In the videos posted last Sunday from Belarus, thousands of people can be seen streaming into the center of Minsk, walking up the broad avenues, gathering in a park. In smaller cities and even little towns—Brest, Gomel, Khotsimsk, Molodechno, Shklov—they are walking down main streets, meeting in squares, singing pop songs and folk songs. They are remarkably peaceful, and remarkably united. Many of them are carrying a flag, though not the country’s formal flag, the red and green flag used in the Soviet era. Instead, they carry a red-white-red striped flag, a banner first used in 1918 and long associated with Belarusian independence.
It was a marvelous feat of coordination: Just as in Hong Kong a few months ago, the crowds knew when to arrive and where to go. They knew what they were marching for: Many people carried posters with slogans like Leave—directed at the Belarus dictator/president, Alexander Lukashenko—or Freedom for Political Prisoners! or Free Elections! They carried the flag, or they wore red and white clothes, or they drove cars festooned with red and white balloons.
And yet, at most of these marches, few leaders were visible; no one ascended a stage or delivered a speech into a microphone. The opposition presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who probably won the contested election held on August 9, fled the country last week. How did everyone know exactly what to do? The answer, improbably, is a 22-year-old blogger named Stsiapan Sviatlou, who lives outside the country and runs a channel called Nexta Live on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
On Sunday morning, Nexta—the word means “somebody”—posted a red and white invitation to the march. “Ring the doorbells of your neighbors, call your friends and relatives, write to your colleagues,” the message instructed them: “We are going EXCLUSIVELY peacefully to the center of town to hold the authorities to account.” The invitation also contained a list of demands: the immediate freeing of political prisoners, the resignation of Lukashenko, the indictment of those responsible for a shocking series of political murders.
People went to the Minsk march, and to dozens of smaller marches across the country, because they saw that message. On subsequent days, many went on strike because they saw another message on that channel and on channels like it. Over the past 10 days, people all across Belarus have marched, protested, carried red and white flags and banners, and gathered at factories and outside prisons because they trust what they read on Nexta. They trust Nexta even though Sviatlou is only 22 years old, even though he is an amateur blogger, and even though he is outside the country.
Or to put it more accurately, they trust Nexta because Sviatlou is only 22, and because he is an amateur who lives outside the country. In Belarus, the government is a kind of presidential monarchy with no checks, no balances, and no rule of law. State media are grotesquely biased: Memo98, a media-monitoring group, reckons that Belarus state television devoted 97 percent of all political news programming to Lukashenko in May and June, with only 30 seconds devoted to opposition presidential candidates. Political leaders in Belarus are routinely repressed, and their voices are muffled: Tsikhanouskaya was running for president because her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested before he could start his own presidential campaign. Other candidates and politicians were also arrested, along with their staff. Some are still in prison. Human-rights groups have evidence of torture.
They don’t trust the government, they can’t hear the opposition—but more than 2 million people subscribe to the Nexta Live channel, and hundreds of thousands more follow Sviatlou on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as his other Telegram channels, because they trust him. And no wonder: He shows them pictures of people like themselves. He shows them videos of places they recognize. His public persona is optimistic, idealistic, and patriotic. In photographs, he is usually smiling. Plus, he is in Poland, a place where police can’t get the data on his telephone, so it is safe to read what he writes and to send him information.
Indeed, if Belarus is run by people who look like they belong in a movie about Cold War thugs, Sviatlou looks like your next-door neighbor, or rather your next-door neighbor’s clever son. I met him this week in Warsaw, and he was wearing sneakers, shorts, and a Nexta T-shirt. The graduate of an unusual, underground, countercultural school in Minsk—it was set up after the last Belarusian-language high school in the country was shut down—he is fluent in Polish as well as Russian. He was soft-spoken and a little nervous, partly, I am guessing, because he doesn’t do many interviews, partly because he really wanted to get back to work, and partly because on that particular day, the building where he does that work, the Białoruski Dom—the “Belarus House,” set up in Warsaw a decade ago, after a previous generation of political dissidents went into exile—had just received a series of bomb threats. While we were talking, Polish police were chatting in the hallway just outside.
None of which means Sviatlou is afraid. On the contrary, he is in the business of showing his countrymen how not to be afraid. Although he started his blogging career with music videos, Sviatlou has been posting regular political information since 2015, most of which he gets from his readers. He is following in the footsteps of Alexi Navalny, the Russian dissident who was hospitalized this week after being served poisoned tea, who first used the internet not just to communicate with readers, but to create a sense of community. Sviatlou’s Telegram accounts also hold up a mirror for his countrymen, allowing them to see themselves as they really are.
