Belarusian Authorities Unable to Resist Russian Propaganda
On 24 June Aliaksandr Lukashenka, on a visit to defence industry enterprises in Barysau, said that his personal major priority is maintaining the security of the state.
The Ukrainian crisis demonstrated that a state can preserve military security only if it has effective defence against informational threats.
However, in this area of national security Belarus seems virtually helpless against the deep penetration of Russian state propaganda into Belarusian media space.
Liberalising the media with an emphasis on promoting its national interests and identity may have at one time been the most feasible path to improve the situation. But the authorities fear the risks of changing the political status quo and avoid any reforms.
Exposed Informational Flank
The informational realm in which most of Belarusians live has never been truly Belarusian. Russian TV channels dominate in Belarus and always have.
All of the Russian central federal channels that provide pro-Kremlin news – 1st Channel, "Russia" Channel, NTV and others – broadcast in Belarus. Belarusi
Though the proportion of Belarusian to Russian would at first glance appear almost equal, in fact TV audiences tend to trust Russian news over its domestic counterparts. Russian channels are much more well funded, look more professional and have historically been less biased, or to put it differently, not as straight-forward propagandistic as Belarusian TV. The latter has changed as of late, but public perception remains the same.
Belarusian authorities censor Russian TV when it criticises or mocks Lukashenka personally Read more
Occasionally the Belarusian authorities censor Russian TV when it criticises or mocks Lukashenka personally, but this is indeed a rare event. The risk here being that heavier censorship would more than likely make Russia resentful.
Of course, the opposition-minded Belarusian
Regarding alternative sources of information, pro-government newspapers dominate the market of print media and online media has failed to become a serious alternative to TV. Although more than 60% of Belarusians use the Internet, not all of them use it for the news.
As the founder of the most popular web-site in Belarus Tut.by Jury Ziser
As a result, the Belarusian authorities have managed to limit the freedom of the independent media, but have also generally failed to provide protection for the country’s media and informational environment from potential Russian interventions. The information war surrounding the Ukrainian crisis has shown just how dangerous such defencelessness can be.
Blatant Propaganda Works Better
Russian and Belarusian state media coverage of the events in Ukraine have been notably different. Belaru
At the same time, Russian coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, by many assessments, surpassed even Soviet propaganda with its level of bias, plain lies, its demonisation of its opponents, and even occasional blatant xenophobia towards Ukrainians.
All those who disagree with the Kremlin's policies, including the Ukrainian government, get labelled as being fascists. Opponents of the anti-Ukraine propaganda campaign have launched a special web-site, Stopfake.org, to expose the daily lies eminating out of Russian TV.
In Russia the impact of this propagandistic treatment of the crisis in Ukraine has exceeded all expectations: according to the polls of the leading Russian independent sociological institution Levada Centre, Put
In Belarus, its impact was not nearly as impressive but the excessively emotional, anti-western message from Russian TV, especially on the basis of its, sacred to a majority of Belarusians, anti-fascist rhetoric, it appeared to be far more effective than the restrained coverage provided by Belarusian state media.
|If you were to choose between unification with Russia and entering the EU, what would you prefer? (IISEPS polls)|
|Date||December 2011||December 2012||March 2013||June 2013||December 2013||March 2014|
|Difference (positive figure means more pro-Russian respondents)||+2.3%||-5.7%||-4.9%||-0.2%||-8%||+18.6%|
This table demonstrates that Belarusians’ views have immensely shifted towards a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation over the three month period stretching from December 2013 – March 2014 (26.6% growth). The polls pending to come out in June will likely show this trend continuing to gain ground due to fact that the intensity of Russian propagandistic coverage has only increased since March.
How to Ensure Informational Security?
In its conflict with Ukraine, Russia uses its state media as a tool for obtaining its geopolitical goals. Polls show it is working rather effectively. So, what would be the most appropriate defence against such a weapon?
