Belarusian state propaganda advocates mass repression
On 21 March 2017, the Belarusian authorities began a programme of repression against civil society activists, which is still ongoing. These measures followed mass protests of the population against the unpopular economic policies of the government, including the famous decree on 'social parasites'.
The work of the state propaganda machine goes hand in hand with this process. It aims to instil fear into the population with tales of terrorist and nationalist 'threats'. These stories also serve to justify the state's overblown response to the protests, as well as improve the image of law enforcement agencies.
However, the propaganda effort has largely failed. Instead, what became obvious was their plan to increase repression and control over society, as well as the poor quality of state media.
The state media has decided not to target all participants in the social protests, instead blaming the organisers and the independent media. The main message was that 'non-state media misinformed people', acting together with protest organisers, who 'took advantage of people’s discontent in order to achieve their own political goals'.
At the same time, state propagandists brought up the possibility of 'provocations' during mass protests to intimidate its audience. Trying to link the Belarusian opposition with the situation in Ukraine, the state media showed the Ukrainian Maidan as an example of such 'provocations'. Before the mass demonstration on 25 March 2017, Belarusian state television broadcast a report asking: 'Can you be sure that some crazy nationalist or volunteer from Donbass won’t bring weapons or explosives to the protests and use them?'
At first, state propagandists had decided that Belarusian anarchists were responsible for these 'provocations'. Mikalaj Statkievič, who was supposedly their leader, coordinated his activities with a Ukrainian businessman named Alexander Smantser. However, the state media didn’t specify why Ukrainian business should be interested in destabilising Belarus.
A terrorist threat from Poland
Following President Lukashenka’s statement regarding 'some armed groups near Asipovičy and Babrujsk' on 21 March 2017, the role of 'provocateurs' was passed on to the 'White Legion'. Speaking about those detained in the 'White Legion' case, state propagandists resorted to every possible cliché, including the tried and true fascist, Nazi, anti-Russian, and foreign financing threats, as well as more topical threats of terrorism, Maidan, and the Islamic state.
According to state propaganda, not only was the 'White Legion' planning armed provocations and terrorist attacks in Minsk, it was also working to organise a terrorist attack in Moscow. As one speaker in a Belarusian TV 'documentary' put it: 'The leader of the White legion has announced that in order to prevent Belarus from uniting with Russia, terrorist attacks in Moscow are necessary'. As usual, no evidence was provided The idea was to show that the Belarusian regime is a reliable partner to Russia in security matters, especially given the recent terrorist attack in the Saint-Petersburg metro on 3 April 2017. In this way, the Belarusian authorities are trying to secure financial bonuses from the Kremlin for showing its loyalty and 'protecting' Russia from a 'terrorist threat'.
The state-concocted German-Belarusian informer 'Frau A', whose denunciations were used by state propaganda to prove the 'White Legion’s' involvement, brought up another essential point. She directly stated that Poland and Ukraine had financed and trained the 'provocateurs', who were supposedly planning terrorist attacks in Minsk. Given the fact that state propaganda calls the White Legion Nazis and fascists, the situation becomes even more convoluted. Although Ukraine may be used to such accusations from Russian and Belarusian state propaganda, Poland is not. For the Polish, for whom the fight for independence during WWII is a point of national pride, this is a serious insult.
Breaking the law
It is also important to note that state propaganda has technically broken the law. First of all, the detainees cannot be called guilty until the court reaches a decision. Thus, the media cannot publicly call them 'terrorists', 'Nazis', etc. Secondly, propagandists have ignored the principle of 'investigation privacy' – they have illegally disclosed information on the investigation while it is still ongoing.
What's more, showing pictures of fake weapons as proof of the existence of an illegal armed formation, as the newspaper Belarus Segodnia did, demonstrates a lack of professionalism. The amateurish quality of state propaganda is also evidenced by the TV channel Belarus-1's decision to ask actor Vladimir Gostyukhin and a singer Anatol Jarmolienka to comment on the case of the 'White Legion' in a 'documentary' film.
