Internet has become an important political, social, cultural and economic factor in today’s globalized world. Together with new communication technologies it is able to accelerate political changes in societies especially those that live with authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes.

This year’ revolutions in the Arabic world wouldn’t have happened so fast without Internet used as a mean for coordination, public opinion changing and fast distribution of information.

Internet access is also a condition for investment attracting, hi-tech development and services market growth in such transforming countries as Belarus. Just economic reasons made Belarusian government taking off the obstacles for Internet spreading in the country.

In Belarus Internet was considered to be a luxury 10 years ago. Mainly students and it-workers were using it at that time.

It started to be more accessible but remained yet expensive 5 years ago. The rates on Internet in Belarus significantly exceeded (in 2-3 times) the prices in the neighboring countries (Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania). Furthermore Internet providing services were paid according to traffic (depending on how many Megabytes were transmitted by a client).  High price and by-traffic-rating hindered popularity of web-services in Belarus. Just a small percentage of state-owned and private businesses purchased permanent Internet access.  Office workers of the private sector joint students and IT-men on the Internet but people’s main source of information was still state TV at that time.

Radical change happened a couple of years ago when the Belarusian government liberalized the Internet market and the state Internet-provider Beltelecom set damping prices for Internet services, cheap and unlimited tariffs appeared. As a result auditorium of Belarus currently exceeds 3,5 million people (in 9.5 million country). Belarusians started not just check email and read text-news but also to upload and watch video, communicate through social networks. You can find almost all office workers, students, youth, self-occupied persons among Internet users in 2011.

Thus, the amount of Internet users in Belarus is sufficient enough for Internet to become an important factor of public opinion change and future political and social transformations within the society. The issue of choosing the strategy of using this huge resource is still vital for democratic forces in Belarus and EU being the main democratization factor in Belarus.

2. The events in Iran of 2009 gave a serious lesson to Lukashenkas regime and the Administration of the President as its core. Consequently legal regulation acts were issued to prepare a legal base for blocking of any of the oppositional websites within minutes, for total surveillance on citizens. 100% of Internet traffic started to be captured, stored and monitored legally in Belarus since this regulation was enforced. Personal identification of all people connecting to Internet (for instance visiting and Internet-café) is now also required.

In general those measures haven’t affected the activity and popularity of independent and oppositional websites but have become a time-bomb already ticking and threatening everybody not supporting Lukashenko.

A number of independent journalists and bloggers writing on the Internet have been tracked down by their IP-addresses and sent to prison. These criminal cases are used by the regime as pointing strikes to frighten hundreds of thousands of bloggers acting in Belarus.

3. Unfortunately, democratic forces of Belarus and independent media were not ready to such rapid growth of Internet users and to the restricting measures of the Lukashenko regime in this sphere.

Belarus faces the following development problems: the lack of democracy and liberal ideas, the exclusion of the youth from the social life and politics, poorly developed civil society. In the Belarusian Internet sector there are some factors aggravating the mentioned problems:

1) The Russian influence on Belarusian Internet-audience,

2) The loyalty of the entertaining web-services to current political regime in Belarus.

These factors increase the indifferent attitude of the young and progressive part of the society to democratic and liberal ideas, social life and politics.

There are two main tendencies in the sphere of Belarusian Internet mass media: 1) entertaining and specialized web-services have greater popularity then those of pure political news orientation; 2) social and multimedia resources play greater role. Popularity of multimedia is caused by desire of modern users to watch and hear instead of reading.

There are some independent Belarusian web resources, where visitors can receive information on events in Belarus, but there is an insufficient number of the projects which are designed to broadcast for many target groups, it covers various aspects of Belarus life, starting from news, politics and rallies and finishing with feature films with the Belarus subtitles, cartoons and humor. Such variable content makes it possible to attract a politically indifferent audience and inform it of the political and social issues with the help of multimedia.

The issue of training activists to act safely in the conditions of total tracking and surveillance is also required.

Sergey Varankevich

The head of the Belarusian Youth NGO ‘Civil Forum’
Editor of Open Directory Project (DMOZ)
Lawyer, web-master