Sep 9, 2020 at 18:21 UTCUpdated Sep 9, 2020 at 20:39 UTC
Protest rally in Belarus, 2020 / Natallia Rak via Flickr
In protest-ridden Belarus, dissidents are using bitcoin to get around political repression.
On Aug. 8, the day of a highly controversial presidential election, a city hall employee in the town of Pinsk named Maria Koltsyna went to a polling station with a white hairband on her wrist.
It was a small gesture of protest: Belarusians who voted against the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko wore white. Maria’s co-workers immediately took notice of her white accessory, and soon after she was fired.
People in Belarus have been protesting the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko for a month, claiming he was not the legitimate winner. There have also been factory strikes, and some police officers publicly quit their jobs rather than violently break up peaceful rallies.
The regime has responded to protests with mass arrests, internet shutdowns and even threats to get help from Russia, its bigger neighbor to the East.
In Belarus, the state maintains an iron grip on the economy, and getting fired for political reasons means you might not find another job, at least not in your town. But Maria heard about a new nonprofit fund, BYSOL, which was helping people who were fired for their protest activities. She applied for help and got it – in bitcoin.
Maria had never touched crypto before, but the team behind the fund taught her how to install a mobile crypto wallet.
She “figured it out in 10 minutes,” she told CoinDesk. With the grant, she bought a new laptop to get a new job in IT. The rest of the money was enough to pay for several months of rent and food, so that Maria could get by until she got a new job, she said.
Maria was one of several dozen people who discovered bitcoin in Belarus thanks to BYSOL, a nonprofit fund started by a group of tech entrepreneurs and civic activists this August. BYSOL has raised over $2 million in donations over the past month.
BYSOL chose bitcoin as a way to transfer funds as other ways are under the total control of the government, Russian-language publication Forklog reported. The name of the fund is an abbreviation: BY (Belarus country code) + SOLidarity.
Yaroslav Likhachevskiy is one of the founders of BYSOL and the CEO of Deepdee, a Belarussian-Dutch startup that develops AI solutions for health care. He told CoinDesk that bitcoin is the only payment method that can’t be controlled by the authorities. The regime is strictly monitoring bank transfers and can freeze funds related to protest activities.
Belarus law enforcement is paying particular attention to any money transfers by people and entities related to BYSOL, Likhachevskiy said. He shared with CoinDesk an order issued by the Belarus Ministry of Interior, which told the country’s banks to disclose information about all transactions related to Likhachevskiy and other people helping BYSOL.
Likhachevskiy said he was once a crypto skeptic, but now he believes bitcoin can really be helpful.
Can’t block it
BYSOL says it is raising most of its funds via donations through Facebook, with some money also coming via PayPal, transfers to a Revolut bank account and bitcoin and ethereum wallets. More than $2 million has been raised, which include the founders’ contributions, as well as donations from individual supporters and businesses, Likhachevskiy said.
The fund is registered in Europe for safety reasons.
“If we did it in Belarus, the funds would be confiscated,” Likhachevskiy said.
But sending money across borders isn’t easy, either.
“Right now, all people crossing the Belarus border are getting thoroughly searched to check if they are bringing cash into the country. The KGB [Belarus security services] is monitoring all the transactions from abroad,” Likhachevskiy said.
A decentralized cryptocurrency like bitcoin can’t be stopped on the border, so BYSOL is sending $1,500 worth of BTC to people who have been fired because of their protest activities or who chose to quit their jobs in protest.
First, people send applications to BYSOL explaining how they lost their jobs. They need to attach documents to confirm this, such as contract termination notices that are issued in Belarus when people get fired.
When a case is verified by the volunteers of BYSOL, they send instructions on how to install and use a mobile wallet that can receive BTC. BYSOL partnered with the Ukrainian startup Trustee Wallet, which allows users to connect the wallet to a bank card. Then the applicants share their bitcoin addresses, receive bitcoin and swap it for fiat right in the app, receiving money on their debit cards.
Normally, fiat gateways can be monitored by authorities, but Trustee Wallet business development director Viktor Manin told CoinDesk that when people sell their crypto in the app, they do it in a peer-to-peer fashion, so there is no centralized bank account in Belarus that can be blocked by the authorities.
Furthermore, when you have multiple people sending money between accounts, it’s harder for authorities to figure out the purpose of the transfers.
The cost of protest
Last week, law enforcement raided the office of tech entrepreneur Mikata Mikado, one of BYSOL’s co-founders. Four employees at the business, called PandaDoc, were arrested for embezzlement.
Mikado had previously published a video on Instagram offering help to police officers who rejected orders to beat and arrest innocent people and quit their jobs.
“It’s hard to move to the side of good now. But if the reason is financial difficulties, I can help you,” Mikado said in the video.
According to Likhachevskiy, Mikado put some of his own money into BYSOL. Likhachevskiy argues that the embezzlement charges are ridiculous. He pointed out the U.S.-headquartered PandaDoc has just closed another funding round and “went through all the circles of due diligence.” Mikado did not respond to CoinDesk’s request for comment by press time.
Road to adoption
In general, Belarus does not have a very active crypto market, said Anton Kozlovsky, head of Paxful in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries.
As the political crisis unfolded, people started buying more U.S. dollars to hedge against the devaluing national currency, the Belarusian ruble, and banks even reported a deficit of dollars last week. But this has not yet prompted any significant growth in crypto volumes, said Kozlov.
Even though the country officially legalized crypto transactions in 2018, not many people use crypto and businesses don’t normally accept it as a means of payment, said Eugene Romanenko, a Belarusian blockchain expert.
However, more people, especially IT professionals who were not interested in crypto before, are starting to ask and learn about it, Romanenko said, especially when they look for ways to send money between each other or take their funds with them as they leave the country.
“More and more people are learning that cryptocurrencies can be used to solve real-life problems,” Romanenko said.
If nothing else, crypto can be converted to fiat to pay for daily necessities. According to Likhachevskiy, more than 50 people have already received help from BYSOL over the last two weeks. He added that while $1,500 might seem like not a ton of money, in Minsk, the Belarus capital, you can rent a one-bedroom for about $200 a month.
Outside of the capital, $1,500 can be a life-changing amount of money – like it was for Maria.
It’s an educational experience as well: Maria said that now that she learned how to deal with crypto, she might use it in the future. Recently, she and her friends used crypto to send money to each other, and that did not seem like a weird thing to do anymore. She added:
“Now I know that anybody can figure it out.”
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