By Paul Goble
“It is no exaggeration” to say that what is occurring in Belarus now is of world-historical importance, Moscow commentator Andrey Zubov says, and will be studied for a long time to come as that most improbable development, “the revolt of the masses of a cultured people against a harsh authoritarian dictatorship in the Internet era.”
The last portion of this is key, he continues. It is the Internet which “has allowed the people to organize itself without charismatic leaders, without control of the post and telegraphs, television center or the typographies of newspapers” (newsru.com/blog/21sep2020/bel_rev.html; cf. windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/09/belarusian-events-have-world-historical.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/09/belarus-first-telegram-revolution-and.html).
The two most important players in this sphere are the NEXTA telegram channel, which ranks eighth on the world wide web and first in the Russian internet in terms of subscribers, and the Cyber-Partisans who over the last five weeks have hacked many key Belarusian government sites to the profound embarrassment of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The former, with its mediagenic leader, 22-year-old Stepan Putilo, a Belarusian based in Poland, has attracted the greater attention. Indeed, some have described him as the behind-the-scenes organizer of the Belarusian protests. He established a YouTube channel in 2015 and then converted it to a telegram channel the next year to make it more difficult for Minsk to block (4esnok.by/mneniya/kak-nexta-zavoeval-mozgi-belorusov/).
He also launched two parallel channels, NEXTA LIVE, which carries more news than commentary and Luxta which features humor and satire. He attracted attention and so was attacked and charged by the Lukashenka government, but those efforts proved counter-productive and only brought him more attention.
NEXTA grew in prominence with the protests in Minsk and other Belarusian cities this summer. Between August 9 and August 18, the number of people subscribing to it grew from 427,667 to 2,159,754 – some five times in nine days. Its subscriber base has remained largely unchanged in the period since.
The telegram channel has succeeded because of the gray quality of official media, the desire of young Belarusians to have fresh information, NEXTA’s promise of publishing insider materials, its absence of ties to the opposition as such, and its behavior which is consistent with the largely leaderless Belarusian protest movement.
The other leading online force of the Belarusian opposition are a group of hackers who refer to themselves as Cyber-Partisans and who have taken down or replaced the content of various government sites since the beginning of September. (For details on their targets and activities, see bbc.com/russian/features-54425325.)