It was a warning from a low-key presidential candidate that escaped notice by many. But when, just over a week later, Belarus experienced a nationwide Internet outage during its August 9 presidential election, the words of 41-year-old rights activist Andrey Dzmitryeu came to mind.
On July 30, Dzmitryeu, head of the pro-democracy group Tell The Truth, warned journalists that Lieutenant General Andrey Raukou, chairman of Belarus’ Security Council, had informed him that officials could shut down the Internet on election day “if they consider that a direct threat to the country's security comes from there …”
The exchange occurred at a morning meeting of the Central Election Commission with the four candidates, including Dzmitryeu, running against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the August 9 poll. Amidst a discussion about potential “provocations” during the elections, Dzmitryeu said that he had asked Raukou about the likelihood of an Internet shutdown.
Security Council Chairman Raukou, a recent defense minister, does not appear to have commented further since the Internet outage went into effect on August 9. He has not denied Dzmitryeu’s remark.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, however, emphasized on August 10 that the government itself did not initiate the shutdown.
Rather, he alleged that Belarus’ Internet shutdown came “from abroad,” without any involvement by the Belarusian government.
"Even from abroad, they turn off the Internet to cause discontent among the population. Our specialists are now figuring out where this blocking comes from,” he informed the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ monitoring mission, Sergei Lebedev, in remarks published by the state news agency BelTA. “Therefore, if the Internet does not work well, this is not our initiative. It’s from abroad."
He did not specify any countries as the culprits, though, appears to have accumulated an ongoing list of foreign “puppeteers,” ranging from Russia to Germany, supposedly attempting to end his 26-year rule.
Echoing Lukashenka’s stance on the shutdown, the state-owned telecommunications company Beltelekom, Belarus’ main mobile and Internet provider, and the National Traffic Exchange Center, which handles Belarus’ data transfers, blamed the outage on alleged DDoS attacks on government websites and “a significant growth in traffic entering from external IP-networks beyond Belarus’ borders.”
Belarus’ network problems began early on August 9, on the last day of voting in Belarus’ presidential election. Mobile-based Internet connections were at first sporadically available, depending on location, but had disappeared by evening. Digital-television outlets like Current Time could only connect via phone calls with sources or correspondents in Minsk.
Access to YouTube, Viber, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the Russia-based VKontakte either did not exist or was limited.
After polls closed, the non-government election observation site, Zubr.in, and the Golos (Vote or Voice) platform for an alternative vote count reportedly were not available from within Belarus without use of a VPN server.
By evening, as protests began, the websites of the country’s handful of independent news outlets appeared generally on the fritz, pushing some, like news service TUT.by, onto Telegram, instead.
Some Internet service was partially restored on August 10, but not reliably so.
Outside access to the sites of President Lukashenka and the state-run news agency BelTA proceeded smoothly by comparison with that to TUT.by or other independent news sites.
The website of the government’s Investigative Committee, handling pre-trial enquiries into charges against protesters for public unrest, also functioned normally, but those of the Prosecutor-General’s Office and Interior Ministry with delays or not at all.
Sometimes dubbed “the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe,” Belarus, which earned almost $15 billion in IT exports last year, is not believed to face an insurmountable technical challenge in overcoming this shoddy Internet access.
Internet-access specialists believe the Belarusian government itself ultimately holds responsibility for the ongoing cyber-snarls.
Others argue that the government planned the Internet shutdown to prevent protesters and other government critics from coordinating with each other or giving vent to their anger about the election results on social networks.
“Such a kind of information blockade can only be organized at the state level, with orders from state organs,” commented digital-rights specialist Alexey Kozliuk, an attorney for the Belarusian human-rights organization Human Constanta.
Since government-controlled Internet Service Providers manage Belarus’ channels for outgoing Internet traffic, the government itself “totally controls” Belarus’ access to the larger Internet, he said.
Traffic on Belarus’ Internet routers decreased to 20 percent of the normal volume on August 9, stated Leonid Volkov, chairman of Russia’s non-profit Internet Protection Society. Shutting down Beltelekom’s main router and a few others could lead to this result, Volkov said.
Belarusian mobile providers had warned early on August 9 about possible disruptions "due to difficulties on the part of the upstream provider,” news portal Onliner.by reported.
The Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets alleged that employees at an unnamed local cell-phone carrier and downtown hotel in Minsk had warned its correspondents on August 8 that the city would not have Internet access the following day.
The lack of reliable online access also did not surprise one international non-governmental organization.
"We expected the shutdown of the [I]nternet on a small scale," Nikolai Kvantaliani, Belarus coordinator for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, commented to CyberNews. "We can see that the government is prepared."
Some of its critics were less so. Lukashenka’s main challenger, 37-year-old candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, described the August 9 outage after the polls had closed as “very scary.”
Without the Internet, she said at an August 10 briefing, assessing rumors of violence at the August 9-10 street protests against election fraud was not possible.
That restricted access to information has prompted around 30 international human-rights organizations to appeal to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the outage as a violation of international human rights law, which bans deliberate Internet outages intended to restrict freedom of speech.
Belarus’ own telecommunications law specifies that access to the Internet and other forms of communications can only be stopped under martial law, official states of emergency, or in an “emergency situation,” the signatories argue. None of these conditions applied to Belarus on August 9, they say.
In the run-up to the election, though, President Lukashenka had repeatedly lashed out at “fake information channels,” particularly on the messaging app Telegram, that he considered linked to Russia and meant to spur a government overthrow.
Ironically for the president, on August 9, Telegram took on heightened significance, with otherwise inaccessible outlets like independent news service TUT.by posting their information there.
The government detained or arrested scores of independent journalists and bloggers, as well as activists or potential presidential candidates who opposed President Lukashenka.
Three correspondents from Current Time were deported from the country after the broadcast of extensive footage from a Tsikhanouskaya rally.
President Lukashenka, however, last year rejected the idea of shutting off or closing the Belarusian segment of the Internet as “nonsense.”
“We need to work on the Internet,” he said.