This Monday, as protests against his rule ebbed into an eighth day, embattled Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s helicopter touched down at a military truck factory in the capital city, Minsk.
Waiting to meet him were hundreds of workers – allegedly hand-picked for their loyalty to the 26-year ruler, amid countrywide strikes that threaten to topple his rule.
It seemed, however, few in the capital—or anywhere else in Belarus, an east European state of 9.5m between Russia and the European Union—were keen to be cheerleaders. As Lukashenko delivered a defiant speech about his political opposition, whose followers crammed city streets across the country, the workers cried over him”
It was yet another incendiary episode in a struggle for Belarussians to wrest power for Lukashenko, who most believe rigged elections last Sunday (8/9). Days of protest and police violence followed. That tech has played an integral role in the uprising should be no surprise: over 100,000 Belarussians work in tech—overwhelmingly in outsourcing—and the IT sector comprises 6.5% of the former Soviet state’s GDP.
What has shocked many observers, is just how powerful tech has become, in consolidating popular support against Lukashenko, and for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 37-year-old English teach who ran against him last week.
When a flood of early voting suggested the election would be rigged on August 4, Tikhanovskaya urged followers to register at an alternative online voting portal, Golos (The Voice). ZUBR was another group, created by local developers, aimed at recording the true number of opposition voters.
When Lukashenko announced he’d won 80% of the vote, protests sprung into life. All were organized on Telegram, a Russian-founded messenger app whose creators, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, now ran the firm from Dubai. Channels on the app had as many as 2m followers – almost a third of Belarus’ adult population.
Telegram worked even during a three-day state Internet shutdown, which one expert told Red Herring was similar to tactics used in Iran and Venezuela. “Yet it hasn’t really been in spotlight in the same way (in Belarus),” the expert added.
“There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”
Red Herring spoke with several software engineers who had taken to the streets in the days following the vote. “I think people are very angry,” one activist said. “And the violations during these three days are making people even more angry.”
The industry’s opposition to Lukashenko is rooted in a diverse array of reasons. For one, IT workers are better paid and better traveled than their non-tech compatriots. Working with teams and VCs abroad has opened their eyes to what freedom looks like.
Another reason is simpler. “There’s nothing worse for a startup than losing your credibility as a stable, technical environment,” Alp Toker, director of monitoring group NetBlocks, said. “And there is fear that the suffering now you look at the technology parks, you look at some of the success stories that have come out of that. And you see that this is a community that doesn’t want to be held back through restrictions.”
Telegram channels continue to provide the quickest and liveliest news of the protests. Reports suggest the Belarussian regime is now targeting Telegram admins and their family members, as ‘Batka’ (‘Father’), as followers call Lukashenko, clings to power.
Whatever happens next, it will be played out on Telegram – and Belarus’ burgeoning tech scene will play a key role.