The tech workers exiled from Europe’s last dictatorship (Rest of World)

Early in the summer of 2020, as Belarus was gearing up for a presidential election, it seemed clear that the vote would once again be far from free and fair. Authorities removed one opposition candidate after another, arresting them or invalidating their candidacy, and officials already sounded confident that Alexander Lukashenko, known abroad as “Europe’s last dictator,” would win a sixth term.

Pavel Liber, at the time a tech executive in the capital Minsk, didn’t want to sit idly by. Together with dozens of anonymous volunteers, he launched a project called Golos, meaning “voice,” which allowed people from across Belarus to submit — through chatbots on Viber and Telegram — voting sheets that showed who they had voted for. The idea was to highlight any discrepancies between official figures and the real ballot count — and gather proof of any election-rigging.

While working on the project, Liber received a call from a well-connected friend. He urged Liber to leave Belarus — or risk arrest. Soon after, Liber caught a flight to Istanbul. Figuring he could move back after the election, which was scheduled about two weeks later, he only packed a small bag.

When the chatbots went live, the response exceeded Liber’s expectations. More than a million Belarusians registered. The authorities nevertheless did not shut Golos down. “We were lucky because at that time, our government and police — they were too analog. So they didn’t consider a digital product as a real threat,” Liber told Rest of World. “They didn’t care about two chatbots.”

Read the full story on Rest of World website.

Picture by Daro Sulakauri.