CNN Offended Belarus and Russia
On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments, causing an outrage in many post-Soviet countries, both officially and among the general public.
The channel described the Courage monument from the Brest Fortress memorial in Belarus as looking constipated, a strange characterisation from a professional media company.
The story provoked a chain of official letters of protest in Belarus and Russia. In Russia the anti-American wave seemed to grow even stronger as a result. In return, Russian TV show depicted soldiers at Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, hinting that they were simulating a sexual act.
The case demonstrated just how Belarus and Russia still use World War II glory, developed by the USSR on a massive scale, as an important tool for ideological battles with the West. But while in Russia the anti-western mood remains strong both among the elite and general population, in Belarus people are not as hostile and the government does not dare engage in another informational war in a period of rapprochement.
The Controversial Ratings
On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments with photos, giving them some facetious descriptions. Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Junior, a monument given to the United States by Russia to commemorate the 9/11 World Trade Centre bombing, Pope John Paul II and other monuments appeared on the list.
These pieces of art were accompanied by light-hearted humorous comments, and while some of these works of art are sacred for many people, they did not cause a big stir at first.
However, one of the monuments soon sparked a firestorm in several post-Soviet countries. The momument, known as Courage, is a monument of a Soviet soldier that commemorates the struggle with the Nazis in World War II and is located in Brest, Belarus. Although CNN published the material on 24 January, in the former USSR countries it exploded only two weeks later.
The description of the monument in the CNN story said the Soviet soldier “emerging from a mountainous block of concrete looks as if he's about to thump the West into submission before hurling North America at the sun.” It also noted that others think the soldier “simply looks constipated.” The editors could hardly expect a firestorm that this joke finally caused.
The Monument’s Story
The history of the monument dates back to the very beginning of World War II. The German troops supported by artillery and aviation attacked the fortress on the border early on 22 June 1941. German command planned to capture the fortress by 12 p.m. the very same day. However, the Soviet soldiers desperately resisted for about a month, with 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed and 7,000 taken prisoners.
This resistance became a symbol of struggle with the Nazis in the USSR. After the war, the story of fortress defence became a part of Soviet mythology, glorifying the victory and continues to play a similar role in Belarus until now. The authorities decided to build a memorial in 1965. Today, the Brest fortress is a place of countless visits and commemorative events held by officials.
Russians, who share the heritage of Soviet war ideology, also consider Brest Fortress as an important symbol of their own. It is not only official Russia's state ideology that makes use of the monument. Many average Russian tourists come to Belarus just to visit the memorial. It should be no surprise, then, that the outrage spread across Russia even to a larger extent than in Belarus.
Belarus and Russia’s Nervous Reaction
On 7 February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus summoned the Chief of the US diplomatic mission to Belarus, Ethan Goldrich. Belarusian officials informed Mr. Goldrich that the CNN piece with the Courage monument is unacceptable.
“The insulting material caused an outrage among regular Belarusians and even civil organisations. Belarus lost one fourth of its citizens in World War II and memory of heroes who died for the country's liberty is sacred to the Belarusian people,” the note said. Belarus' Embassy in the US addressed the Department of State and CNN channel with a similar note.
Interestingly, the reaction of common Belarusians to the incident appeared quite moderate. TUT.by media portal polled Brest dwellers on the incident, and usual answers were “Well, it is not ugly I think…”, “I think Americans do not understand it…”, “I wish Americans came here and we would explain to them the meaning of the monument…”
Apart from official Foreign Ministry note, Belarusian officials refrained from publicly commenting on the issue. Meanwhile, Russians appeared much more active in this respect. A Russian foreign ministry told CNN Moscow Bureau chief Phil Black that the mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers, who gave their lives for the victory over fascism, cannot be justified or forgiven. The Russian embassy in the US called the inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating unacceptable and insulting and beyond reason.
The vice-speaker of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, and the secretary of General Council of United Russia party Sergei Neverov called the rating an affront and sacrilege to the 5 million dead, who saved the world from falling into the grips of fascism. He thinks that US public should consider this incident seriously.
