Is Belarus waging an information war against Russia?
On 6 February, Alexander Lukashenka dismissed the heads of several major state media outlets. The president also said that Belarus should avoid the methods used by Russian TV channels.
In an interview with Rzeczpospolita, Pavel Yakubovich, the former head of the most influential state-owned daily SB Belarus Segodnya, said that he had been fighting “with the narrative of Russian channels, which has been used in relation to Belarus. We conducted an information war with such figures as Vladimir Soloviev and Dmitry Kiselyov.”
Much of today’s Russian TV conveys anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian messages. Belarusian state media outlets also maintain a clear anti-Western rhetoric, but their main task has always been the struggle against the “internal enemy” – the political opposition, as well as presenting a positive image of Lukashenka.
The Russian propaganda that Lukashenka aims to avoid
On 6 February, Lukashenka replaced the heads of the main media outlets. He dismissed the leaders of the country’s main state TV channels, BT (Belarusian Television) and STV (Capital Television), as well as the head of the largest state-run newspaper SB Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today). Hienadz Davydzka, Yury Kaziyatka and Pavel Yakubovich had headed the organisations for 7, 12 and 22 years respectively.
Several factors could explain the reshuffle in the major state-run media. This might represent an attempt to modernise television or adapt it to the trends of Belarusisation. More importantly, many Belarusians watch Russian rather than Belarusian TV channels. When replacing Davydzka, Yakubovich and Kaziyatka, Lukashenka emphasised the importance of focusing on Western media henceforward, “but we need to never slide on the positions and those forms of work that currently exist on the Russian channels.”
Most likely, by the undesired forms of work, Lukashenka means anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Until now, one of the main vehicles for Russian propaganda remains its focus on Ukraine.
As early as 2013, Russian media outlets such as RIA News, LifeNews, Perviy Kanal and Komsomolskaya Pravda began to actively distort facts, aiming to influence public opinion on the protests in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Until now, Ukraine remains one of the most important targets of the Russian propaganda.
The United States also appears as a frequent target. This became especially significant after both countries engaged in the civil war in Syria. The most recent fake appeared on the web-page of the Russian Ministry of Defence. On 14 November 2017, the ministry published a screenshot from the computer game Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron and presented it as a proof of “US cooperation with the ISIS” in Syria.
Anti-Belarusian propaganda on Russian TV
In addition to Ukraine and the United States, Russian propaganda attacked Lukashenka himself. In 2010, the Russian television channel NTV aired a series, Krestniy Batska (The Godfather), which criticised Lukashenka asserting that he “only holds power thanks to Russia” and “praises Hitler” among other things.
In recent years, the Belarusian authorities have started to use vyshyvanka shirts and white and red ornaments previously associated with forbidden symbols (associated with the pre-Lukashenka era). Since then Russian channels such as Perviy Kanal have broadcast shows devoted to Belarus. Life News or Vesti.ru often present Lukashenka as a traitor who intentionally approaches the European Union and pushes away from Russia. In late 2016 Russian TV channels focused on the alternative interpretation of history supported by the Belarusian authorities.
Recent sentences against authors writing for the nationalist Russian portal Regnum provoked a wave of articles in Russian media claiming that “Belarus is on the Ukrainian path.” Consequently, since late 2017, the main Russian channels invoke the ‘threat of nationalism” and “the violation of Russian-speakers’ rights” in respect of Belarus. Those arguments proved central to Russian propaganda against Ukraine and, according to Russian propagandists, they represent factors which could lead to a “Ukrainian situation.”
Is Belarusian propaganda similar to Russian?
After 1994 Russian and Belarusian TV differed significantly. During the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin served as president in Russia, the Russian media space lived according to market laws, free from censorship and political pressure. Incisive journalistic programs with different perspectives and criticism of the central government often appeared on Russian TV. The Belarusian government sometimes restricted Russian TV-shows that included criticism towards President Lukashenka.
