Although there is no written rule, state companies are discouraged from advertising in the independent press, further tightening the economic noose. Publications like Novy Chas are also excluded from state subsidies (about 54 million euros last year alone) that support outlets willing to run government propaganda—mostly television, but print as well. While in theory anyone may publish anything, not everyone enjoys equal access to newsprint. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, publications on the wrong side of the political divide can expect to pay a nearly 80 percent premium on paper and printing costs. “At this point, independent political newspapers in Belarus can’t exist as commercial projects,” said Karol.
Another tool the government uses to gag and intimidate its detractors is Article 51 of the media code, which allows the closure of any outlet that receives more than two warnings in one year from the Ministry of Information. The warnings can be issued randomly and capriciously for petty infractions such as getting a date or a name wrong. The venerable independent weekly Nasha Niva (Our Field) was recently slated to close after receiving warnings for summarizing a documentary critical of Lukashenko, and for publishing an op-ed suggesting security services might have been involved in a deadly April 2011 bomb attack on the Minsk subway. “The warnings, in my opinion, were just formal quibbles, politically motivated,” said Andrej Skurko, the paper’s editor in chief. “Independent media have to weigh every word and verify every fact so as not to be punished by a warning, a fine, a criminal case, or closure for some minor technical infraction.”
The charges against Nasha Niva and another major independent paper, the daily Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), were finally dropped last July after significant pressure from Belarusian and international civil-rights organizations. The radio station Avtoradio was not as lucky. It was closed in January 2011 for airing a speech by Lukashenko’s main rival, Andrej Sannikov, in which he said that the fate of the country would be decided not in the kitchen, but in the city squares.
It could be that newspapers like Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya rankled because they are actually sold and distributed by the state networks—an exception made by Lukashenko in 2008 to mollify western critics. Though their readership is still fairly insignificant (7,500 for Nasha Niva and 50,000 for Narodnaya Volya) compared to the massive clout of government media (state-controlled newspapers make up more than 80 percent of total circulation), they nevertheless have a significant following among free-thinking Belarusians. And for the authorities, tolerance ends where popularity begins.
Yet the old repressive tricks have proved pathetic in the Internet era. In a sense, Lukashenko has already lost, if not the political race, the race with time. “I can poke at an iPad with my fingers,” he told journalists last October, “but this is not the president’s job. The president should be conservative.” Without even realizing it, Lukashenko has ensured his own obsolescence.
Belarus is, in spite of everything, a modern and highly industrialized nation bordering the European Union. Though US and EU visas can be hard to get, many Belarusians, especially the more affluent residents of Minsk, regularly travel abroad and follow cultural and technological trends. Belarusian companies—including the tractor factories—trade in the West, and the beleaguered government relies on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to stay afloat.
Lukashenko may be a dictator, but he has been forced to cultivate the image of a democrat. He knows that to impose strict online censorship of the Chinese kind would galvanize his opposition and could jeopardize economic assistance—and by extension his political power.
This is perhaps the most striking paradox about Belarus. The country exists in parallel universes: one of old Soviet apparatchiks and KGB officers who believe they control the country’s information channels, and another of progressive youth who can easily hashtag #FuckKGB on their laptops and smartphones. According to 2010 United Nations statistics, 31.7 percent of Belarusians use the Internet. Of those, more than 60 percent live in Minsk. A quarter of families own a computer. Under these conditions, even Stalin couldn’t survive for long.
The independent media have been quick to jump through this Internet loophole. The majority of newspapers, including Novy Chas and Nasha Niva, have websites that often are more popular than their print versions. Others, like Salidarnosts (Solidarity), which was banned from state distribution in 2005, have migrated completely online. “It’s too early to say whether print editions will become unnecessary—there is still a lot of respect in our culture for print,” said Aliaksandr Starykevich, the editor in chief. “But it’s clear that Internet use is growing very fast.” Today, it is one of the ten most popular media sites in Belarus, with about 10,000 daily unique visitors.