A member of the Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Igor Morozov even proposed placing a temporary ban on CNN broadcasts inside Russia. According to him, this will show CNN and other media agencies “the boundaries of their publicity” and give them a better understanding of “which evaluations are appropriate and which are not.” Other Russian officials also used this opportunity to criticise the channel and the United States in general.
Russian Ideologists Strike Back Despite CNN Apologies
On 6 February, a CNN editor’s note appeared on the story. He apologised on behalf of the corporation for including the Courage monument in its rating. “We understand that inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating insulted Belarusian people. This was done unintentionally and we apologise for this. We expected that the material would be an overview of monuments worldwide. CNN realises that the monument has a sacred value for many people who honour the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives,” the note said.
On 7 February, CNN withdrew the story entirely, explaining that it was not to the standard they would expect of a CNN report.
However, the apologies seemed not to be enough for the Russians. On 9 February Rossiya TV channel showed weekly programme of Dmitry Kiselyov, an anchor well-known for his active pro-Kremlin propaganda.
He explained in the programme how CNN humiliated the memory of Russian people everywhere. Soon thereafter in the broadcast appeared a picture of the US Marine Corps War Memorial of Iwo Jima Battle.
Kiselyov hinted that the soldiers’ positions in the monument could be understood as homosexual intercourse. "It's easy to mock. A fevered subconscious could ascribe just about anything to it. Take a closer look: A very modern theme, is it not?" he said.
This is not the first time that Kiselyov also made homophobic comments, a trend which the Russian government supports and which the West has extensively criticised recently.
The reaction of Russian officials and propaganda show that the anti-Western mood among Russians remains high, higher than among Belarusians. Russia sees its Soviet war legacy as important tools for propaganda and continues its confrontational model of relations despite the Olympic Games taking place in Sochi. Meanwhile, Belarus, which again tries to reconcile with the West, dares not launch any kind of similar informational war – so far.
Belarus and Customs Union: From Subject to Object of Integration
Beginning 1 July 2014, Belarusian authorities will forbid companies to produce, import or sell synthetic underwear.
New regulations came from the Customs Union and show how Russia forces its partners to adopt Russia's own rules of the game.
Belarus is stuck in the middle of the process of integration with Russia. If Belarus had previously been the subject of this process, it is now transforming into an object.
In the past, Lukashenka`s regime showed more interest in the development of these projects, having seen long-term perspective for bolstering itself. Now the authorities are trying to stop as many of these integration projects from proceeding forward.
Belarus` lack of involvement into any other integration projects only deepens its dependence on Russia. However, the West still can help Belarus to emancipate it from its complicated relations with the Russian Federation.
Topics for Private Conversation
On 8 February, Alexander Lukashenka took a ski ride with Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev. The two leaders have plenty of subjects for private conversation, as the Kremlin is seeking the sale of Belarusian enterprises. Both of them looked cheerful, though the Belarusian leader had little reason to celebrate.
Two days earlier, on February 6, Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia could start its anti-dumping investigation against Belarusian dairy products. Belarus subsidises its own agriculture and guarantees its high quality and affordable price for all of its the dairy products. Over the past year Belarus exported dairy products to Russia for a total of about $ 2bn. It might come to pass that the Russian authorities force Belarus to sell milk production.
Hitting dairy production can significantly damage Belarus' already deteriorating economy. The dependence Belarus' has on the market of the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, combined with the protectionist policies of the European Union, leave little chance for diversification.
It seems that the Belarusian authorities will soon put up for sale its domestic machine manufacturing. Last week, Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich said that the level of consumer complaints towards Belarusian-produced tractors has grown by 25%, while the Belarusian Ambassador in France Pavel Latushka said that Belarusian equipment has often broke down, even during presentations abroad.