The Russian situation started to change dramatically after Putin came to power in 2000. Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, who had a strong influence on the media market, were forced to flee Russia. In Belarus, soon after Lukashenka became president in 1994, alternative viewpoints gradually disappeared from state media and the state restricted freedom of speech.
The Belarusian government understands that the Russian media strongly influence the worldview of Belarusian citizens. At a conference with the Russian media as early as July 2017, Lukashenka noted that the media itself unleashed the information war between Russia and Ukraine and that this affected Belarus. Aiming to confront Russian propaganda towards Belarus, state TV channels including BT, STV and the SB Belarus Segodnya newspaper continue to be the key providers of central state ideology. These media create a positive image of the government and foster a negative reputation of the opposition.
Belarusian state media has broadcast the loudest propaganda films and articles aimed at discrediting political opposition. For example, in 2011, BT released a propaganda movie about the 2010 electoral protests, “Iron on the Glass.” Later, Belarusian television released a short movie during protests against the social parasites decree. SB Belarus Segodnya newspaper aired a series of reports to discredit the Belarusian opposition and public protests. The authorities recently abandoned one of the latest focal points for its propaganda, the widely-reported criminal case of the “White Legion”.
The Russian government also employs media to discredit Russian opposition and blocks the web-pages of activists such as Aleksey Navalny. However, the Russian media typically prioritise the creation of a negative image of geopolitical news. For instance, on 15 February in the news broadcast on Russia’s Perviy Kanal twice accused Ukrainian citizens, allegedly members of the nationalist organisation “Right Sector”, of anti-Russian vandalism. In the same programme, the channel, without providing a clear source of information, reported on British spy planes on Russia’s Western border.
To sum up, Russian TV mostly highlights geopolitical topics, consolidating the image of a hostile environment to strengthen Putin’s regime. Belarusian state media primarily focus on the activities of Lukashenka and failures of the internal opposition.
Lukashenka’s decision to reshuffle the main Belarusian propagandists can hardly be interpreted as preparation for a full informational war against Russian propaganda. However, it may indicate that Lukashenka’s regime gets ready to more actively confront unfavourable propaganda from Russia.
Pro-Russian bloggers sentenced: Belarus draws red lines in propaganda war
On 2 February, a Belarusian court sentenced three Belarusian journalists with pro-Russian views to 5 years imprisonment (with 3 years of the sentence suspended). The three have been under investigation since December 2016 on charges of inciting hatred towards the Belarusian nation and language.
Their case sets a precedent. Never before have the Belarusian authorities brought a criminal prosecution for Belarusophobia and pro-Russian propaganda. Yet, surprisingly, the Russian government’s official public reaction has been muted.
By trying pro-Russian journalists, the Belarusian authorities draw their red line with regards to propaganda in the bilateral relationship with Russia.
The arrests of pro-Russian bloggers
In December 2016, the Belarusian authorities arrested Dzmitry Alimkin, a watchman in a company in Brest city, Jury Paŭlaviec, a lecturer at Belarusian University of Informatics and Radio Electronics, and Siarhiej Šyptenka, a former lecturer at the Academy of Public Administration. All three were proponents of the ‘Russian world’ ideology and published their texts on the Russian information portals Regnum, Lenta.ru, and Eadaily.
The Investigative Committee of Belarus officially charged them under criminal article 130 of the Criminal Code, which covers incitement to racial, ethnic, religious or other social hatred.
A fourth suspect and their alleged supervisor, Jury Barančyk, works as chief editor of the analytical section of Regnum, a Russian imperialist and anti-Western media outlet. Barančyk worked in the Presidential Administration of Belarus in the 2000s but was dismissed and subsequently moved to Russia. Russian police even arrested him in Moscow at the request of Belarusian authorities, but the local court released him claiming that ‘the Belarusian side does not possess evidence of his guilt.’
Denying the Belarusian nation and language
Paŭlaviec, according to the prosecutor, denies the historical heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, demeans the importance of the Belarusian language, artificially presents the attitude of Belarusians towards Russians as hostile, and tries to foment among Russian readers outrage about developments in Belarus.
