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Belarus forced down a plane because it couldn’t shut down an app

Telegram became a cornerstone of last summer’s anti-government protests

- May 28, 2021

When Belarusian authorities forced down a Ryanair jet flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, the goal was arresting Raman Pratasevich, a journalist and a key leader of the Belarusian protest movement that has been particularly active in the past year. After last August’s election, which many governments denounced as rigged, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country joined in anti-government protests.

Pratasevich is known primarily for his role in a network that coordinated the protests against the long-standing regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. This coordination takes place through a messaging app, Telegram — a dissent channel the Belarus government probably wanted to target more generally. So what is Telegram, and why does it make Belarus’s regime so worried?

Belarus’s hijacking isn’t a show of strength. It’s a sign of weakness.

Telegram became a key player in Belarus politics

Telegram is perhaps less familiar to netizens in some Western countries, but this messaging app has played a crucial political role in Belarus, Russia and elsewhere. In many countries, authorities try to ban or make life hard for news organizations that are independent of the state. Citizens find it difficult to access these websites without additional tools like a virtual private network, VPN. However, an app like Telegram is harder to censor than a website. This app is also more protective of anonymity.

This means that Telegram plays three roles in Belarusian politics. First, it provides a crucial source of information. Second, it supports a public space in which people can discuss political issues more freely. And third, protest organizers can use the app to mobilize large crowds, by communicating to people about mass events.

Extensive political networks on Telegram emerged in Belarus during the protests last year. Belarusian activists — like protesters in Iran, Hong Kong and Myanmar — relied on the app to avoid censorship and surveillance, and inform people and coordinate actions, while protecting protest leaders from persecution and surveillance.

Telegram continues to play a key role in organizing local protests — including demonstrations this week to protest Pratasevich’s detention. The role of Telegram as a source of information will probably become even more significant because of a new Belarusian law adopted this week that further restricts how professional news media can report about protests.

Telegram enabled new people to emerge as leaders

These features help explain how the administrators of the protest networks on Telegram became key leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus. Like many other protest movements in autocracies, coordination was key.

How can the world hold Belarus accountable?

Administrators like Pratasevich, who had the trust of followers, were the people doing the coordinating. Like their counterparts in Hong Kong, they helped make a fragmented public into a coherent whole, while allowing followers to improvise to adapt to local conditions. In August, Pratasevich described how “hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have put their trust in” Nexta, the Telegram network he helped to coordinate.

How did this coordination work, exactly? Anastasia Kavada and I carried out research that shows how Nexta Live, the largest of the Belarusian Telegram protest channels, emphasized collective street action and worker strikes at the peak of the Belarus protests in August, and set up support structures for protesters. During that period, the Nexta group would announce the day and time of a protest, while activists across hundreds of locations in Belarus would decide on the exact place to gather and other details just a few hours beforehand.

Pratasevich became a thorn in the regime’s side

It’s not surprising that the Belarusian authorities were frustrated by influential coordinators like Pratasevich and tried to hunt them down. They succeeded in capturing dozens of activists connected to Telegram — some are now in jail on criminal charges.

But targeting Pratasevich also served broader goals. First, silencing him can help disrupt the networks coordinating protests, which are still mobilizing citizens. Second, it probably helped suppress online criticism of the regime — the pattern in other autocracies reveals that activists often limit their online criticism after repression, although the broader citizenry may maintain their level of criticism or increase it.

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Third, capturing Pratasevich might help Belarusian authorities learn more about the opposition and the wider network of Telegram activists. He was captured when returning from Greece, where he had been for a visit to that country by exiled pro-democracy leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

And the detention of Pratasevich also signals the regime’s determination to hunt down activists — whether at home or abroad. Some weeks ago, the commander of Belarus’s interior ministry forces promised to discover and punish pro-democracy activists who had left the country. In April, prominent Belarusian intellectuals and politicians were detained in Moscow. Some of them were exiles, like Pratasevich.

The Belarus government’s active international approach to repression will no doubt leave activists with new concerns for their safety, by raising the cost of opposing the Lukashenko regime.

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Aliaksandr Herasimenka (@alesherasimenka) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at University of Oxford.