Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday vowed to stand strong in the face of mounting resistance to his long-established leftist dictatorship. He told Russian media he has no intention of stepping down as president despite continued protests over the past month demanding he resign.
“All of this is very painful and even tragic for me, but it doesn’t mean that I’m giving up,” Lukashenko told a group of pro-Kremlin Russian journalists in Minsk. “Because I look at this philosophically, someday [God] will call me up there. But now I must protect what has been built with our hands, protect the people who have built it, and they are an overwhelming majority.”
“You know what we concluded with the Russian establishment? If Belarus collapses today, Russia will be next,” he warned.
“All of this is globalized and internationalized. If you think that great Russia will be able to deal with this, you’re wrong. I’ve spoken with many presidents, including my old friend, older brother, as I call him, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I warned him, it is impossible to confront it. How can you fight against Telegram channels?” Lukashenko asked, referring to the Belarus protest movement’s use of the Telegram messaging app to organize rallies.
“Are you able to block these Telegram channels? Nobody is … Turn off the Internet [sic] and everything else, even if you turn off the Internet, those Telegram channels from Poland will still work. So you should stay alert [in Russia]. You will also experience certain political events soon, or perhaps they may come out of the blue,” Lukashenko predicted. He is expected to visit Moscow next week for talks with Putin.
Lukashenko won a sixth consecutive term as president of Belarus on August 9. Dissidents immediately accused the state election commission of falsifying the results to hand Lukashenko – Belarus’s first and only president – a victory, and poured onto the streets of the capital to protest the vote. The protests have continued every day since then, and have evolved into a nationwide movement demanding Lukashenko step down.
Despite blanket internet outages across Belarus in the early days of the protests, cloud-based Telegram managed to continue functioning. This allowed dissidents to capitalize on the momentum of the first protests without interruption.
“We enabled our anti-censorship tools in Belarus so that Telegram remained available for most users there. However, the connection is still very unstable as Internet is at times shut off completely in the country,” Telegram co-creator and co-owner Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter on August 10, the second day of the protests. Durov developed the Telegram app in Russia and is now based in Dubai.
Telegram has been an invaluable tool for the Belarus protest movement, allowing once-scattered rallies to organize into massive demonstrations that now boast tens of thousands of participants. The movement’s main channels are NEXTA, NEXTA Live, and Belarus of the Brain.
“In the days following the vote and the subsequent internet outage, NEXTA Live’s audience shot from several hundred thousand followers to over 2 million. Its sister channel NEXTA has more than 700,000 followers. Belarus of the Brain’s following grew from almost 170,000 users in late June to over 470,000 this week,” the Associated Press (AP) reported on August 20.
Days after protests began on August 9, Belarus officials launched a criminal investigation into NEXTA and its founder, 22-year-old blogger Stepan Putilo, for allegedly encouraging mass riots. If found guilty of the offense, Putilo could face 15 years in prison. Putilo is Belarusian but currently resides in Warsaw, Poland, explaining Lukashenko’s reference to “those Telegram channels from Poland” in his Tuesday interview.
“We have indeed become the bullhorn of the situation that is unfolding in Belarus right now,” Putilo told Lithuanian news outlet Delfi in mid-August. “We have become the voice of this revolution, but by no will of our own. It just happened,” he said. Belarus authorities arrested blogger Igor Losik – the founder of Belarus of the Brain – before the August 9 election, but his Telegram channel continues to operate.