All state propaganda pieces on the 'White legion', are published anonymously, which demonstrates the state's unwillingness to take responsibility for their falsehoods. As if that wasn't enough, YouTube deleted the most discussed propaganda film, 'White Legion of black souls', by Belarus-1, because it illegally used music from the Belarusian folk-band Irdorath.
Propaganda vs independent media
Finally, the propaganda is constantly disparaging independent and foreign media, accusing them of lying about protests and repressions. As usual, they do not provide any evidence.
The authorities also like to claim that the independent media gets financial support from abroad, meaning they must serve the interests of foreign states and are thus 'traitors'. Given that most people have access to different sources of information besides state-owned TV and newspapers, this argument beggars belief for most Belarusians.
State propaganda also uses other means to disseminate its messages. For example, on 18 April 2017, an Orthodox priest named Fiodar Poŭny, who is believed to be Lukashenka’s confessor, made a public statement during an Easter festival in Minsk insulting tut.by – the most popular online news portal in Belarus. On 8 April 2017, Hienadź Davydźka suggested a complete prohibition of forums and comments on the Internet on his programme.
The fall of the Belarusian state media
The state propaganda machine has failed to accomplish its goals. Instead of fearing 'Nazi-terrorists from the "White Legion'”, people are now supporting detainees and their families. The frontman of the famous folk-band Stary, Olsa Dzmitry Sasnoŭski, has started a 'help service' for families of detainees.
The 'White Legion' has become a symbol for the fight against repression from the regime. Instead of supporting repression of the opposition, civil society is accusing law enforcement agencies of fabricating the 'White Legion' story. The lack of professionalism of the state propaganda machine has even become a viral meme on the Internet.
Nevertheless, the propagandists seem to believe that they are still in control of the Belarusian information landscape and seek to moderate it according to their whims. State media repeat the same intimidating messages aimed at improving the image of law enforcement agencies. This is very telling of the authorities’ unwillingness to deescalate the protests and enter into dialogue with the population.
Dzmitry is an analyst at Belarus Security Blog
A snubbed Makei and an axis of good – Belarus foreign policy digest
Belarus’s recent regression in the human rights field has failed to visibly affect the intensity of its contacts with Europe. However, European governments seem to have taken note of the criticism they received for their initially meek reaction and have been voicing their concerns both publicly and (more often) privately.
Lukashenka’s ‘indiscriminate and inappropriate’ reaction to dissent may have affected the chances of Ambassador Alena Kupchyna to become the next OSCE head. Nevertheless, her personal qualities and professional qualifications may still play in her favour.
Ukraine’s security concerns and Belarus’s economic interests have finally led to an overdue meeting between the two countries' presidents. Both leaders appear to be satisfied with the outcome of this encounter, which was held in an unorthodox format.
Europe talks to Belarus but ‘snubs’ Makei
The harsh suppression of popular protests in the country by the Belarusian authorities has seemingly failed to affect the dynamics of Belarus’s relations with Europe. Regular contacts between Belarusian and European officials, which continued despite active repression, continued unabated in April.
After 25 March, when over 700 peaceful protesters were detained in Minsk, Belarusian senior diplomats held political consultations with their counterparts from Latvia in Riga, Norway in Oslo, and Estonia in Minsk. Meanwhile, the country’s puppet parliament received parliamentary delegations from Poland and Estonia.
On 31 March, the Belarusian foreign ministry held the second round of trade dialogue with a delegation from the European Commission. Two weeks later, in Minsk, the Belarusian government negotiated the development of business ties with Kai Mykkänen, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Trade and Development.
Foreign minister Vladimir Makei attended a meeting of foreign ministers of Eastern Partnership countries and the Visegrad Group on 12 April. Makei took advantage of the event in Warsaw to hold formal meetings with his counterparts from Croatia, Romania, and Ukraine, as well as European commissioner Johannes Hahn.
Probably the most significant event for Belarus’s relations with Europe during this period was the third meeting of the Belarus-EU Coordination Group held on 3-4 April. Thomas Mayr-Harting, Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia of the European External Action Service, led the EU delegation to Minsk.
The delegation apparently took note of the widespread criticism of the EU’s feeble reaction to recent developments in Belarus. Its post-meeting press release stressed that ‘the actions applied by the authorities… were indiscriminate and inappropriate and… in contradiction with Belarus' stated policy of democratisation and its international commitments’.
