Presidential elections in Belarus are somehow unprecedented this time. Even with the internet and VPN (virtual private network) blocked, people managed to organize protests that are likely to continue as many Belarusians believe the election results are counterfeit.
Nikolai Kvantaliani, Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Country facilitator to Belarus, told CyberNews that this time, the presidential elections in Belarus are different. Even though the oppressions are as strict as ever with thousands of people detained and internet blocked, people already see hope for a change.
How would you describe what is happening in Belarus right now?
The elections were organized in the same manner as usual. It means high oppressions for journalists, activists, and political opponents. The only difference is that oppositional candidates manage to have a really good mobilizing campaign, and at the same time a lot of people already see the hope of change as they join a protest movement. According to the official information, 33 cities joined the protest. More than 3,000 people were detained.
So this is unusual, or unprecedented?
Correct. Usually, during the elections, we have classical opposition – people who belong to some political party. Usually, they are not able to mobilize the society because of the structure, or bad history record, or whatever. Here we had three candidates who were not party leaders but the symbol of change. They manage to have a very good mobilizing campaign with a message that we would like to have free and fair elections. These changes are unprecedented. These are not oppositional protests anymore, these are peoples’ protests.
Did you expect the internet to be disrupted to such an extent? And VPNs blocked?
We expected the shutdown of the internet on a small scale. We can see that the government is prepared. We still have challenges with the internet. One of the telecoms informed their users that they have a problem with their superior provider Beltelecom. As you know, we have only one main internet provider. So the government shut down social networks, blocked VPNs. On certain websites, encrypted traffic was blocked. Also, the sites that allow users to register their votes were blocked.
Did you experience an internet shutdown yourself?
The social networks were unavailable, and only Telegram was a source of information. But they slowed down the packages, so this means that you have a connection but it’s very slow. For instance, you are not able to connect to certain services because the servers are not able to give you feedback in a certain time and usually show you an error.
Did the government achieve what they wanted with the shutdown? Was it harder for the protesters to organize?
For the media, it was complicated to provide footage and video streams from the protests. In most cases, when we saw live interviews, it was done through GSM connections – basically, people just called to regular phones and described what was going on. I think that the government minimized the communication flow for protestors.
How different are the real results from the official ones?
I think it is completely different. From outside of Belarus, the results show that around 80% of the votes go to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and only up to 10% goes to Lukashenka. At the same time, you can see in some polling stations where results are not counterfeit, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is winning. And it’s not only one polling station. So we can definitely confirm that elections were not free.
So the protests are likely to continue as people are not happy with the official results?
We will surely have the protests again. For the regime the main instrument to deal with people and problems is oppression. They are not planning to have a dialogue. The question is: what happens next? For sure they will continue to disrupt the internet. But it’s a challenge. The encryption is used not only in communications but also for banking transactions, security. For how long will the government be able to block the internet without hurting the business? Or their own business?