At the time appointed for Wednesday evening’s anti-government protest here in the capital of Belarus, scores of burly plainclothes officers were waiting in Yakub Kolas Square. Their job was to prevent it from happening.
But it was difficult for them to know who, among the skateboarders, young urban professionals and stolid-looking grandmothers, was taking part. The park benches filled up, and then the stone curbs, but the activists — following instructions posted on an Internet site — were not actually doing anything.
At 8 p.m., their phones buzzed or beeped or played music.
That was the whole protest. Plainclothes officers with camcorders meticulously filmed the face of every person in the park and forced a few demonstrators, struggling and shouting, into buses. But the sixth of the weekly “clapping protests” had eliminated clapping, which presented both the police and activists with some tough questions.
Can you really detain people because their phones are beeping?
And when you cannot tell who is protesting, is it still a protest?
Street politics have lost their relevance in many former Soviet countries, as the political opposition has withered away. But innovative forms of protest are popping up. None of them has managed to mobilize large numbers or pose any real threat to the ruling elites. They do, however, attract young people in free-form, often social-media-directed alternatives to the picketing and chants their elders employ. And the participants are proving very difficult to punish.
Russia has the “blue buckets,” activists who affix plastic sand toys to their cars (or their heads) in a protest against the traffic privileges accorded to government officials, whose cars are equipped with flashing blue lights. In Azerbaijan, where protesters are hustled away so quickly that even gathering is nearly impossible, small flash mobs have appeared out of nowhere to perform sword fights or folk dances.
The more permissive political atmosphere of Ukraine has spawned Femen, a group of young women who address such nonsexy issues as pension reform by baring their breasts in public. A woman was arrested in April for walking up to a World War II memorial in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and frying eggs and sausages over the eternal flame.
Social scientists refer to these as “dilemma actions,” because they force the authorities to choose between two equally distasteful alternatives: to stand back and allow such activities to continue, taking the risk that they will build into something significant; or to impose harsh punishment on people who are engaged in a seemingly benign activity.
The latter route can result in a public backlash, as when Azerbaijan imposed two-year prison sentences on the so-called donkey bloggers, or when Russian authorities prosecuted Voina, a radical art collective best known for painting a 210-foot penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.
Belarus has opted to take a hard line. About 1,830 people have been detained by the police since June, when a small group of activists living in exile initiated the clapping protests, said Tatyana Revyako, who works for Vyasna, a human rights group. Upward of 500 people have received sentences of 5 to 15 days, she said.
The crackdown has generated a good deal of absurdity. As Belarus’s July 3 Independence Day holiday approached, the Minsk police chief, Igor Yevseyev, called a news conference and announced that citizens would not be punished for applauding soldiers or veterans. One of the people convicted of taking part in a clapping protest that day was Konstantin Kaplin, 36, who argued in court that contrary to the testimony of a police officer, he could not have been applauding because he has only one arm.
Another was Galina A. Goncharik, a diminutive woman of 68, who last week shared, with clear delight, the findings of a Minsk judge after she was detained for clapping on July 3. Ms. Goncharik, the decision said, “loudly expressed rude and uncensored profanity, waved her hands, acted provocatively, did not react to clear instructions, knowingly violated public order, the civil peace, expressing clear lack of respect for society.”
Her prosecution, she said, has shocked even relatives and neighbors who were stalwart supporters of the government.
“Everyone just laughed” when they heard the charges, said Ms. Goncharik, who was convicted during a 10-minute trial and paid a fine of about $175. “They said, ‘Have they gone completely crazy?’ ”
A spokesman for the Belarus Interior Ministry, Konstantin Shalkevich, would not say how many people had been detained on Wednesday, saying Belarussian law allows the police to detain any citizen for three hours without providing a reason. From the standpoint of the police, he said, the protesters’ tactics are irrelevant.
“Whether it’s clapping, or ringing telephones or any other action is all the same,” Mr. Shalkevich said. “Any activity being organized in Minsk is an activity of mass disorder. The people who organize it are located far from the territory of Belarus.”
He added: “We have the power and the means to guarantee order in Minsk, and we will guarantee order. That is my commentary.”
The arrests have had a powerful chilling effect. For this reason, the protest’s organizers changed their tactics this week, instructing participants not to clap their hands, but instead to set the alarms on their cellphones for 8 p.m.
The “alarm clock action,” as some have dubbed it, sought to minimize arrests, and in that sense, it worked. But at 8 p.m. the cellphone alarms were barely audible over the noise of passing traffic, and by the time they went silent — about a minute later — it hardly felt as if anything had taken place.
Olga Tatarinova, a 23-year-old journalist, was disappointed. She had come to the square prepared to risk arrest. She said she clapped with her feet, but no one heard her.
“Everyone is afraid,” said a 27-year-old man who said his name was Maksim Pulsov, and who occasionally pulled a checked scarf over his face. “We need some training in not being afraid.”
On the edges of the square, people were coming and going, some on their way home from work. Belarus is in the grip of a financial crisis, partly because of the Soviet-style economic policies of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. In power since 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has tried to shore up his popularity by raising wages and providing low-interest loans. This led to a steep devaluation of the Belarussian ruble; people then began hoarding food staples and lining up to convert their assets into hard currency.
But summer is a sleepy season, when much of the population disappears to cabins in the woods. The clapping protests have not attracted much support from the general public or, critically, from the factory workers who make up a crucial political constituency. This is in part because the young organizers are not offering remedies to mounting social problems, said Anatoly V. Lebedko, an opposition leader who spent four months in prison for participating in demonstrations after last December’s presidential election.
“These young people, they want more freedom, but that’s not going to convince people in the tractor factories,” Mr. Lebedko said. “We have to come up with some answers to the question: What is to be done?”
By Ellen Berry (7/14/2011)