Pavel Liber is a Belarusian software engineer and a senior director at the IT firm EPAM Systems. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he co-founded the “Golos" (Voice) platform – an online tool created to evaluate the fairness of the elections and to provide an alternate counting of the votes.
PAVEL LIBER – BELARUS
“These elections changed everything for all of us.”
Pavel, let us imagine it is early 2020. You are working in the top position of a successful IT-company. You are well-paid. The presidential campaign has not started yet. Did you take any interest in politics back then? I was never involved in politics before this presidential election. The IT industry has always been a pretty well-paying industry in Belarus. There were no issues for people from this sector to live in Belarus – no terror from the regime. Nothing similar to the things that are happening right now. It was still not good because the COVID-19 pandemic had started and the government of Belarus refused to acknowledge its existence. But, honestly, me and many other people in the IT industry were not deeply involved in politics. These elections changed everything for all of us. I was a top manager in one of the biggest Belarusian IT-companies. We were organizing many volunteer projects with different governmental and non-governmental organizations. When we started developing “Golos” (The Voice) no one was thinking about it as a political project. Its main goal was to try to double check how our votes were counted, because in Belarus presidential elections are completely nontransparent. We created a platform where people could upload pictures of their polling sheets. We compared the results we collected with the official results presented by the government and found huge falsifications and differences. That project transformed my team and myself into citizens who continue developing tools and solutions to increase transparency and improve democratic processes. Now it is not just “Golos”, but a whole number of products and portals to help people in Belarus fight for their rights.
Belarus 2020 by Anna Redko
You said that these elections in 2020 changed everything. What exactly made them so different? I think it is a combination of multiple factors. The first factor was COVID. People in Belarus were really angry because the government ignored the pandemic and did not help the doctors and people. But I think it was also a kind of technological evolution, because in the past five years digital channels appeared everywhere. More and more people were informed that potentially there would be many falsifications. All actions our government took to prevent alternative candidates or to punish people for their political views, all that became widely known for everyone through these digital channels. I believe that five years ago about 30 percent of people had wide access to internet and interest in what is happening in the country. Now I would expect it to be 60 to 70 percent. It is a completely different situation today.
During the election campaign, how did you come to the idea that information technologies could be used to support the democratic process? It is probably the only way we can act in Belarus, because the physical space is completely covered by military and police. Our government is convinced they can resolve all issues by arresting, imprisoning people, and pushing them out of the country. In the digital space, it is a completely different picture. Historically, the whole IT sector in Belarus is private. We have no strong specialists working in governmental companies. And our government is old-school when talking about modern IT technologies. That was a space where we had and still have some competitive advantage. We are able to act fast and to deliver our solutions to Belarusian people no matter where the development team is located.
Now retrospectively we see what impact the “Golos” platform had on the political process, what blow it dealt to the regime. Back then, when you were just creating it, what results were you hoping for? Honestly, we had many concerns that we will get the same results on our platform as in the official results. And we did not expect so many people to participate. Eventually more than one million people in Belarus came to our platform and more than 500.000 people sent their pictures. And that was during the total internet blackout which we had for four days. When we got the attention from the government a couple of days before the elections, they called us terrorists. When people learned from our government that we are “terrorists” and that they should not trust us, even more started to register on the platform. That is how it works in Belarus – if the government tells you that something is bad you definitely should try it, because in fact it is good. When we got this attention we understood that it will be safer for us not to be in Belarus; and we also realized that there will definitely be a difference between our results and the official results.
Were all members of your team able to leave the country without problems? I left Belarus on 23 or 24 of July 2020 when we had just launched the platform. I got a call from a friend who is connected to our police forces and who told me “man, you already got some attention and I highly recommend you leave the country immediately”. I took my luggage and left to Istanbul. Our entire team did the same. We are sure that it was the right choice, because our report was used in the United States, in the EU, by the OSCE. With all this attention we will definitely be imprisoned if we return to Belarus. We are also still keeping our team anonymous. They are trying not to come to Belarus, because our police, KGB and other structures work on identifying those who are running such platforms.
After the elections, you went on and found new ways to support the protest movement. Why did you not stop? In which ways are you using the platform after the elections? You cannot stop. There were huge falsifications, punishments, a lot of people beaten on the streets or killed. You cannot just stop. We are probably only in the middle of this process. The process still exists, mostly in the digital space, because it is hard to do it in physical space. We started to use our platform for digital surveys. Having one million people registered, you can get pretty representative results of what people in Belarus think. We began to support people, because during all these marches and processes we allowed them to check on the platform how many people are involved right now. When they saw that there are 100.000 on the streets right now, it helped them to understand that there are still a lot of people like them. We also started to develop belarusdaily.org, where we document every day of the process, because we understand that we need to keep it as a future digital history for our kids to understand what happened during and after these presidential elections. We started developing another product called Digital Solidarity. It is a mobile app through which you can donate to people who were punished by the regime. It aggregates different foundations and civil society organizations to have everything in one place.
Everything that you have been doing with “Golos” and your other projects may fall under the definition of human rights protection. But I believe you do not consider yourself to be a human rights defender. How did you asses what you were doing? I think it is not politics. Moreover, I am trying to have some distance from all political organizations. I think these are two different worlds – engineering and politics. We have a pretty simple target – to involve people in the digital space and to create digital tools simplifying their lives, helping the process and supporting people. Our audience is huge, more than one million people. We do not need to involve political organizations or paid advertisement to explain what we are doing and why, because we already have the trust of the people. On the other hand, we actively work with the democratic forces which are abroad right now, like the offices of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya or Pavel Latushko. These are great people, doing great things to support Belarus. We try to collaborate and promote each other’s activities.
The latest “Golos” campaign was a survey for the people of Belarus about peaceful negotiations with the government. Why did you decide to ask this question? Do you think it is still possible to negotiate with the regime? From my perspective, it was an example of the great partnership we have with the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. We came out of the winter with a completely depressive mood in Belarus, with police on the streets and people who were afraid to leave their homes. Through this survey we were trying to achieve a number of goals. One was to return Belarus back to international attention showing that there are still a lot of Belarusian people asking for changes. Another was to show people in Belarus that there are still a lot of people like them. Even if you do not see it on the streets, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are with you in the virtual space. And the third reason was to show to our government that we are still ready for negotiations. Before this survey, there was information that our government is ready to involve military forces to take action against protesters. That was the first time in the history of Belarus. We were trying to show that we do not need war, we just need peaceful negotiations and we are ready for that. Of course, no one believes that Lukashenko will be ready for peaceful negotiations. It was a message for the elite near Lukashenko, not for himself. We have reached almost 800.000 people which is still a lot keeping in mind that nine months have passed since the elections. We have received a large amount of attention around the world and that is great because it is very important to keep Belarus in the international media.
What would you like to do in a free and democratic Belarus? Would you stay involved in social projects or get back into the IT-sector in Belarus? I definitely would like to get involved in different social projects because helping people through different digital products is interesting to me and many other engineers around me. I would like to stay away from politics in any form because I think that in the future we will probably not need any politicians at all. I would like to live in the country where I was born, I would like to help people in this country through creating different solutions and through explaining them the value of transparency and simplicity of different products. Why do we have this situation in Belarus? Because a lot of people just did not know that there can be an alternative. I think it is a very important mission for us right now, for our democratic forces, engineers, volunteers to show people that there can be a completely different Belarus.