An open source snapshot of the weekend’s protests in Belarus
Over the weekend of February 17–19, protests against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko spread across the major cities of Belarus.
What can open sources tell us about the protests, the reaction, and the coverage in Belarus and Russia?
Peaceful protest, muted reaction
Although unsanctioned, the protests were not broken up by the Belarusian authorities. No arrests were made, which in itself is noteworthy. Lukashenko’s regime has been known to suppress even the most benign shows of discontent with the government, such as in 2011, when Belarusian authorities arrested at least 100 people who took part in a silent protest about the country’s economic troubles.
The weekend’s protests focused on the $250 tax imposed by Minsk on those not in full-time employment i.e. if they work less than half the year and do not register with state labor exchanges. Lukashenko signed the decree (commonly referred to as Decree No 3 or the Decree on Parasitism) in 2015, but the deadline to pay the tax was on February 20. The looming deadline created the momentum that inspired people to act. The scope of the action, however, expanded to include Belarus’ poor economic situation and eventually turned into an anti-Lukashenko demonstration.
The decree is seen as particularly controversial because the economic situation has forced many Belarusians into the shadow economy. According to a 2015 study by the Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies, based on analyses in Belarus, the Baltic States, Poland and Sweden, the Belarusian shadow economy is the largest in the region and could account for up to one-third of GDP. This is despite the fact that Belarusians rate the risk of being caught as relatively high.
This interactive map shows the locations of the six protests, together with links to footage:
Minsk, February 17
The protest in Minsk drew over 2,500 people, which was the largest anti-government protest in the capital since 2010.
The protest was peaceful. The protesters chanted “go away” and called for Lukashenko’s resignation. In the evening, protesters burned letters they had received from the state revenue service asking them to pay the tax. Two EU flags were seen in the video of a procession (at time stamp 0:28), as well as logos of Otpor (0:48) — a Serbian peaceful protest movement which contributed to the fall of President Slobodan Milosevic and was later reported to have received funding from the United States.
Pro-Russian online commentators focused on this aspect, suggesting a link to billionaire George Soros, such as this comment from self-style “pro-Russian media sniper” Marcel Sardo:
Gomel, February 19
Gomel is Belarus’ second most populous city, with a population of half a million.
In keeping with that status, the city also saw the second largest protest against Decree No 3, with a reported 2,000 demonstrators taking to the streets.
— Veiko Spolitis (@VeikoSpolitis) February 19, 2017
Protesters chanted “No to Decree No 3, Lukashenko go away!”
Protesters interviewed by local media appeared very upset with the government and the current economic situation.
Brest, February 19
The demonstrations in other cities were an order of magnitude smaller. Brest, on Belarus’ border with Poland, has a population of a little over 300,000, but only saw around 100 protesters gathering to oppose the decree.
— Natatnik (@NatatnikBy) February 19, 2017
Again, these chanted “No to Decree No 3”, but were not filmed calling for Lukashenko’s resignation.
— Natatnik (@NatatnikBy) February 19, 2017
Vitebsk, February 19
Vitebsk, in north-eastern Belarus, has around 340,000 inhabitants. Its protest saw an estimated 250 participants take to the streets.
The protest was peaceful, and ultimately turned into an impromptu community forum at which people shared their criticism of Decree No 3.
Local media on the site showed footage of the discussions.
Grodno, February 19
Grodno, in western Belarus, has a population of 365,000. About 100 people took to the streets there; as in Gomel, they were chanting “No to Decree No 3, Lukashenko go away”.
Speakers called on participants to sign a petition against the decree. During the procession around the square, some chants insulting the president could be heard.
Mogilev, February 19
Mogilev (or Mahileu), in the east, is roughly the same population as Grodno. An estimated 100-400 people (figures vary) took part in the protests.
Speakers spoke about the lack of free elections, freedom of speech and government accountability in the country.
— Alex Kokcharov (@AlexKokcharov) February 19, 2017
The Morning After
Following the protest weekend, President Lukashenko’s press service confirmed that the President is away on holiday in Sochi, Russia. According to independent media outlet TUT.by, the president spends some time in Sochi in February every year. This year, unlike last year, however, he is not expected to meet the President, nor the Prime Minister of Russia.
Interestingly, Russian media reported about Putin not meeting Lukashenko in Sochi more than they did the anti-Lukashenko protests in the country.
Belarusian Media Reaction
Independent Belarusian media covered the protests very closely. The same cannot be said about Belarusian state-owned press. According to TUT.by, the two main government-controlled TV channels — ONT and Belarus 1 — mentioned the protests only in passing, understated their scale and condemned them.
The news anchors pointed out the use of symbol of Otpor, suggesting the movement was organized by foreign powers and noted the protests were unauthorized. The news anchors engaged in direct advocacy of the contested tax and the Belarussian government more broadly.
In the video the news anchor says that the US became the rich country that it is now because of strict taxation. She adds: “If you want to live in a developed country, share with the government”.
Russian Media Reaction
Russian media reports on the protests in Belarus were scarce. Such coverage as there was was sympathetic to the protesters (“Friday’s action was inspiring. It felt like old friends gathering together again” “The action was attended by senior citizens, young people and families with children”, “the tax is affecting housewives with children and other vulnerable groups”), but negative towards Lukashenko (“The main parasite is Lukashenko”).
Reporting on the scale of the protests tended to err on the side of generosity. Novayagazeta.ru reported the number of protesters in Minsk (locally reported as 2,500) as 5,000. Similarly, in their reporting, Donpress.com reported the number of protesters in Gomel (locally reported as 2,000) as “at least three thousand”.
Protest organizers pledged to come out to the streets again on March 25, should Decree No 3 not be repealed by then.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab). Donara Barojan is a digital forensic research associate at the DFR Lab.