Belarus protesters use Telegram to keep up pressure on Lukashenko – The Guardian

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In a small Minsk apartment one evening last week, a group of people gathered to discuss plans for a Halloween party with a twist. There would be costumes, drinks and games, but the main event was a ceremonial funeral. The plan: to bury Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

“Maybe we should bury a pumpkin with a moustache,” suggested one young woman.

“What about a giant rat?”

“Yes! Brilliant idea! Write it down in the chat. We’ll need to work out where to get the rat model from.”

“And we’ll need spades to dig the grave. It would be cool if we have a proper grave. There’s a funeral parlour near me, maybe we can actually order a proper gravestone.”

The discussion went on in a similar vein for several hours. Those gathered were the most active members of a local group coordinating protest events in one small district of Minsk, using Telegram. The app has been a driving force of the protests against Lukashenko, since they began in August after he declared victory in a rigged election. The biggest channel has nearly 2 million followers, helping to direct the weekly Sunday protests and spreading news about new repressions.

Since August, the protest has also become localised, and hundreds of smaller groups have appeared. Now there are Telegram channels for each city, each district, and in some cases even individual apartment blocks. They provide support for people who get detailed by police, a forum to swap ideas, and in many parts of Minsk, local protest events, lectures or concerts.

The most famous of these courtyard protest venues is just north of the centre, where a mural has been painted of two DJs who achieved cult status before the election, when they were hired for a pro-Lukashenko gathering and played the perestroika-era track Changes, which has become the unofficial anthem of the Belarusian uprising. The square has been unofficially renamed Changes Square and attracts musicians who give concerts most weekends.

Quick guide

Symbols of Belarus protest

White bracelets/ballot initiatives

Supporters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wore white bracelets to polling stations on Sunday in the hope that a show of popular support for the opposition candidate would prevent election workers from spoiling their ballots. Similar initiatives called for voters to upload photographs of their ballots or to fold them in specific ways, so they would be visible in the ballot box. Supporters later wore white ribbons to protests or tied them to their cars and motorcycles.

Protest anthems

Two songs have been popular at pro-Tikhonovskaya rallies. One is the Kino classic Peremen, or Changes, a perestroika-era song that became a protest anthem in eastern Europe. Two Belarusian DJs were each sentenced to ten days in jail last week for playing the song at a pro-government concert. The other was a Russian translation of the Polish song Walls, which was popular among the workers of 1980s Solidarity movement. The chorus ends: “Then the walls will fall, fall, fall. And bury the old world.”

The Trio and hand symbols

Three women spearheaded the campaign to unseat Alexander Lukashenko, a novelty in Belarus’ male-dominated politics. When Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced that her campaign would ally with those represented by Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, the three women held up hand symbols: a peace sign, a raised fist, and a heart. They quickly became a campaign symbol.

Andrew Roth


Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP

“I saw the atmosphere at Changes Square and thought it would be good to set something up for my own district,” said one of those present at the gathering last week. Others joined in, and now they form a small underground protest cell, one of thousands across Belarus.

Three months ago, hardly any of the people gathered took any interest in politics. They felt Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet authoritarianism did not affect their lives much. But things have changed quickly in Belarus, with a broad swath of the population developing political consciousness in a remarkably short time.

“At the first big protests there was a feeling of: ‘Wow, are we really allowed to do this?’ Then there was a feeling of total helplessness seeing that it was not working, and now we are doing all this organisation as a form of therapy,” said one man in his 30s, who is responsible for distributing opposition leaflets and newsletters to people’s apartments in the neighbourhood.

He has recruited a network of volunteers in each apartment block, as an intercom code is required to reach the letterboxes. “None of the carrier pigeons know who the others are, and why should they? I also don’t know the identities of the people who are printing the materials. It’s better that way, if they pick me up and start breaking my fingers, then I won’t be able to give anyone else up,” said one young man.

With thousands of people arrested in recent months, everyone here now takes precautions. When going to protest, they take rucksacks full of essentials in case they are arrested. Several say they wear two pairs of pants just in case – nobody wants to spend 15 days without a change of underwear.

As the protest mood refuses to be quashed, Lukashenko’s regime ploughs on with its grim crackdown. This week, some restaurants that joined a strike called by the opposition on Monday have been closed down, ostensibly on health and safety grounds, while Lukashenko has ordered universities to expel striking students. The dean of one university resigned, apparently unwilling to do so.

On Friday, Lukashenko said the regime would no longer “take prisoners” and would hunt down opponents even if they were hiding in private apartments. “If someone touches a serviceman, he should be left at minimum with no hands,” said Lukashenko, who has on occasion made suggestions he is ready for reform though his actions have suggested the opposite.

The district protest planners said for security reasons, they only communicated through encrypted Telegram chats, using accounts that were not linked to their phone numbers and registered under pseudonyms. Most of those gathered do not know each other’s full names, and only one of them knows who the Telegram channel administrators are.

Sometimes, the conspiratorial chatter last week could seem a little bit overdone. It was only a local Halloween party they were discussing, after all. But the caution turned out to be far from misplaced. In the days after the meeting, strange men arrived at the apartment of one of the channel’s administrators and rang the doorbell for 15 minutes.

She did not open the door, and waited for them to leave. Later, after other group members had done a sweep of the area and given the all clear, a friend picked her up and brought her away. Shortly afterwards, her landlord received a call from the authorities that they had a warrant to search the apartment. The rest of the group are now worried for their safety. Some of the details in this article have been left vague to protect their identities.

“I don’t know what charges I face or whether I can go back, I don’t know what to do at all,” the channel administrator whose flat was searched said, on a Telegram audio call from a safe location outside Belarus. “But I know one thing: I’m not giving up the fight.”

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