What Can We Learn From the Belarusians?
Belarusians Out On the Street After Rigged Elections, from Twitter user @ljoksa
The fraudulent elections in Belarus yesterday, and the ensuing violence as police cracked down on demonstrators, were not especially surprising. It might be useful though to try and look at what can be learned from the Belarusians' attempt at protest in the face of massive, and technologically savvy, repression.
Since all access to connection technologies is pretty much guaranteed to be revoked, should a system for organizing and mobilizing protesters despite these blockages be planned (secretly) in advance? Early yesterday afternoon brought reports of Gmail blockages, preventing opposition groups from sending messages to their email lists, as well as Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, and other social networking sites. But did the opposition really think it would be able to rely on its email lists to mobilize supporters?
The 9 different candidates contesting Lukashenko's rule had been granted surprising leeway ahead of the elections. They were allowed to speak on television and even criticize President Lukashenko with impunity. Yet on election day they their websites were swiftly blocked and subjected to DDoS attacks. The mirror sites (exact copies at different URLs) which sprang up after these outages may have appeared to be the work of opposition groups and their supporters, but were actually created by the government. The messages on the mirror sites were presumably left unchanged until the last minute, when authorities tweaked them slightly to confuse would be protesters. Hal Roberts at the Berkman Center, who has reported all this via a source in Belarus, underlines that none of this behavior is much of a shock: "this practice of using a complex combination of different methods for controlling the Internet, particularly during times of crisis like an election or a protest, is very common." Since this is standard fare for 21st century dictatorships, it's unfortunate that opposition groups didn't put a plan b - tactics for organizing that do not rely on the tools which were clearly going to be made unavailable - in place.
That said, no amount of guile and organizing acumen may have been a match for the brute force employed by police and military. Check out this video of protesters slowly dispersing from one of Minsk's main squares. At first, it could easily be footage of concertgoers calmly filing out of an auditorium - until you hear the synchronized march of police in riot gear, and before you know it a girl in a white parka is screaming and then knocked to the ground, where she tries to shield her face from police batons.
The sheer violence of the crackdown that we saw yesterday in Belarus raises the question of whether or not on the ground demonstrations are even the most appropriate tactic in the face of such repression. As one Belarusian tweeted (translated thanks to Global Voices' RuNet Echo): "For the first time I've seen how riot police are beating people with sticks… During our [Ukrainian] orange revolution [of 2004] everything was like in a kids' fairy tale compared to #electby."
What lessons do you think can be learned from the post election happenings in Belarus?