In Belarus, Clapping Can Be Subversive

Activists in the oppressive country have taken up some novel protest tactics, but will they make any difference?

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MINSK, Belarus -- When thousands of angry Belarussians filled the streets in December to protest the sham elections that saw authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko win a fourth straight term, his response was unusually ruthless. Riot squads charged crowds with batons and stun grenades, injuring dozens as they made mass arrests. Opposition leaders were rounded up and thrown in prison, where some still languish. For months after, the mood was grim. "There was no room to breathe, let alone show how fed up we are with this regime," said Vitya, a 20-year-old university student who spent almost two weeks in prison for taking part in the unrest. "We weren't sure what to do next."

But thanks to the virtual power of social media, a summer of discontent now grips what is often called Europe's last dictatorship. Buoyed by developments in Egypt and Tunisia, and the harsh crackdown that forced him to flee his homeland for Poland, a 24-year-old activist named Viachaslau Dziyanau had a new idea for the protest group he founded in 2009 on a popular Russian social networking site. Flash mobs -- peaceful and wordless -- would meet at the same time and place each week and clap their hands. At best, the stunt might temporarily foil the restrictions against public gatherings; at worst, they would hasten an overreaction that might demonstrate the president's paranoia. The movement became known as the "Revolution Through Social Networks," and quickly amassed more than 215,000 followers online.

Mere hundreds gathered in the street at the first gathering on in early June. The protesters, mostly in their 20s and dressed in trendy clothes, clapped with hesitation, looking over their shoulders to be sure they weren't acting alone. Authorities initially responded by sending plainclothesmen with earpieces out to film participants, some of whom filmed right back with cell phone cameras. As the group held more such gatherings, their ranks grew larger and bolder. It was just a matter of time before Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager who had pledged to "whack" Internet protesters, crashed the party. When security forces were first deployed late last month, the crowds scattered helter-skelter without resistance. Thronged sidewalks were empty within seconds.

In a July 3 address, Lukashenko warned his countrymen not to harbor dreams of "color revolutions" like those that swept other former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia. His security forces are taking no chances. Last Wednesday, police were already waiting in key protest areas around the capital and in regional centers where smaller rallies have taken place. In Minsk's October Square, groups of thugs razed the crowds and hauled people away, including many journalists, into unmarked buses parked nearby. Some were beaten and kicked on the ground. Rights groups estimate that about 1,900 people have so far been detained by police, with close to 500 receiving heavy fines and short prison sentences on charges of "hooliganism."

"They understand they have enormous power and can do what they want; there is no chance for dialogue," said Rusia Shukiurova, a folk musician and activist. She recalls walking with friends on the periphery of the Wednesday protests when a man with a shaved head in an Adidas tracksuit asked for identification. "Who are you?" she demanded, to which he menacingly replied, "I'm nobody." An argument ensued and a couple of her friends were taken away, but she managed to shake free. "We're sick of living in fear," she added. "It's become so ridiculous."

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Jason Motlagh is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who previously served as TIME Magazine's Kabul correspondent. 

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