Why Belarus' Dictator Is Not Fond of Applause

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Andrey Smirnov / AFP / Getty Images

Plain clothed Belarusian policemen detain activists of "Revolution internet" during the Independence Day celebration in Minsk on July 3, 2011.

The dictator who rules Belarus does not like the applause he hears. That's because it isn't for him but aimed at him. Young Belarusians have adopted a novel strategy to protest their frustration at the humorless and iron-fisted regime of Alexander Lukashenko: they have started clapping. Organized by way of social media (the leaders of the opposition to Lukashenko are either in jail or in exile), the flash-mob rallies began last month as a peaceful means of working around draconian laws that prohibit unsanctioned public gatherings. At first, a few hundred met up in the capital's Oktyabr Square and then fanned out into the city, breaking into spontaneous fits of clapping on sidewalks and street corners, much like sports fans celebrating a win on the way home. Their ranks have since swollen to several thousand.

Lukashenko's thugs, however, saw nothing but a threat to public order. When scores of protesters assembled in downtown Minsk and regional centers Wednesday evening, as they have for five weeks running, police and plainclothes goons were waiting for them. Squads of men in tracksuits formed human chains to break up the gatherings, seizing everyone in their path. Many were punched or kicked on the ground before being dragged away into unmarked buses. "The [authorities] are treating us more aggressively each time," says Maria, 31, a participant who managed to avoid arrest, unlike some of her friends. "It's getting ugly."

The latest violence comes on the heels of a weekend rally that disrupted Independence Day festivities and ended with nearly 400 people rounded up around the country. Earlier that day, President Lukashenko gave a speech dressed in full military uniform warning his opponents not to harbor dreams of "color revolutions" that swept other ex-Soviet-states, referring to Georgia and Ukraine. He went on to blame the previous weeks of hand-clapping unrest on shadowy forces operating from "the capitals of other countries."

Such bluster is usually reserved for sly foreign intelligence agencies, but the real culprits are no more than fresh-faced twenty-somethings with laptops and an axe-to-grind. Like Viachaslau Dziyanau, 24, a democracy activist and campaign worker who fled the country after in the wake of December elections that Lukashenko clearly hijacked. Setting up shop in Krakow, Dziyanau funneled his efforts into an activists group he founded in 2009 on the popular Russian social networking site, vkontaktye. The group has since evolved into something called "Revolution Through Social Networks." At last count, it boasted more than 215,000 members.

The young are not the only ones getting restless in Europe's last dictatorship. There are signs that the traditionally passive working class are growing fed up over runaway inflation caused by reckless government polices that have cut into pensions and led to a shortage of basic goods. Last month, angry motorists who staged a protest in central Minsk demanding lower fuel prices were dispersed with tear gas. Lukashenko ordered prices back down the next day, but new rules aimed at curtailing the black market trade in gas, cigarettes and other state-subsidized goods brought people back in to the streets in other cities. Trade unions, a bedrock of support for the president, have warned that the uncertainty is stoking tensions.

While pro-democracy activists are abuzz about the power of social media, most here reckon it's far too early for comparisons to Tunisia and Egypt. Belarus, after all, remains in a Soviet hangover, with one of the highest ratios of security agents-to-citizens in the world and a vast public sector whose livelihoods depend on a state-controlled economy. Alexander Feduta, a political analyst who helped get Lukashenko elected in 1994 and has since joined the opposition, insists that until a critical mass of the working class gets involved, the current movement is not likely to kick into gear. "When the factory workers come out, then the revolution will really be on," he says.

Still, there's no question that Lukashenko is facing the worst crisis of his 17 years in power. He may yet be able to buy time by selling valuable state-assets to Russia, on whom he has long depended on for cheap oil. But Moscow has grown testy of late over outstanding debts, going so far last week as to temporarily cut off the supply of electricity to Belarus. Alternately, the massive loan Minsk is seeking from the International Monetary Fund would require financial reforms that could weaken the regime's grip. In the meantime, says Sergei Chaley, an independent economist, the "pressures will continue to build" and so will the size of the protests. As winter nears and the rising cost of food and fuel becomes more acute, he adds, the youthful complexion of protests could change as workers join in.

That's presuming the protesters can withstand the crackdown. For all the tens of thousands who have pledged their support on social networking groups, there are mere hundreds who have shown up to be in harms way. It remains to be seen whether they will succumb to the apathy that has saddled older generations. "My parents say to me, 'What's the point," And I say, 'What have I got to lose,'" says Vitya, 20, a university student. He's no stranger to risk, having spent 12 days locked up for his role in December's post-election unrest, an experience that steeled his resolve and that of his friends. They're bracing for another protest next Wednesday.

This story was reported with a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.