While strikes and protests the world over have dominated much of the news this year, the Belarusians are adopting a rather unusual form of anti-government protest: clapping.
In what has now become a weekly ritual that has steadily gathered momentum, on Wednesday hundreds of people once again lined the streets and clapped in silence. Why clapping you might ask? Well in June, Russian news agency Ria-Novosti reported that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had placed a ban on all forms of protest. So the Belarusians are getting their own back now and instead of chanting or holding banners and placards, they merely stand in silence and clap their hands in a taunting gesture to protest against Lukashenko's government.
On Wednesday, an estimated 400 protesters were arrested by police who have grown increasingly agitated over the weekly protests. The clamp down has continued and worsened this week when protesters also attempted to disrupt the country's Independence Day festivities on Sunday 3 July. Although protesters tried to disrupt the President's speech by clapping, police quickly halted their applause and attacked protesters with tear gas.
In comparison to the large-scale protests that rocked the country last December in the wake of the presidential election, these protests seem altogether rather modest. However, the growing momentum of the protests, which have largely been organised over social networking sites, has caused the media to dub the demonstrations a "revolution through Social Networks." Although a silent revolution, the protests are clearly making an impact: alluding to the "Orange Revolution" which toppled the Ukrainian government in late 2004 and early 2005, on Sunday Lukashenko announced that there would be "no [such] coloured revolution" in Belarus.
Last month Lukashenko's popularity rating plummeted to 29% according to an independent opinion poll. Increased austerity measures have been the main reason behind many of the demonstrations, but it is the worryingly precarious state of the country's economy as a whole which has spurred on the protesters. Lukashenko's attempts last year to bribe voters by raising public sector wages and pensions has severely backfired and resulted in a huge trade deficit. Last month Russia's main news agency Itar-Tass reported that the Belarusian rouble had devalued by 36 per cent and that inflation had reached 35%.
To make matters worse, last Wednesday Russia turned off Belarus' electricity supply after the country failed to pay millions of pounds in debt (despite a number of prior warnings). This is not the first time that Russia has pulled the plug on Belarus, but although Russia has a track record of energy power struggles with a number of its Eastern European neighbours, on this occasion Lukashenko's government is clearly at fault. In May Belarus was given a US$3 bn Russian-backed loan but it also has also asked the International Monetary Fund for a loan of up to US$8 billion to save its dwindling economy.
Since the 'clapping' protests started, police have arrested around 1000 protesters in Minsk and some 750 across the rest of the country. The country's secret police have even attempted to cut the protests off at their source by periodically blocking social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook and even detained the administrator of popular social networking site Vkontakte and forced him to turn over user passwords. In spite of these restrictions and Lukashenko's claims that many of the protesters have been paid to "put on a show" for Western audiences, there is little sign of these protests abating. The Belarusians are clearly voting with their hands and clapping for their freedom.