Belarusian diplomats admit in private conversations that, while their European partners show no intention of scaling down bilateral dialogue, they have become highly critical of the recent relapse of the Belarusian authorities. As Alexander Lukashenka confirmed it in his recent address to the parliament. ‘Makei is already afraid to go to [the West]. He's been taken down a notch all over… Wherever he goes, he gets snubbed’, he complained.
Belarus’s ambitions at the OSCE
Senior officials at Belarus’s foreign ministry, as well as the country’s ambassadors, have been striving to enlist the support of their foreign partners for the candidacy of Ambassador Alena Kupchyna to the position of the OSCE Secretary General.
In the race for the Organisation’s top position, Kupchyna is competing with former foreign minister of Finland Ilkka Kanerva, Czech politician and former European Commissioner Štefan Füle, and former Swiss ambassador to the OSCE Thomas Greminger.
The appointment requires the consensus of all 57 member states. This means that in order to get the post, a candidate should not necessarily be the most popular generally, but rather the least objectionable to the most influential member states.
Thus, Füle’s candidacy has a serious handicap, as he remains on Russia’s travel ‘black list’ in connection with his activities as the European commissioner. Meanwhile, Moscow has formally endorsed Kupchyna’s candidacy.
Kupchyna, now Belarus’s permanent representative to the OSCE, made a lot of friends in Europe (especially in its Eastern, Central, and Southern parts) during her tenure as deputy foreign minister in 2012 – 2016. Her European colleagues know her as a democratically-minded person and a strong proponent of closer ties between Belarus and Europe.
Moreover, Ambassador Kupchyna’s gender may be an advantage over all other candidates. Many European governments attach importance to greater representation of women in top international positions.
However, recent actions of the Belarusian government have dealt a definite blow to Kupchyna’s chances. The harsh response to the protests has interrupted the positive dynamics in the evolution of Belarus’s image in Europe.
Nevertheless, all is not yet lost for the Belarusian candidate. Other important posts need to be filled, and Kupchyna may become a part to a package agreement. A decision is expected by late May – early June.
‘Kyiv-Minsk, an axis of goodness’
The leaders of Belarus and Ukraine have finally found a suitable pretext and format for meeting. This will be their first meeting since the Ukrainian president’s trip to Belarus in February 2015 for the summit that would result in the Minsk-II agreements
On 26 April, Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko met at the site of Chernobyl NPP to commemorate those who died in the Chernobyl disaster. Then, they went over the border to the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus for a working meeting.
Lukashenka’s recent statements about Ukraine as a source of militants and weapons threatening Belarus’s security have created a negative backdrop for the two leaders’ meeting.
However, Ukrainian politicians seem to understand that these claims were made largely for internal consumption. Their resentment over Belarus’s vote at the UN against the Ukrainian resolution on Crimea has also become a thing of the past.
Poroshenko sought reassurance from his Belarusian counterpart about Belarus’s continued neutrality in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia – and apparently succeeded. ‘I received a firm affirmation and assurances from the President of Belarus: no one will ever be able to involve Belarus in a war against Ukraine’, the Ukrainian leader said. ‘We are kindred’, Lukashenka confirmed.
Lukashenka’s main interest in the meeting was to support the positive trend in the trade with Ukraine, which grew by 10.5% last year to attain $3.83bn, after falling three years in a row. In January-February 2017, the growth was even more spectacular – 29%. Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is on the fourth place in Ukraine’s list.
Belarus agreed to consider buying electric energy from Ukraine and plans to increase its supplies of oil products to this country. The two countries will also seek greater localisation of assembly of Belarusian machinery in Ukraine. Lukashenka and Poroshenko agreed to meet in Kyiv this summer to finalise several issues under discussion.
While Poroshenko called Russia (indirectly) a ‘demon’, Lukashenka carefully avoided taking sides in the conflict between Belarus’s two neighbours. Nevertheless, he clearly has no intention of sacrificing his country’s economic and security interests just to soothe Russian prejudices against Ukraine.