The World

Belarus’ Revolution by Meme

Viral videos of security officers destroying their uniforms may signal the nation’s reached a tipping point.

Women wearing white chant slogans as they stand along the side of the street in Minsk.
Women with flowers stand along a street as they protest against police violence during recent rallies of opposition supporters in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday. Sergei Gapon/Getty Images

There’s no shortage of dramatic images coming out of Belarus after last Sunday’s presidential election, in which longtime dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko says he won 80 percent of the vote. In Minsk, large groups of women wearing white and carrying flowers linked hands to form a human chain. Crowds have gathered outside a detention center to chant “hold on” and “stay strong” to the prisoners being detained and reportedly tortured inside. In a grim video released by the state media, a group of sweaty and bruised protesters are paraded before the camera, asked by a distorted off-camera voice if they are going to do any more revolution. “Never again,” they reply, plainly terrified.

One of the more compelling videos is one of the least visually dramatic ones. It shows a stout man wearing shorts, a Pink Floyd T-shirt, and a policeman’s cap, flanked by his sons, one of whom is wearing his uniform shirt. He introduces himself as Sergei and says he is ashamed of what the Belarusian security forces have been doing, then he and his children begin tearing the patches off his uniform. “Brosai!” he instructs his sons—”Throw it out!”—as they chuck the whole kit into the trash.

The video is part of a growing meme of security service officers throwing out their uniforms. Something about the sight of this man making a family activity out of it, having his sons tear apart the uniform he probably once took pride in, makes this one stand out. It’s one thing to watch smartly dressed young students stare down an authoritarian regime. But if guys like Sergei have had enough, the regime might really be in trouble.

It was predictable that the election would spark an uprising. And in retrospect, it was also predictable that video would play a major role in that uprising. Several weeks before the election, the government jailed one of Lukashenko’s most popular opponents, a political YouTuber named Sergei Tikhanovsky. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ran in his place, forming an unlikely trio with two other women: the wife of another imprisoned candidate and the campaign manager of a third. The three women attracted unprecedented crowds at their rallies.

On Sunday, Lukashenko claimed victory with an unlikely 80 percent of the vote—only slightly less than he earned in 2015 without any competition. Golos, a monitoring organization that had asked voters to send in photos of their ballots, estimated that it was Tikhanovskaya who had won 80 percent of the vote.

Protests and riots quickly broke out, and about 3,000 people were detained by the security services. An obviously distressed Tikhanovskaya, who may have been detained for several hours at the election commission office, released a video on Tuesday saying she was leaving the country for the sake of her children and asking her supporters to accept the election results and not resist the authorities.

As protests erupted, the government shut down much of the internet, making search engines as well as Facebook and Twitter inaccessible. A dramatic animation produced by the anti-censorship group NetBlocks shows internet activity shutting down throughout the country:

One exception is the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which has remained accessible and become the main forum for opposition organizing. (Telegram co-creator Pavel Durov left Russia in 2014 after complaining of pressure from ally President Vladimir Putin, an erstwhile backer of Lukashenko.) Most of the viral videos shared outside the country were released via the Telegram channel Nexta, which is based in Poland.

Andrey Bastunets, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “To a considerable extent, [Telegram] channels are coordinating the actions of the people who are taking to the streets and public squares because they are the means by which information and action plans are distributed. … To be honest, [Telegram channels] have seized the initiative from the united opposition headquarters in terms of organizing protest actions.”

The Belarus protests are similar to a number of decentralized protests around the world in recent months, which have been organized via social media rather than by any central organization. As such, the movement has been highly resilient: Protests have continued even after their ostensible leader, Tikhanovskaya, fled the country, and after other prominent opposition figures were jailed. But the movement is also now reliant on one messaging app, access to which has been unpredictable.

Activists on Telegram called for a general strike, starting on Tuesday, and several strikes have been reported at state-owned factories around the country. Thursday also saw the first, albeit minor, defection from the presidential administration. The EU is considering new sanctions against Minsk. (Previous sanctions were lifted in 2016 after the release of political prisoners.) The crackdown may also have put the brakes on plans to send a U.S. ambassador to Belarus for the first time since 2008.

Maybe the final straw was his cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus. Maybe it has to do with an energy dispute with Russia that has crippled the country’s economy. Or maybe Lukashenko has simply overstayed his welcome after 26 years. No matter the reason, it appears that Belarus has reached a tipping point. Lukashenko may still be able to hang on through sheer force, but he may have a harder time finding people like Sergei to carry out his orders.

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