Self-criticism remains an unusual feat for the Belarusian authorities. Therefore, suspicions emerge that these statements must convince Belarusians about the necessity of the sale of the Minsk Automobile Plant and the Belarusian Automobile Plant to Russia.
The Kremlin, with increasing assertiveness, seeks retribution for the financial assistance that it provides to Lukashenka Read more
Such governmental regulations as the ban on the sale, importing and producing of synthetic underwear show that Belarus is stuck in its integration projects with Russia. The Kremlin, with increasing assertiveness, seeks retribution for the financial assistance that it provides to Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities have few means at their disposal to resist the pressure. These problems are the result of Belarus' off-balance foreign policy.
Belarus in the fold of Russian projects
Belarus remains Russia's main ally in its economic and political integration process, although the Belarusian role of as a partner is more of a lord-vassal relationship. The number of various integration initiatives in Russia may confuse even an experienced observer.
Belarus is one of the three founders of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The leaders of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and Ukraine signed an agreement on 8 December 1991 in Belavezha Forest, in Western Belarus, that launched the CIS. Minsk hosts the headquarters of the organisation. This structure briefly pledged economic integration, but in the end it became little more than a discussion platform.
In 1993, Belarus joined the Russia-controlled Organisation of Collective Security Treaty. This military alliance unites Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan and Belarus. In 2009, Belarus refused to sign the agreement on a joint rapid reaction force, as is “Russia undermining the economic security of Belarus.” Later on, the parties were able to resolve this conflict and Belarus signed the document with no further public protest.
Belarus has long promoted the idea of the Union State with Russia. The project began in 1997, has its own budget and built its own system of governing bodies. Lukashenka personally became the leader of the process and had even at one time planned to become the president of the Union State.
While Lukashenka saw great promise for himself, he was ready to integrate as much as possible. When Putin becamepresident of Russia and Lukashenka lost his ambitions, the desire for the Belarusian authorities to get dissolve Belarusian independence similarly evaporated.
Politically, this project is more dead than alive, however it brings benefits to many ordinary Belarusians. For example, students from Belarus receive scholarships in Russian universities on the same terms as Russian citizens.
The Eurasian Economic Community, established in 2001, includes Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The organisation became a preparatory structure to a common market of these countries. EEC gives Belarus stabilisation loans and requires the privatisation of enterprises in return. Formally, the international organisation gives loans for reforms, but de facto Russia gives credits and requires Belarusian companies to be sold off to Russia.
The conversion from a partner to a vassal became most noticeable during the creation of the Customs Union Read more
The conversion from a partner to a vassal became most noticeable during the creation of the Customs Union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, and the Common Economic Space consisting of the same countries. The first organisation originated in 2010, the second in 2012.
These structures lay the groundwork for the functioning of a common market. Belarusian officials have to make regulations, often harmful to Belarus and it's national interests, which has become the main thrust of their criticism of Eurasian integration. However, there is nothing they can do except to adopt the laws that Russia requires of them.
Belarus looks like a wagon in a Russian train, one which is moving towards the full-fledged creation of the Eurasian Economic Union. The organisation will start its work in 2015.
Relations with Other Integration Processes
While the integration processes with Russia continue to evolve, Belarus lacks institutional linkages with other structures. In 2009 Belarus became a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, Belarus has little say in it.
According to the European Integration Index 2013, Belarus has the weakest relationship with the EU among all the Eastern Partnership countries. To reconcile the EU, Belarus and other EP countries, Lukasz Byrski of Batory Foundation proposed to hold Eastern Partnership summits in Belarus and other EP countries.
Not only would European ministers or leaders come to visit with the leadership in Minsk, but also their large teams would follow. This way it would not not only be Lukashenka or Makei who will have an opportunity to talk with Western leaders, but also the heads of the Belarusian ministries would be able to establish ties with their colleagues from the EU.
It is true that the middle-level officials have few, if any, meetings with their Western counterparts, but they meet with their colleagues from the East quite often. More contacts with EU partners could help Belarus emancipate in relations with Russia.