Archive for April 2010
I visited Belarus a few days ago with a group of Oborona activists. We were meeting with local opposition organizations and leaders, observing municipal elections and participating in an annual march dedicated to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster–Chernobylsky Shlyakh.
Belarussian elections are largely similar to Russian in their predefined outcome, persisting abuse of power by the authorities and even methods of fraud. Like in Russia, they use preliminary voting as a means to both increase turnout and falsify the results (since the bulletins are kept at administration offices till the election day). As much as 30% of Belarussian electorate voted preliminary, according to official data. This unbelievable figure is more than even some of the most scandalous elections in Sochi a year ago (when the Kremlin was ready to do what it takes to prevent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov from becoming the mayor). Most opposition candidates were denied registration, so they couldn’t even get on the lists–the same we see in Russia. In the end, in many district it looks like the electoral commissions didn’t count the votes at all: they simply wrote the target figures. No suprise, not even a dozen seats were won by the opposition out of 20,000+.
The rally was attended by some 1,000 to 1,500 participants including several activists of Oborona. The Chernobyl disaster caused incredible damage to Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and its consequences are still there. The march in Minsk has become a tradition since 1988; its demands concern environmental, social and political issues.
Alas, I didn’t make it to the march. I and two other Coordinators of Oborona, Maria and Alexey Kazakovs, were arrested an hour before the rally begun as we were leaving headquarters of an opposition party Belarussian People’s Front. A van stopped next to us, half a dozen spetsnaz (SWAT) troops put us into the van and left. Our friends and other eyewitnesses say that it looked more like a kidnapping than an arrest.
We were taken to the Sovetsky district police HQ and interrogated. The police were asking us, who we had met with, what was the purpose of the travel, what organization we were at, etc. etc. They threated to take us into custody if we refused to answer, but gave up after several hours. Then the infamous BT, Belarus state TV, tried to “interview” us right in the police, but were ignored. After 5-hour long interrogation police took our fingerprints, photographed us and even took DNA samples and let us go without any charges. A small crowd of Russian and Belarus activists greeted us at the police HQ doorstep.
The most brilliant speech that I watched at the Conference on Cybe Dissidents was of Ethan Zuckerman from Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. When talking about how the new technologies changed democracy promotion, he said that now, instead of “parachuting receivers” to citizens of authoritarian countries you should be “parachuting transmitters.” In other words, the new tehcnologies empower people and give them more capacity to improve things from within.
This is very close to my perception of foreign assistance: it shouldn’t be about building democracy from outside, but about bringing tools so that people can build democracy for themselves.
Yesterday I participated in a Conference on Cyber Dissidents held in Dallas jointly by George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House. Despite mixed feelings about GWB’s presidency, I decided to take part; I try to use every opportunity to share my views and listen to others. Both President Bush and his wife participated in the event too (Laura Bush stayed the whole day).
Thanks to the ash cloud from Iceland I had to participate via video conferencing. After all, it wouldn’t be a cyber dissidents event if everyone managed come and without these geek things. We used ooVoo and Skype and both worked well (the former one allowed multiple people to participate simultaneously but is either paid or ad-sponsored).
Here is a transcript of my speech:
It is honor for me to speak at this conference. I managed to watch most of the presentations and I find them amazing. I’ll share some experience that we have in Russia with the new media.
1. Almost all conventional media are blocked:
– TV directly or indirectly owned by the government;
– most radio stations and newspapers are either controlled by the authorities, or self-censored, or have little general impact.
2. Internet became a natural resort for people looking for uncensored information and free exchange of ideas.
3. Traditional ways of involvement into civic or political activities on the Internet are:
– users can gain access to alternative sources of news and opinions;
– people discuss political issues in blogs and forums that are extremely popular in the Runet (like LiveJournal);
– grassroots groups organize online and offline actions using social networks and blogs.
More online tools are utilized by protest groups including Twitter, video blogging, live broadcasts, civil journalism and Web 2.0.
Interestingly, more and more grassroots initiatives, not connected with any political groups, start on the Internet.
As penetration rate of the new technologies increases, they rapidly replace TV as the main political media.
4. Government is trying to stop this process. They are making it in a smarter way than Iranian or Chinese authorities. They don’t block all the “bad sites” right away. In fact, very few Websites are permanently blocked in Russia.
Instead, they hire hackers to put the Websites or blogs down. Targets of such attacks included Estonian official sites, leading independent online news media, opposition groups’ Websites and individual bloggers. Some of such attacks are extremely powerful and expensive.
Another way of dealing with “uncomfortable” bloggers is more conventional: persecution. Since 2008, more and more bloggers have been sentenced for “extremism.” After some recent amendments to the criminal law, almost any criticism may be considered inciting hatred against social groups–extremism. For instance, people who discussed police brutality were sentenced for inciting hatred against the police and a guy who criticized his governor was sentenced for inciting hatred against the local government as a social group. There’s no limit to your imagination.
Such showcases make many more bloggers think twice before posting anything critical.
Ultimately, the government invests a lot into their own resources. They hire Internet experts, make deals with leading sites and buy popular websites including LiveJournal. This is one of the most serious challenges to the protest groups because we’ll never match the government’s resources.
But we are still superior in creativity and enthusiasm.
I am skeptical about the ongoing violent riots in Kygyzstan. Even if the new government manages to restore order and keep power, there is slim chance that the country will become more democratic after this revolution. On the other hand, it’s likely that the new government will be just like the old one or even worse. Little has changed since five years ago when Bakyiev came to power after a similar (though not so bloody) rebellion. But even if Kyrgyzstan becomes a little better than it was (something compared to Ion Iliescu’s rule in Romania compared to Nicolae Ceausescu’s), the price is too high–both in human lives and in damage to the political system and the society.
Rocks and AK47s are bad tools for building democracy.
The Moscow Times published my comment on this story today:
Oleg Kozlovsky, an activist with the Oborona youth movement, said by letting the protests turn violent, the opposition had ceded hopes for another color revolution in a post-Soviet country.
“With such methods they will hardly achieve anything better [than the current government] if they win,” he wrote on his Twitter blog.
Speaking to The Moscow Times, he said he was disappointed to see the violence and looting. “These protests are more like spontaneous riots than an organized regime change. This is not what happened in Ukraine,” he said.
He was referring to the 2004 Orange Revolution, where mass protests against election fraud brought a new, pro-Western government to power.