As for so many dictators around the world, 2011 was a bad year for ageing Belarusian despot Alexander Lukashenko, with the mass streets protests ignited by his rigged re-election in the dying throes of 2010 rumbling on, despite violent retaliation by security forces and the arrests of high profile dissidents.
In April a bomb attack on a Minsk station, attributed by the authorities to a vague entity called the Belarusian National Liberation Army, was used as the pretext for further crackdowns, with Lukashenko calling on his thugs to “bring in everyone and interrogate them” and to “pay no attention to democracy.”
However, he categorically failed to rally the Belarusian people and the international community behind him and speculation that his own forces had a hand in the atrocity still lingers. The fact that the two men accused of the bombing and subsequently sentenced to death were not accorded anything resembling a fair trial did nothing to dispel this theory.
Now, a year into his fourth term as President of Europe’s last dictatorship, Lukashenko is launching a fresh attack on his people’s liberties, by implementing a law that imposes unprecedented new restrictions on their internet access. Whilst claims that the legislation will effectively amount to a ban on foreign websites have been hotly disputed by those who attest it is merely an economic measure mainly targeting business with online shopping sites hosted outside Belarus, there is clearly a political motive to the move.
For one thing, the new law will oblige service providers and internet cafes to "record and store...personal data of internet services users and information about the internet services that have been provided." It also bans websites deemed to be “extremist” and use of the internet for “promulgating [any] acts prohibited by the law” – leaving the definitions ambiguous and subject to interpretation by the authorities.
Given the laws against demonstrations and the frequent classification of pro-democracy groups as dangerous extremists, it seems almost inevitable that it will be activists and their supporters who are ultimately targeted and punished.
And that Lukashenko should seek to tighten internet access should come as no surprise. Opposition sites and social media sites were both blocked during protests last year and in December the dissent news site Charter 97 (the founder of which was murdered in 2010) was shut down by a cyber attack. It was only a matter of time before he tried to undercut the online groundswell that helped to facilitate the most challenging year of his rule.