‘This is an information war’ The founder of Belarus’s most popular opposition Telegram channel talks to Russian YouTuber Yuri Dud
In his latest interview, Russian YouTuber Yuri Dud sits down with Stepan Putilo (Stsiapan Putsila), the Belarusian blogger who founded the mega-popular opposition telegram channel Nexta Live. Protests have been ongoing in Belarus for more than a month now and during that time, Putilo’s channel — which he has run from Poland since 2015 — has served as a key source of information for opposition demonstrators and Belarus watchers alike.
“At the beginning of the year, it was difficult to imagine that these kinds of protests were possible in Belarus. When 2,000 people began coming out in small cities where 12,000 people live, some of us cried in the editorial office,” Putilo says in the interview, referring to the small team — him plus four others — that manages Nexta Live and its affiliated projects.“People came out en masse not so much after the elections, but after the beatings.”
The opposition demonstrations in Belarus have been ongoing since election officials declared a landslide re-election victory for President Alexander Lukashenko on August 9. In the first few days of the protests, in particular from August 9–11, riot police violently suppressed the demonstrations, arresting thousands of people. Law enforcement officers carried out mass abuse and torture against people held in police custody — detainees were beaten, forced to stay in the same positions for hours on end, and deprived of food, water, and medical assistance. According to Human Rights Watch, there’s at least one confirmed case of riot police using sexual violence against a protester.
Demand for independently sourced information about the 2020 presidential elections and the subsequent protests has brought Nexta skyrocketing popularity. At the time of writing, the Nexta Live Telegram channel had 877,950 subscribers. “At the peak of the protests we had 200 messages per minute. We’re receiving money from supporters and ads. In August, our only post about donations collected $47,000,” Putilo recalls.
Putilo actively supports the protests and regularly urges his readers in Belarus to join the opposition demonstrations. “Alexander Lukashenko is the Belarusian people’s enemy number one. If the opposition wins, he should run,” Putilo tells Dud. “We’re engaged in propaganda, in a good way. This is an information war, hit the enemy with his own weapon, we’re forced to respond the same way. The words ‘death squads’ [karateli] and ‘fascists’ appear in our posts, and allusions to the burning of the security forces, because the emotions are overwhelming.”
Putilo offers up his opinion on other political figures as well, pointing out Lukashenko’s attempts to draw in Russian President Vladimir Putin — “Lukashenko has managed to convince him that what’s happening in Belarus is a test-run of events that could soon take place in Russia,” he says — and insisting that opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya) is acting of her own accord (“Thikhanovskaya isn’t promoting a Polish or Lithuanian agenda”).
However, he remains skeptical about some of the other opposition leaders, in particular Maria Kolesnikova (Maryia Kalesnikava), who is currently being held in pre-trial detention on charges of inciting actions harmful to national security. “There are questions for Maria Kolesnikova. I don’t fully believe that she tore up her passport in order to stay in Belarus. It’s possible that this was staged by the Belarusian authorities to make her the new opposition leader,” Putilo speculates. “If Kolesnikova is released from pre-trial detention within a month, I’ll have my suspicions. If not — I’ll apologize.”
Nevertheless, Putilo is holding out hope for political change in Belarus. He’d like to go back there to live one day, but for now it’s far too dangerous. “After the elections in Belarus my entire family moved to Poland. I know the Polish authorities are protecting me: reliable sources, including ones from the KGB [the Belarusian intelligence services], talked about orders to either kill us or bring us back to Belarus,” Putilo says. “In ten years I want to live in Belarus and create a media empire.”
Cover photo: вДудь / YouTube