An icon of Belarus’ pro-democracy protest movement, 39-year-old musician-turned-activist Maryya Kalesnikava now faces the prospect of 11 years in prison on charges she denies. But Kalesnikava and her supporters have access to one powerful international forum that earlier imprisoned political critics of Alyaksandr Lukashenka did not -- social media.
After Kalesnikava and co-defendant Maksim Znak were sentenced on September 6 at a closed-door trial for alleged extremism, endangering national security, and plotting a coup d’etat, the opposition leader’s social media accounts tweeted thanks for Western diplomats’ support , shared messages from well-wishers, and posted an interview with Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, about his first meeting with his daughter since her 2020 imprisonment.
Kalesnikava and Znak’s lawyers and relatives commented further at a YouTube press conference, hosted by the Belarus Press Club, that followed the sentencing.
As Belarusian social media on September 6 amplified the story, the gap between Lukashenka and Maryya Kalesnikava in worldwide Google searches slowly began to close, according to Google Trends.
For a country routinely ranked by civil rights watchdogs as one of the world’s most repressive for freedom of speech, such developments might seem surprising.
But, as yet, despite a wide-ranging crackdown on independent news media sites and social-media personalities, the Belarusian government does not appear to have developed an all-encompassing strategy that would restrict Kalesnikava supporters’ access to social media.
As one Russian IT news site noted, the technology does not exist for the Belarusian government to block individual social media pages and channels without “killing half the Internet.”
Nonetheless, on August 12, just over a week after the start of Kalesnikava and Znak’s trial, users within Belarus could not access Facebook, Instagram, Odnoklassniki, TikTok, Twitter, VKontakte, or YouTube, Russian telecom software developer VAS Experts posted on its unofficial Telegram channel. Other monitoring sources concurred.
Whether or not the government, which controls Belarus’ data-transfer center and its largest Internet provider, Beltelekom, was attempting to target social-media support for Kalesnikava and Znak is unknown.
An online claim that the Ministry of Information had ordered the shutdown, which apparently ended by August 13, could not be confirmed.
The outage hearkened back briefly to Belarus’ three-day Internet shutdown during its August 9, 2020 presidential elections and subsequent street protests.
Yet the government, which makes regular use of Telegram, likely has its own reasons for wanting access to social media to remain intact.
Instead of Kalenikava’s sentencing, Telegram’s most heavily subscribed pro-government Belarusian channel, Pul Pervogo (Pool of the First [Man]) focused on September 6 on Lukashenka’s orders for developing Belarus’ oil refining sector or on a new portrait of his son, Mikalay, and him in riot-police gear. The channel is suspected to be linked to the presidential press service.
With her formerly platinum-blond buzz cut, bright red lipstick, and constant hand-cupped hearts, Kalesnikava might seem more of a visual natural for social media than the 67-year-old Lukashenka, a former Soviet state farm director known for his distrust of the medium.
In a March 18, 2021 statement touted on Pul Pervogo, Lukashenka asserts that Belarusians need to be prepared for the "manipulation of the mind" via the Internet. "For every such step, we must have adequate tools in our arsenal to respond."
But, over the next 11 years, that status will depend on the work of her supporters. Kalesnikava will serve her time in a general-security penal colony, where prisoners are not known to have unrestricted Internet access.
“You’re sitting closed up on all sides in a stone box and you can’t do anything,” recollected Iryna Khalip, a Belarusian reporter for the independent Russian daily Novaya Gazeta.
Khalip spent over 2 years in jail and under house arrest for allegedly organizing a 2010 presidential election protest in favor of her husband, candidate Andrei Sannikov.
A senior member of Belarus’ opposition Coordination Council, Kalesnikava, a close ally of Tsikhanouskaya, helped rally mass protests in Belarus against suspected election fraud in Belarus’ 2020 presidential elections. She was detained in early September 2020 after reportedly tearing up her Belarusian passport during a failed Belarusian attempt to expel her into neighboring Ukraine.
Her defense attorney, Uladzimer Pylchanka, told the September 6 YouTube press conference that he did not know yet where his client will now be incarcerated. Co-defendant Znak, 40, will be jailed for 10 years in an enhanced-security colony.
Appeals for both defendants are planned.
Kalesnikava, a finalist for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s 2021 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize for work advancing human rights, has not shared her plans for her imprisonment, but her father told online audiences that she gave no sign of despair during her sentencing.
“You understand, I think, that if Masha and Maksim had shown us that they’re depressed or are sadly expecting something, then this would probably be very difficult for us,” commented Kalesnikau, who was permitted to attend the sentencing with seven of the prisoners’ relatives.
The sight of Kalesnikava “enthusiastically” greeting him in the courtroom, despite her handcuffs, with a hand-shaped heart was both “painful” and “delightful,” he told Current Time.
Diplomats and non-government-aligned news outlets were barred from attending the trial. Dozens of “unknown” people, however, took up many of the seats, according to Kalesnikau, in what he termed on YouTube a staged performance.
“Our judicial branch of power did not pass the test for justice,” he objected to Current Time. “This is my feeling, which leads me to the conclusion that, more likely than not, the current authorities are still not ready to engage in a dialogue with their own population.”
Whether on social media or off, Kalesnikava’s online supporters might add.