Hong Kong hasn’t been the protesters’ only inspiration. A demonstration on August 16, perhaps the largest in Belarus’s history, “was more like [the] Armenian revolution,” Viačorka said. “The idea was to create a critical mass of people filling out the streets and to demonstrate the new majority.” And so far, they’ve been able to do just that. In addition to its street protests, the movement has been buoyed by walkouts from farmers and factory workers—groups thought to be among Lukashenko’s most loyal supporters. State-owned enterprises and state broadcasters have also joined the strike, as have people claiming to be members of the police and security services, who filmed themselves throwing out their uniforms in protest.
Central to the movement’s success has been its ability to harness social media. YouTube popularized opposition figures such as Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, whose bid for the presidency was thwarted by his arrest in May. The popular video blogger had spent the previous year traveling the country and documenting people’s concerns, Dryndova said, which ultimately culminated in the announcement of his candidacy under the slogan “Stop the Cockroach,” a reference to one of his viral videos about Lukashenko. After his arrest, Tsikhanouskaya stepped in to take his place.
Then, when traditional social-media platforms became less reliable, protesters turned to Telegram. The encrypted messaging service, which was similarly popular in the amorphous movements of Catalonia and Hong Kong, has played a vital role in organizing protesters and disseminating information horizontally, absent any formalized leadership. This is a “Telegram revolution,” Viačorka said. It’s “not the opposition, not the political parties. Everything is made by bloggers, influencers, and these Telegram channels.”
Of the dozens of Telegram channels dedicated to Belarus’s movement, the most popular, NEXTA (or nekh-ta, meaning “someone” in Belarusian), has more than 2 million subscribers—not an insignificant number for a country of 9.5 million people. The channel, run by the 22-year-old Belarus native Stsiapan Sviatlou, functions not only as a source of information and news for protesters, but also as the movement’s virtual headquarters. “IT’S TIME TO TAKE THE LIFE OF THE COUNTRY INTO OUR HANDS!” read a message pinned at the top of the channel, including instructions for the August 16 march and a list of protest demands (Lukashenko’s departure, the immediate release of all political prisoners, and justice for those who were murdered or tortured).
Anne Applebaum: The 22-year-old blogger behind protests in Belarus
The channel’s influence hasn’t escaped the notice of the Belarusian government, which this month opened a criminal case against Sviatlou. Lukashenko also sought to undercut the protesters by disrupting the country’s internet access—a tactic that has been employed by other governments, including those in India, Iran, and Egypt. Here too, though, Belarusians were able to utilize the experience of protesters in places such as Hong Kong and India to their advantage. When the internet went out, they turned to offline applications such as Firechat and Bridgefy, which enable users to communicate without an internet connection. VPN tools such as Psiphon, popular among activists in China and Iran, reported a surge in users the day after Belarus’s election.