The people of course are far more numerous and can inspire each other. Lukashenko has more organisation, and the secret services and the army. But it will not be the case forever. This is why it is important for us to stay optimistic.”

Putsila, armed with the fearlessness of youth, is more bullish. Lukashenko, he insists, cannot survive longer than a year. Like many in the opposition, he expects street protests to pick up again once Belarus’s icy winter is over. He also says that the woes of Belarus’s Soviet-style command economy, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, will become a serious threat to the president. Finally, he argues that the Kremlin’s support is waning, only sustained by Putin’s fear that successful protests in Belarus could inspire his own opponents. “[Putin] doesn’t want this, and therefore he doesn’t want the Belarusians to win [against Lukashenko],” says Putsila. “But he doesn’t support him.”

The Kremlin has certainly sent mixed signals since Putin’s pledge of support in August. In November, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Minsk to urge Lukashenko to push on with constitutional reforms — interpreted by some observers as an effort to replace Belarus’s presidential system with a parliamentary one in which pro-Russian parties can wield influence for the Kremlin and Lukashenko is gradually eased aside. But this year, even before it was confronted with protests of its own, the Kremlin had taken a softer stance, striking energy agreements with Belarus that ease some of the economic pressure on Lukashenko.

Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights and wave an old Belarusian national flags during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus. © AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

Lukashenko’s statements about his future have waxed and waned accordingly. After meeting Lavrov, he said that he could step down if a new constitution was agreed, and raised the prospect of transferring some of his powers at a National Assembly, which took place earlier this month. In the event, he did no such thing. Instead, he said that a referendum on unspecified constitutional changes would take place within a year, but insisted that Belarus should remain a presidential republic.

Belarus’s opposition leaders dismiss Lukashenko’s shifting pledges as an effort to play for time, and Putsila says that deciphering this manoeuvring will be one of Nexta’s next big battles. “These will be very difficult and important times . . . Lukashenko doesn’t want real change, he only wants to make superficial changes . . . so that people think: ‘Oh we have really brought about change,’” he says.

“But in reality, the changes will only occur when Lukashenko isn’t involved in politics in Belarus at all any more, when all political prisoners have been freed and when we as a media group are able to work freely in Belarus. Only then [can we say that] we have really brought about change.”

James Shotter is the FT’s central Europe correspondent. Max Seddon is the FT’s Moscow correspondent

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