The Ukrainian government went as far as shutting down Russia's federal (state) TV channels and prohibiting them from broadcasting within its borders. The Belarusian authorities cannot, and do not, want to pursue the same path. Russia remains a geopolitical ally and its largest economic supporter, so simply turning off its TV channels in Belarus could be too risky.
Media expert and political observer Aliaksandr Klaskouski believes that the only feasible response can be "the development of an independent national Belarusian media space", as he stated to Belarus Digest.
This means liberalising the whole gamut of media outlets and not interfering in the process of strengthening Belarus' national identity and patriotism by encouraging independent media to flourish on its own.
Had the government pursued this path earlier, it could have created the first line of an effective defence needed in any informational war that Russia might wage.
reliance on strengthening the Belarusian national identity or a free, dynamic media contradicts the very essence of the Belarusian regime Read more
But at least two problems stand in its way. First of all, the Belarusian authorities are not in the habit of thinking strategically: they are too busy dealing with day-to-day issues, running the economy in through excessive micro-management. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that, generally, they fail to foresee the challenges the country may face in the middle- or long-run.
Most importantly, however, reliance on strengthening the Belarusian national identity or a free, dynamic media contradicts the very essence of the Belarusian regime. When choosing between a gradual, calm slide deeper and deeper into the sphere of Russian influence or developing institutions of an independent state, Lukashenka inevitably chooses the former. It seems safer to him, allowing him to balance (without unexpected hiccups) that may be implied by any liberalisation or upsurge of the Belarusian national spirit.
As a result Belarus is caught in an unenviable trap. Russian information policy has become a significant security threat in the region, but the Belarusian government remains impotent and unable to address this challenge because it is either afraid of Russia's possible reaction or fears to lose its own base of power.
Belarus Embarks on A Corruption Sweep
Following the unrest in Ukraine, the Belarusian government has reinvigorated its anti-corruption offensive.
On June 17, former deputy prosecutor-general, Alyaksandr Arkhipau, was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of office and bribe-taking.
The court found his co-defendant Uladzimer Kanapliou, former Chairman of the House of Representatives, guilty of not reporting the crime. Many others, including directors and deputy directors of major enterprises, received corruption charges earlier this year.
The corruption crackdown may help Lukashenka’s 2015 presidential campaign at a time when economic growth, a staple of some of his previous campaigns, lags. However, it will hardly eliminate corruption. In the absence of political and economic competition in Belarus, the potential gains to be made against corruption remain limited.
Turning Against Former Friends and Allies
Kanapliou, one of the defendants in the case, has been close to Lukashenka since the early 1990s. He helped collect signatures for Lukashenka’s presidential candidacy and engineered the presidential hopeful’s first anti-corruption campaign in 1994.
When Lukashenka won the presidency, Kanaploiu rode his coattails. He first served as an assistant to the President of Belarus and later as Chairman of the House of Representatives as well as Chairman of the Belarusian Handball Federation. In 2010, pundits speculated that Kanapliou would head Lukashenka’s electoral team in yet another presidential campaign. Indeed, Kanapliou’s name may help Lukashenka’s anti-corruption drive ahead of the 2015 election, albeit in an unanticipated way.
This is not the first time the populist leader has turned against his former friends and allies. Even though the president has ruled for the last twenty years, considerable turnover and uncertainty prevail in many other politically important offices in Belarus.
Corruption provides one of many possible excuses for rotating and dismissing high officials. Read more
Corruption provides one of many possible excuses for rotating and dismissing high officials. In 2013, minister of energy was fired; in 2012, the top echelons Belarusian KGB were purged and the minister of foreign affairs was dismissed; in 2011, the minister of justice was removed; 2010 saw a wave of dismissals in the defence branch following the “teddy-bead affair”; ministers of economics and minister of taxes and duties were dismissed in 2009. If initially analysts optimistically interpreted such high-level purges as signals of change, today they increasingly signal stability and Lukashenka’s power.
