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Belarusian activists on digital rights, Belarus in the world, and the way forward

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Russian troops are currently using Belarus as a staging ground to invade Ukraine from the north. But for Belarusians, who are almost all against the war, this is just the latest test of their freedom. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin recently met with two activists with a lot to say about digital rights, Belarus' place in the world and the way forward.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: At a Washington, D.C., coffee shop that turns into a bar at night, two out-of-towners sit, drinking IPAs. It's been a long day of meetings with Washington types.

Hey. How's it going?

SERGE KHARYTONAU: I'm good. I'm good. How are you?

MCLAUGHLIN: The two men are Belarusian activists. They don't seem out of place here. It's exposed brick, dimly lit, the kind of spot diplomats and spies like to hang out not too far from the embassies. It feels far away from the war in Ukraine, though Ukraine is on everyone's mind.

ANTON MOTOLKO: Hello. My name is Anton Motolko. I'm from Belarus. I work with Serge with iSANs.

KHARYTONAU: My name is Serge Kharytonau. I'm from Belarus, and I'm a media expert at iSANs.

MCLAUGHLIN: Kharytonau and Motolko both work with an international firm called iSANs. It focuses on hybrid threats against democracy across Europe. Kharytonau now lives in New York, and Motolko, a blogger, fled Minsk in 2020. The global focus has understandably been on Putin's bloody invasion of Ukraine. But Belarus is also occupied by Russian troops, and only a tiny percentage of people there support the war despite the regime's ties to the Kremlin.

KHARYTONAU: According to recent Chatham House polling, only 3% of the population supported the participation of Belarusian troops in this war against Ukraine.

MCLAUGHLIN: Belarusians in particular know what it feels like to be shut off from the internet, a reality many Russians now confront. Tech companies are withdrawing en masse from Moscow. The Kremlin is also shutting off access to social media and independent news sites.

KHARYTONAU: In 2020, government of Alexander Lukashenko almost entirely blocked access to internet.

MCLAUGHLIN: That pushed Belarusians to become more adept at technology. Massive numbers signed up for a VPN, or a virtual private network, allowing them to make it look like they were connecting from somewhere else.

KHARYTONAU: It was really surprising that almost half of the population had VPN installed in 48 hours because people were eager to know what's going on.

MCLAUGHLIN: Some internet providers and VPN companies have pulled out of Russia. The fear is it could do more harm than good because Russians might not be able to access independent information. As the war grinds on after nearly a month, it remains dangerous to be a digital activist in Belarus. An anonymous collective of hackers who call themselves the Cyber Partisans have exposed information about Belarusian security services and tried to hack into the railways to prevent Russian troops from traveling.

KHARYTONAU: They showed the power of pro-democratic hackers, and they showed how people from high tech sector and hackers can be used for a good cause.

MCLAUGHLIN: For many Belarusians, they see themselves as more European, Kharytonau and Motolko explained. Kharytonau grew up in the border town of Grodno. While many places in Belarus have been scarred by conflict, old churches and palaces still stand there.

KHARYTONAU: It has the vibe of history that not so many places share because Belarus has been a place of worries for Europe and Russia.

MCLAUGHLIN: Belarus was the first place people saw when they entered the Soviet Union, they explained, and the last thing Soviets saw when they were leaving. Motolko said places like Belarus and Ukraine have always feared Russian aggression.

MOTOLKO: You know, Belarusians and Russians have two different vision of the world. In Russia, people will usually say, we can do it again. Like, we will - we won in the Second World War, so we can do it again. In Belarus and Ukraine, they say never again because they understand how - what the price of this was.

MCLAUGHLIN: In other words, a Kremlin that even today still sees Belarus and Ukraine as under its thumb. But the two activists remain defiant.

MOTOLKO: Yes, we have a lot of problems with our business, with our rules or something else. But people can do anything here. It's like a phoenix.

MCLAUGHLIN: Like a phoenix, Anton Motolko says, rising from the ashes. Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "OTTOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.