Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Social Media as a Source of Counter-Hegemonic Discourses: Micro-Level Analysis of the Belarusian "Silent Actions" Protest Movement

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Social Media as a Source of Counter-Hegemonic Discourses: Micro-Level Analysis of the Belarusian "Silent Actions" Protest Movement

Article excerpt

On July 3, 2011, Dmitry Shakhanov and his friend Ekaterina Pilipenko parked their car near the Minsk Central Railway Station. While sitting in the car, they turned on Viktor Tsoi's famous song "Peremen" ("We demand changes")1 with the car windows rolled down. Several minutes later, a traffic policeman came along and demanded that Shakhanov turn the song off and leave the car. As Shakhanov spoke to the police officer to find out the cause of his demands, several people in civilian dress rudely attempted to pull the driver from his own car. Shakhanov hastily shut the window and tried to leave the parking area; however, the police officer blocked the way and called a tow truck to evacuate the vehicle. KGB officers took the driver from the car and threw him into a prison truck. The car was taken to the impoundment lot. Shakhanov was beaten, detained, and eventually sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment for allegedly swearing in a public place and resisting arrest. However, de facto, the reason for his detainment was that he had had the courage to join the symbolic struggle against the authorities' repressions and ineffective economic policy. This story was not an isolated case: on that same day, the authorities detained about 400 people all over Belarus. Despite the rich history of repressions in Belarus over the past 20 years, this was a new low: detainees' only crime was that they turned up in public places in Belarusian cities to sarcastically clap and then leave.

These protests were termed "Silent Actions" by journalists and political analysts due to their lack of political slogans and their use of calculated silence as their principal tactic. Protest actions were arranged each Wednesday from July 7 to August 17, 2011, and were implied to have a snowball effect, attracting more and more citizens. Participants simply gathered at squares in Minsk and other Belarusian cities to chat and demonstrate solidarity with the aims of the movement. They applauded at the pre-arranged time of day to thank each other for not being afraid to take part in the protest. The first and most important symbolic meaning of the action was the overcoming of fear and emancipation from the authoritarian power that penetrated all spheres of social life.

In contrast to Belarus' opposition leaders, the participants in Silent Actions aspired neither to peaceful revolution nor to large-scale political shifts. Their actions went beyond "traditional" politics in Mouffe's understanding of the term. In contrast to the symbolic mass actions organized by opposition politicians in Belarus' central squares in the 2000s, they relied on small-scale practices to change the situation in multiple spheres of everyday life, rejected the "consensual" politics typical of opposition politicians, and nurtured the concept of the "informed citizenry." In order to disorient police officers, the actions themselves were decentralized and rhizomorphous: participants sometimes received instructions via mobile devices just minutes before the pre-arranged launch of a collective action. All of these features made it difficult for opposition leaders to take advantage of the situation, as opposition candidate Alexandr Milinkevich had attempted to do with the "Ploshcha" in 2006.2

It is important to look at those peculiarities, primarily because smallscale protests such as the Silent Actions have often been dismissed by Belarusian social theorists as a minor issue. Whereas the Ploshcha of 2006 was considered to signal the revival of civic activism in the country,3 was associated with the string of Color Revolutions in neighboring countries, and was described as the "Belarusian Maidan," the Silent Actions were regarded as temporary and insignificant.4 Though protesters proclaimed themselves to be the initiators of "Revolution via Social Media," social theorists dismissed this ambitious aim as unfeasible.5 This perspective contributes to the perception of Belarusian civil society as apathetic, since there were virtually no large-scale collective actions in the first half of the 2010s. …

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