Corruption sweeps keep Lukashenka’s allies loyal and also show the electorate who is to blame for the nation's endless string of economic problems. When Lukashenka’s friends go astray, their corrupt behaviour is exposed. Some, however, have been brought back into the fold upon surrendering stolen property and apologising. For example, the chairman of "Belneftekhim" Alyaksandr Barouski was charged with abuse of office in 2007, pardoned a year later, and then appointed to be the general director of a major state-controlled company BelavtoMAZ.
Summing up Two Decades of Anti-Corruption Battles
In 1994 Lukashenka, then a relatively unknown parliamentarian, was elected on a populist anti-corruption platform.
He stood out as an outsider, untarnished by any having any direct involvement in the system, whose only prior political engagement was managing a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating governmental corruption.
Corruption has remained on the top of Lukashenka’s agenda to this day. There is surprisingly little progress in reducing it, however.
According to official statistics, the number of corruption cases has steadily decreased over time, from 6,840 in 2002 to a mere 2,301 in 2013, as shown in the figure above.
However, the corruption perception index provided by Transparency International suggests the opposite is true. The index, constructed on the basis of expert and business surveys, shows that Belarus is doing poorly in dealing with corruption, even compared to its neighbours in the post-Soviet space.
In 2013, Belarus was ranked 123rd (out of 177 countries) by Berlin-based Transparency International – better than Ukraine (144th) and Russia (127th) but much worse than its EU neighbours Poland (38th), Latvia (49th) and Lithuania (43rd).
Why such a drastic discrepancy? Changes in the type of crimes classified as corruption in the Belarusian Criminal Code can explain the drop in corruption crimes observed between 2010-2011.
In 2011, the list of 14 crimes was reduced to 10, with forgery, receipt of illegal remuneration, smuggling, and financing of terrorist activities no longer being classified as corruption-related crimes.
Do Anti-Corruption Initiatives Affect Public Opinion?
There is no doubt that the top-level officials that have incurred Lukashenka’s ire are indeed corrupt. But will they help Lukashenka’s public image? According to a survey conducted by NISEPI, an independent source of public opinion in Belarus, in June 2013, only 30% of respondents agreed that the president would succeed in his anti-corruption campaign.
Another 37.5% believed that Lukashenka himself had dealings with corrupted ministers and was interested in keeping corruption up, while 28% believed he would fail because corruption is deep-rooted in Belarus.
In a 2014 survey on the effects of his long-term presidential rule, over a fifth of respondents said that prolonged presidency contributes to the growth of corruption and abuse of office. While twenty years ago Lukashenka was still an outsider, now he is deeply implicated in the system, and his arguments about eliminating corruption may have lost credibility.
How Political Competition Undermines Corruption
Thus, at least a fifth of the Belarusian public seems to have diagnosed the problem correctly. Among the most important factors linked to corruption is the absence of economic and political competition.
Political competition can reduce corruption in a number of ways: on the one hand, the need to get re-elected and the risk of being replaced lowers the appetite for bribes of the politicians in power; on the other hand, frequent turnover among the political leadership diminishes the brazenness with which economic actors can rely on corruption under the protection of any one leader.
Additionally, freedom of information and association permits society to monitor public officials, thus limiting opportunities for corruption. The lack of economic competition may also contribute to higher corruption levels, as it allows businesses to seek higher rents, which increases incentives to control public entities to seek bribes.
Therefore the prospects for eliminating corruption in Belarus remain dim. The authoritarian nature of the system and the large share of public ownership of enterprises in the economy (about 70% of country’s GDP) make the problem worse. Thus, all of the president's efforts to reduce corruption can have only limited results.
Corruption is an ever-present problem in the post-Soviet region. Comparing corruption averages for the post-Soviet and Central European states shows that they are moving in the different developmental trajectories.
Therefore, the rampant corruption in Belarus can be seen as a legacy of its economic and political development in the 20th century.
Expert debate about the extent of corruption-induced harm remains unresolved. However, studies suggest that when compared to democracies, non-democratic states are much more likely to suffer substantial economic harm from corruption.
The true scale of corruption and its economic consequences in Belarus remain unknown, but it is clear that the new anti-corruption drive will fail to address the root of the problem.