Protest Belarus stands firm thanks to Telegram: ‘It looks like a guerrilla’

The answer: Telegram. Through this originally Russian chat app, calls and tips on how and where to demonstrate are spread lightning fast among a million people.

So the opposition channel Nexta has more than two million members, out of a population of almost 9.5 million Belarusians. Human Rights Movement Charter 97 leads chat groups at city level and, in the case of the capital Minsk, even at district level. Within these groups, demonstrators give each other tips and warnings to avoid riot police and agents.

“Bring extra water”, “Come walking because the subway is being shut down” and “Walk via the Laan van de Overwnaars to the Heldenplein”. Also locations of police vans are shared, names and photos of security officers are made public and it is explained what to do if your husband does not come home after a demonstration.

Nexta expressly calls for images to be shared, so that “after the revolution” those responsible for police violence can be prosecuted.

In Minsk today tens of thousands of Belarusians are gathered:

Telegram has only recently gained popularity in Belarus, says the Belarusian-Dutch Marina Ulyashyna. Lukashenko’s lax reaction to the coronavirus (which was initially denied and later trivialized) created the need for reliable information. “Via Telegram, Belarusians found out what was going on and called on people to quarantine each other in case of complaints.”

The etiquette in the chat groups reminds her of how the Belarusian partisans operated during the Second World War. “It’s a kind of guerrilla.”

At the same time, such encouraging messages increase the self-confidence of the demonstrators:

For the Belarusian diaspora, Telegram is also the means to keep abreast of the protests in the home country, where there are hardly any foreign journalists. In the Dutch group there are almost 500 members, in addition there are small subgroups. She thinks you’re not free there either. “I’m sure there’ll be people from the Belarusian embassy to keep an eye on things.”

Bypassing internet blockages

Revolutionary texts

Without the widespread use of Telegram, the Belarusian protests would probably not have been so great, Ulyashyna thinks. The platform has made it possible to continue the opposition, which has united behind Svetlana Tichanovskaya, states Belarus expert Franka Hummels.

The chatapp is the key to effectively coordinating the protests, says Ales Herasimenka, who is researching the influence of Telegram at Oxford University. “Initially people were mobilized through YouTube videos, Telegram took over that role.”

The opposition no longer has visible leaders who are still at large or in the country, but ironically that is to their advantage. After all, the group of largely anonymous Telegraphers cannot be tackled by the authorities. “Tichanovskaya may have called for today’s protest, but the interpretation is ad hoc”, says Hummels.

In the meantime, the revolutionary texts are resounding in the chat groups. “The time has come, victory over the dictatorship is near,” Nexta says. A national strike has been announced for tomorrow and the officials are given “the last chance to stand by our side”.