Yet another form of dissent has sprung up in that fount of creative protest, Belarus, to express frustration with official retaliation against both an imprisoned rights campaigner and his supporters.
In an expression of solidarity with three activists who were fined after a photo circulated of them holding photos of jailed dissident Ales Byalyatski, pictures are appearing on social networks and elsewhere in which supporters are holding photos similar to the one that elicited the fines.
«Photos of people holding photos of people holding another photo,» as Marat Abramovsky, leader of the youth NGO Avangard that itself organizes flash-mob actions, described the several-degrees-of-separation protest to RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.
«I wouldn’t call this action with pictures of Byalyatski a flash mob. At this point, it’s more like an action of expression — a political action with the goal of showing the system with which people disagree,» Abramovsky said. «A classical flash mob means improvisation, spontaneity without a clear message and goal and [obvious] leader. Therefore, the classical flash mob is a way of spending time and doesn’t have a clear objective. Here, it was the opposite…real political action with a well-defined goal.»
It is a sign of the times in the fourth term of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s presidency that the list of unconventional protests in his country has grown so long.
They include weeks of «silent protests» in 2011 in which people were detained for milling about and clapping and stomping periodically. In July of the same year, authorities again cracked down on social-network-driven actions in which participants set their mobile phones to ring at a certain hour.
Activists Eugene Parchynski and Syarhey Malashenka photographed on the porch of the Navapolatsk City Court with the the same photo in early January.
In 2012, there were jailings for «toy protests» in which stuffed animals with placards with slogans like «Free The People» were left out in a Minsk plaza. Also last year, the operator of a news photo website was arrested for allegedly helping a Swedish PR stunt to draw attention to the rights situation in Belarus by airdropping teddy bears in a daring cross-border flight; two journalists were subsequently fined after posing for photos with teddy bears.
In a case that the European Union has condemned as politically motivated, Byalyatski, the leader of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, was sentenced to prison and property confiscation in November 2011. U.S. officials at the time warned Minsk to «cease its campaign against critics of the government.»
Lukashenka has kept a tight lid on the media, free speech, and other forms of public dissent since coming to power in 1994, but domestic and international outrage escalated after a brutal clampdown on protests following a flawed presidential election in December 2010.
In the latest prosecutions, activists Uladzimer Khilmanovich, Viktar Sazonau, and Raman Yurhel in the western city of Hrodna were fined the equivalent of around $175 each based on a photograph showing them with likenesses of Byalyatski and the United Nations logo to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10.
«We demonstrated our solidarity with the Hrodna human rights defenders who became the first victims of this absurdity, ready to ourselves face trial for that,» Uladzimer Labkovich, one of the people in a Facebook photograph holding a photo of the «Byalyatski Three,» told RFE/RL of his participation. «This [punishment] is not just a perversion of the constitution if people are being sentenced for photos on Facebook, this is a terrible stupidity and absurdity demonstrated by the government.»
— Andy Heil and RFE/RL’s Belarus Service