While fighting for his political survival, Alexander Lukashenko has taken a big gamble by interrupting the internet in much of Belarus.
Belarusians seeking to protest his government have been largely cut off from the outside world: the mobile internet has been shut down and popular messaging apps have been disabled, leaving demonstrators scrambling to find wifi connections and working VPNs or proxies to obtain online and then share that news they can find.
The internet shutdown, which Lukashenko hopes will disrupt protests against him for rigging mass voting in last week̵7;s presidential election, is a rare example in modern-day governing Europe that voluntarily kills all of its country offline. suppress disagreements.
The lack of internet has left protesters in an information vacuum. Popular independent news sites, including Tut.By and Naviny, have been largely offline since election day, and television news is government-dominated.
“This prolonged internet blockade is unprecedented,” said Katsiaryna Shmatina, a political analyst at the Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies, noting that the internet was being blocked for longer and more aggressively than in protests in previous years. On Tuesday, there were unconfirmed rumors that the country could cut phone and internet traffic altogether.
With people unable to reach each other, the protests have largely relied on well-known bloggers on the Telegram channels, some anonymous and established abroad, who suggest meeting points for demonstrations and sharing protest videos and breaking news, some of them unverified, which manage to be filtered through blockade.
The largest is Nexta, which has more than 1,151,000 subscribers and has been a major purge house for video from this week’s protests and for instructions for protesters. On Tuesday evening, she told her readers to meet at 7pm in small groups of less than 20 and occupy the streets. “Paralyze the city!”
Staff and allies of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition presidential candidate who has said she will not recognize the results due to massive vote rigging, said the closure had made it virtually impossible to coordinate action.
“They did it all specially so that people could not post information and talk about what is happening in Belarus,” said Veronika Tsepkalo, a Tikhanovskaya ally. During a trip to the city on Monday, she said, she had been unable to reach either Tikhanovskaya or Maria Kalesnikava. “There is no internet – you have to go through a VPN. Even the phones barely work.”
The closure has disrupted normal businesses, from Belarus’ thriving IT sector to tourism. A receptionist at one of the international chain hotels in Minsk laughed when asked if there was internet in the hotel. “No, there is no internet in the whole country,” she said.
According to Yana Goncharova of the Minsk-based NGO Konstanta, the government has been cracking down on internet traffic since July, halving traffic to and from the country at night. Authorities were also targeting well-known VPNs, she said, as well as the popular Procopation Psiphon service.
The internet outage was approved at the level of Beltelecom, the country’s national telecommunications company and the country’s National Traffic Exchange Center, she said. Mobile operators have apologized for slowing down services, but said they happened due to “reasons beyond our control”.
A source in a Belarusian mobile operator told the Guardian: “We are shocked by what is happening. It will continue until around August 14. We have simply been told that this is what is happening.” Lukashenko has blamed interruptions for the attacks. distributed service denial (DDoS) from outside, without presenting evidence.
The disruption has left channels in the Telegram, a messenger app that has already outgrown a Russian attempt to block it, as the main way protesters and the media share information. Along with Nexta, which is based in Poland, are the Belamova channel, which has 340.00 subscribers, and the My Country Belarus channel.
Bloggers share photos and videos of the protests, vote-rigging leaks from the election, and help coordinate demonstrations, including determining when and where protesters should meet. Readers can also submit their own videos – if they manage to access the internet.
“So far I would say the main source of information, some of which is unconfirmed and sometimes uncertain, are those Telegram channels, such as Nexta, and then some large independent media or TV channels like Belsat “They also post on the Telegram,” said Shmatina.
In an apartment in Minsk near a protest bar on Monday night, protesters and journalists gathered on the floor as police shone lights through windows.
A protester opened the Telegram and found a video reportedly showing Russian rebel police entering the city. The video has been deemed false.
“This is it. Lukashenko has made an agreement with Putin and he has been sent aid,” he said. “He has given up the country.”
“He is not interested in the country,” said another person. “But he will never share power with the Russians or anyone else.”