How Belarusian Television Covers Elections – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarusian state television continues to convince its audience that voting matters. It also tries to create an impression that it remains an open platform for all candidates. Yet, at the same time state TV clearly promotes one particular candidate while only briefly covering others.
However, in regards the election campaign, state TV sometimes allows critical comments such as “The ongoing campaign is boring and uninteresting", or "The state machinery works for just one candidate”.
Channel 1 commented on the results of a recent social survey according to which Alexander Lukashenka is highly trusted by Belarusians. All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.
The head of state shows his humane face. Journalists of Channel 1 briefly reported on the release of all political prisoners including Mikola Statkievich and Mikola Dziadok. Lukashenka did it because of the “principle of humanism”, they explained.
“Dedolarisation” of Belarus. State TV jointly with the Belarusian Ministry of the Economy has launched a project aimed at promoting the concept of paying in Belarusian roubles rather than the US dollar. This will build respect for the national currency, and also strengthen the economy, journalists stated.
Why Belarusians go to another country’s war? Channel 1 covered the death of a young Belarusian, Aleś Cherkashchyn, who had recently been killed while fighting in the war in Ukraine. The reporter a few times repeated that the Ukrainian war remained “foreign” to Belarusians, and “Belarusians should not be there”.
2015 Presidential Elections
Channel 1: the electoral campaign is equal for all candidates. “The first round of the electoral campaign was fair for all competitors”, according to one of the registered candidates, Siarhei Haidukievich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. In his view, all competitors could freely collect signatures. According to the coverage, giving free time to all candidates on the air both on state Channel 1 and the Belarusian National Radio 1 proves that they treat all candidates equally during the election campaign.
Traditional Belarusian symbols used by pro-Lukashenka campaigners. “Belaya Rus”, a state-supported public association, has begun its pre-election agitation campaign for the incumbent head of state. According to coverage on Channel 1 the event’s attractions included Belarusian folk music and free bracelets with a traditional ornament. Belarusians also had the chance to leave their written requests to Lukashenka.
Taciana Karatkievich. Journalists also reported on Tatsiana Karatkievich’s pre-election campaign in the town of Lahojsk, where her team distributed leaflets. They pointed out that Karatkievich directly spoke to people about her political programme.
Who really cares about Belarusians? Channel 1 reports that three fourths of Belarusians trust Lukashenka. This is according to the results of a survey conducted in August by the information-analytical centre. Over 74% of people agreed that the politics of the incumbent president is supportive of ordinary people. According to over 77% of people, Belarus under Lukashenka is going in the right direction.
Lukashenka as a remedy for the corruption and poverty in the early 1990s. Glavnyj Efir in an evening programme on Channel 1, launched a series of documentary movies on how the country has changed over the last 20 years. While speaking of the achievements they mainly emphasise the role of the current head of state, whereas failures are usually assigned either to internal opposition forces or external issues with Russia.
Describing the years 1993-1994, reporters of Glavnyj Efir emphasised the major economic hardships of that time: empty shelves in stores, rising prices, destroyed collective farms, wild privatisation, poverty and mandatory vouchers for food. However, the solution to these difficulties arrived with Alexander Lukashenka stepping into power, as the journalists hinted. The incumbent head of state with his famous anti-corruption speech given in Parliament won Belarusians’ heart and proposed a new quality in politics, reporters emphasised.
Who saved Belarusian independence. Describing the years 2002-2003, reporters mainly focused on the “construction” achievements including the National Library and the first underground shopping centre in Minsk, something that was unbelievable in the early 1990s. Reporters also pointed out that Lukashenka has done a lot to maintain the independence of Belarus by not allowing the country to be transformed to just another Russian region.
Belarusian maidan. Commenting upon the protests following the 2007 presidential elections, journalists stated that “a political minority did not agree with the peoples’ will” which decisively supported Lukashenka.
Participants of Dzielo pryncypa, a talk show hosted by Vadzim Hihin, discussed collecting signatures for the nomination of candidates for the presidential election. Among the participants on the talk show was an MP, an independent political analyst, and also the heads of all candidates’ electoral committees.
The pre-election campaign is colourless? Valery Karbalevych, an independent political analyst, vocally criticised the authorities. He mainly argued that the pre-election campaign was boring and reflected the lack of real political life in the country. In his view, the vast majority of Belarusians remain indifferent towards the election. “The whole state machinery works in favour of just one candidate, the President”, Karbalevych openly said.
The majority of the discussants strongly disagreed with him. “If you think that an interesting pre-election campaign is when the candidates are arguing, when there is blood spilt on the streets, and mass protests are taking place… we do not need such a campaign!”, replied Aleh Haidukievich, who is the head of Siarhei Haidukievich’s electoral team.
Access to state media for all? Andrej Dzmitryjeu, the head of Taciana Karatkievich's electoral team, pointed out that the political debates in Belarus are taking place only during the pre-election campaign rather than as a part of the regular political process. He also noted that his organisation remained unknown to most of Belarusians as it had no access to state TV and radio.
Not so voluntary support for Lukashenka? Karbalevich noted that people working in state enterprises were often forced to sign on to the support lists of Lukashenka. That roused some controversy in the studio.
Conflict and democracy in the opposition? Karbalevych argued that the real political life in Belarus actually takes place amid the opposition, as people argue there which remains a part of a normal political reality.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.
A Cautious Reset of Belarus-EU Relations in the Making?
On 9 September the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini stated that the EU should "not to miss a new window of opportunity" in relations with Belarus after Alexander Lukashenka's decision to pardon six remaining political prisoners.
Although the West remains cautious, waiting for the outcome of the October presidential elections, this round of a warming in relations may indeed lead to a new format of interaction.