In the past, he has posted evidence of corruption and injustice; one of his breakthrough moments was an amateur documentary, called Criminal Records, about Lukashenko’s sordid rise to power, which has now been watched on YouTube nearly 3 million times. (That’s a large number, given that there are only 10 million Belarusians.) More recently, his accounts have featured testimonials from marchers, drone’s-eye pictures of the protests, messages of support from ordinary people in Poland and Russia, and clips of factory workers shouting “Leave!” at Lukashenko, alongside a list of daily instructions. Sviatlou thinks that everything that has happened in his country over the past few weeks—the demonstrations, the marches, the strikes—has come about precisely because his countrymen have now seen these kinds of pictures and videos, and have therefore ceased to be afraid. “People now realize that they are not alone: They are in the majority. They know that most people in Belarus want this dictator gone.”
They also know that Telegram can’t be influenced. On election day, as it became clear that he was losing, Lukashenko shut down dozens of news sites as well as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and most other social media. Telephone landlines went down too. But Telegram kept going. Its owner, Pavel Durov, a libertarian Russian who lives in exile, declared that he would use special “anti-censorship tools” to keep the app open. Durov also communicated with some of the channel administrators and personally intervened to block channels whose owners had been arrested, in order to prevent their followers’ data from being captured by the state. That was when Nexta Live, which already had more than 1 million followers, doubled in size.
Sviatlou is now racing to keep pace with the huge volume of information he receives every day: “Normally we get 200 messages a minute; now it’s up to 300. We can’t analyze all of them.” He does have a handful of co-workers to help him sift through the immense amount of material people send him, mostly volunteers: In the past he’s made money from Telegram advertising, though he’s suspended that for the moment and doesn’t, he says, have any big stipends or grants. Looking around the crowded offices at Belarus House—messy desks, lots of papers, a big photograph of the very short-lived government of the independent Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918—it’s very easy to believe that’s true. He’s already paid a high price for his notoriety: The Belarus government has issued an international arrest warrant for Sviatlou, who hasn’t been back to Minsk for two years. He has been threatened with 15 years in prison if he comes home.
Paradoxically, the Lukashenko regime is also the source of his unusual power. By suppressing all other sources of information, it has given him unprecedented influence. This also has its downsides. One member of the tiny but determined community of independent journalists in Belarus—I am leaving him unnamed because he remains in Minsk—pointed out that the administrators of Telegram channels outside the country (Sviatlou is one of several) have no way to check whether what they are publishing is true, and no way to coordinate what they are doing with anyone else. Although he does communicate with other channel administrators, as well as with coordinators in Minsk, mistakes are sometimes made. A couple of days ago, crosscurrents of information nearly led one group of opposition protesters into a public brawl with another.
Yet the emergence of Nexta is not just a fluke either, an accident produced by the events of the past few weeks. Three decades ago, I met the first leaders of the Belarusian national movement in Minsk, mostly poets, translators, and historians. Their ideas about their country, their vision of themselves as a small, peaceful, democratic European state—another Slovakia, perhaps an Estonia—were subsequently drowned out by Lukashenko’s baroque extravagance, his illiterate boasting, his insistence on maintaining Soviet-style symbols and a Soviet-style regime, up to and including an institution still called the KGB. Nevertheless, the tiny group of democratic intellectuals didn’t all leave. Like Sviatlou’s parents—one is a teacher, the other a sports journalist—they stayed in Minsk. They sent their children to the countercultural school. Thanks to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, they were then able to send them to study abroad. They built links with Poland, with Lithuania, with Germany, and indeed with Russia. They built a network of independent journalists, human-rights activists, and intellectuals; year after year, election cycle after election cycle, they have kept trying to win public trust. A part of why Belarusians trust Nexta is that they know that its administrators come from this milieu.
That backstory, those deeper ties, and that stamina for the long term may help the little group around Nexta maintain that trust during the difficult period that is probably coming next. Already, Lukashenko is seeking to portray the protesters as foreign, dangerous, violent. As of this moment—and despite the rumors—there is no visible Russian military presence in Belarus: Russian President Vladimir Putin may not even have yet decided what policy to adopt. Lukashenko has been rude and insulting to him in the past; then again, Putin famously fears a street revolution in his own country, and he may not want to see one succeed next door. But even if there are no soldiers yet, Russian-style propaganda, with its “us versus them” divisions and its fearmongering narratives, has already been deployed. Belarus state television—which has already imported some Russian journalists to replace employees who went on strike—is now showing advertisements that contrast happy, peaceful Belarus, a land of flowers and singing children, with photographs of burnt-out buildings in Syria and violent riots in the U.S. This, the advertisement says, is what will become of Belarus if Lukashenko is deposed.
This is a game that has been played before, many, many times. The goal is to break that feeling of unity, that sense of hope created by the pictures and videos of ordinary people carrying flags. Often it works. But sometimes, every so often, it doesn’t.
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