Quotes from the writings of another of the convicts, Alimkin, say: ‘The study of Belarusian language can spoil children’s brains’; ‘Belarusian education officials are Nazi Hilfspolizei’; ‘The Belarusian nation was artificially created in the late 19th century’; ‘The vast majority of Belarusians want to unite with their historical homeland – Russia.’ According to the prosecutor, Alimkin’s articles could contribute to ‘the emergence in Belarus of a conflict similar to the one in Ukraine.’
A precedent for Belarus
The case of pro-Rusian bloggers set a precedent. Never before have the Belarusian authorities started a criminal prosecution for Belarusophobia and pro-Russian propaganda. Earlier, they only persecuted what they defined as Belarusian nationalist extremism. For example, in 2o16 the court convicted Eduard Palčys under the same article of the criminal code for his management of a website critical of the Putin regime and Belarus’s support for it.
Belarus presented the current case as a move to protect the Belarus-Russia friendship. As the information minister, Lilija Ananič, put it: ‘The customers and authors of such articles are trying to sow discord between our countries and nations… to destroy our deep friendship and the process of building the Union State.’
Divided views on freedom of speech
The case fuelled a discussion in Belarusian civil society about the limits of freedom of speech. Some human rights activists, journalists and politicians claimed that no expression of views should be punished and the pro-Russian journalists could be considered political prisoners. The opponents of this view support the authorities’ measures to crack down on Russian imperialism in Belarus. The latter, though, represents an overwhelming majority within the Belarusian civil society, which always held anti-Russian and pro-European views.
Reporters Without Borders, who called the detention ‘unnecessary’, urged the authorities to release the journalists and facilitate a fair investigation. Belarusian nationalists, however, admitted that the use of such methods in the struggle against Russian imperialism has proven reactive and inefficient. They prioritise the defence of regime stability over national development. Instead of increasing the use of Belarusian language in schools, opening a national university, changing the politics of history, respecting the national symbols and removing Soviet ideology, the authorities instead resort to their favourite and well-tried method – imprisonment.
Russian reaction barely perceptible
Some Russian internet resources, particularly those where the convicts published, accused Belarus of ‘Banderisation’ and following the path of Ukraine in its anti-Russian policies.
However, the official reaction of the Russian government to the persecution turned out to be modest. The Russian ambassador to Minsk, Alexander Surikov, on the contrary, called the prosecutions ‘radical’ and accused them of inciting strife: ‘I very much doubt that these people are the real patriots of their country.’ Interestingly, during the investigation, Paŭlaviec acknowledged that he received money for his articles from the Russian embassy in Belarus. However, the Russian-side apparently had no desire to bail rank-and-file bloggers who held Belarusian citizenship.
This implies that the Russian government does not at present seek to depict Belarus as next Ukraine. Despite limited policies aimed at strengthening independence, Belarus remains Russia’s closest ally and a member of both the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
Yet Belarusian commentators often take the publications on Russian media sites like Regnum as the official position of the government, which most probably has nothing to do with it.
A red line for Russian propaganda
Pro-Russian experts dominate talk shows on Belarusian TV channels and in newspapers. They advocate Belarus’s Eurasian integration and remain suspicious towards the country’s relation with a liberal West. So why have the authorities arrested one group of pro-Russian experts while letting others dominate the media space?
The reason is that the former criticise the Belarusian leadership while the latter fully support it. Regnum authors accused Lukashenka of nurturing Belarusian nationalism and ‘Banderisation’.
Lukashenka monopolises relations with Russia since he amounts to the chief factor in the Belarusian economy and security. He did not let any strong pro-Russian group rise and develop in Belarus during his 25-year rule.
The turn away from Russia after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, combining policies to strengthen Belarusian independence and to balance its foreign policy, caused a negative reaction and criticism from some Russian media. The image of Belarus following the Ukrainian path could seriously damage relations with Russia, and also support for Lukashenka from within the Russian society.
By trying the three journalists, Belarusian authorities demonstrated their red line in respect of pro-Russian propaganda.