If the electoral campaign is calm, Minsk and Brussels have a good opportunity to launch fruitful and pragmatic cooperation in various important fields like trade, freedom of movement, investment and education. So far slow engagement seems the only realistic way to gradually Europeanise Belarus and balance Russian influence.
Lifting Sanctions? Not So Fast
After Lukashenka's "act of humanism" many Western governments have unequivocally welcomed this step. Many analysts were expecting the quick removal of European sanctions, but Brussels has taken a pause before doing so.
The first high-rank Western official who visited Minsk after the political prisoners’ release was Gernot Erler, the German government coordinator for the Eastern Partnership and Russia. He reiterated approval of Lukashenka’s step but emphasised, that the EU was not going to revise sanctions before the elections scheduled for October 11. Erler stated that sanctions expire on 30 October and said that the EU member-states had “neither plans, nor grounds for reviewing them beforehand”.
Later, the head of Belgium MFA Didier Reynders and Federica Mogherini stated the same: no revision of sanctions before elections.
during the 2008-2010 reengagement between Minsk and Brussels the situation looked similar Read more
This delay may disappoint the Belarusian authorities whose only motivation to release the political prisoners was to improve ties with the West. However, the EU’s implied rationale seems reasonable, it can be called "2010-syndrome".
During the 2008-2010 reengagement between Minsk and Brussels the situation looked similar: Russia scared its neighbours by intervening in Georgia, the Belarusian government distanced itself from the Kremlin's actions and released political prisoners. Contacts with the EU became more intensive and, finally, Brussels froze sanctions.
In 2010 many hoped Belarus was sincerely opening up to the West. A brutal crackdown on mass demonstration in Minsk on election night followed by 700 protesters being detained and more than 40 sent to jail ruined those hopes. The EU was widely shamed for naivety and had to reintroduce tough sanctions in 2011. These events rolled back relations to the lowest level in a decade.
Now, the West seems to be more cautious, leaving itself leeway in case the elections do not go smoothly.
More Cautious Promises
In 2010 Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski was straight-forward when he visited Minsk with his German colleague on the eve of presidential elections. He simply promised €3 billion in exchange for a non-fradulent and open campaign.
the EU can lift sanctions, foster the visa facilitation process, support Belarus' application to WTO Read more
Currently, EU diplomats (including Mogherini) are using cautious language, mentioning a possible “reset” in relations with Minsk if the OSCE monitors’ report after the elections is “positive”. Gernot Erler told journalists about a possible “substantive political dialogue in this case. He also named some concrete opportunities: in the case of “fine” elections the EU can lift sanctions, foster the visa facilitation process, support Belarus' application to WTO and help organise a large investment conference in 2016 together with Minsk.
Also, before the political prisoners release, European diplomats in private talks confirmed the existence of a special internal EU document providing tens of concrete proposals to Minsk. To “activate” this road map the major obstacles of political prisoners and sanctions were to be removed.
Besides the points mentioned by Gernot Erler, this set of proposals allegedly included trade facilitation measures, a sizable increase in technical assistance, new education opportunities (in the framework of the Bologna process) and other rather pragmatic steps. Minsk also seems particularly interested in EU assistance for placing Belarusian bonds on the European stock exchange.
Finally, Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg Foreign Minister currently holding the EU rotating presidency, on 5 September revealed that the EU was working on a new kind of agreement with Belarus and Armenia "to prevent all bridges being burnt". These two members of the Eastern Partnership showed little desire to sign the association and free-trade agreements with the EU. Hence, treaties with them will be "of a lower level", with no customs privileges but containing "a lot of other things", the Luxembourg Foreign Minister said.
New Format Seems Feasible and Promising
To enable this optimistic scenario in Belarus-EU relations two factors have to coincide: calm elections and more or less positive OSCE report, noting at least minor progress. Both conditions remain rather fragile given the Belarusian regime's lack of plans for true political liberalisation and its unpredictability when it comes to public protests, which December 2010 showed.
the Belarusian authorities have done their best to score some points in the eyes of foreign observers Read more
On the other hand, some prerequisites for this scenario exist. The readiness to protest in Belarusian society has fallen significantly after the Ukrainian crisis. Thus, the government may not need to resort to repression in the absence of a serious threat.
As for the future OSCE report, the Belarusian authorities have done their best to score some points in the eyes of foreign observers. These efforts include inviting a maximum number of Western monitors, equipping many polling stations with transparent ballot boxes and providing relatively free conditions for opposition to campaign.
The authorities have demonstratively refrained from punishing opposition activists for unauthorised protest rallies in central Minsk, which is surprising for Belarusian politics. Although these measures do not change the essence of the controlled electoral process, they may well be highlighted as improvements in the OSCE report which the West hopes for.
If the European Union responds with visa liberalisation, more educational exchanges, more EU technical assistance and investments, it would strengthen the pro-European segment of Belarusian society and within the government. Together with possible Western loans and joining the WTO these measures will help create a more healthy environment in the Belarusian economy and provide a balance to Russian influence.
the restrained language and pragmatic agenda will hardly cause a lot of false expectations and disappointments Read more
At the same time, it looks like this potential new format of relations with Belarus will be designed not to irritate Russia: something "lower" than association agreement which caused the initial tensions between Moscow and Kiev back in 2013.
Additionally, the restrained language and pragmatic agenda will hardly cause a lot of false expectations and disappointments between parties. It happened in cases of Georgia and Ukraine: both of whom hoped for EU membership perspective or, at least, visa-free regime, but have received none of the two so far.
Given the existing political system in Belarus, Russian dominance in the economy and media space and a currently assertive Kremlin's foreign policy, this "small-steps strategy" seems to be preferable. Any true Europeanisation of Belarus and its people remains unlikely without building new bridges with united Europe.