Since Lukashenka first became President in 1994, he has presided over five so-called elections. None of them have been considered free and fair by international observers, and each has been accompanied by protests and mass arrests. In the lead-up to the 2001 election, four of Lukashenka’s opponents disappeared. The United States refused to recognize Belarus’s results in 2001 and imposed sanctions following the rigged 2006 election. In 2010, the authorities arrested Andrei Sannikov, a leading dissident who had tried to run against Lukashenka. The police beat him brutally and held him in an undisclosed location, with no communication, for two months. Sannikov was ultimately charged with inciting protests and sentenced to five years in prison. After sixteen months behind bars, he was amnestied in exchange for agreeing to emigrate. He now lives in the U.K.
round ten on Sunday evening, Viačorka told me, Belarus’s Internet silence was finally broken. Journalists, activists, and savvy tech users had been scrambling to find and install software that would allow them to bypass the channels blocked by the government. Psiphon, a Canadian app originally developed to help users in China get around censorship, proved effective, but few people had it installed on their phones or computers, and the government had blocked access to the Apple and Google app stores. “People were passing it around on thumb drives,” Viačorka said. One after another, journalists and activists started uploading content to Telegram, an app, popular in the post-Soviet space, that allows people to create “channels” for multimedia content as well as exchange encrypted messages. “From this absolute emptiness, I was transported to photos of carnage,” Viačorka said. Police and the military in Minsk and other cities were brutally crushing the protests.
Police employed “kettling,” a technique that has become familiar to Americans during recent protests: police alternately squeeze the crowd into smaller spaces and cut between protesters, creating smaller and tighter groups. “Once they got them down to groups of fifteen or twenty people, they would give chase after them through courtyards,” Lokshina said. Some people were able to run away; others were detained. The chasing went on until the wee hours, she said. All the while, the police made ample use of stun grenades: “They use them so much it’s almost like they are trying out a new weapon.” She said she also heard rubber bullets being fired. Farther from the center of town, Lokshina said, protesters tried building barricades, which were repeatedly demolished by police, and some protesters threw Molotov cocktails.After a Rigged Election, Belarus Crushes Protests Amid an Information Blackout | The New Yorker