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.
Common history that divides Belarus and Lithuania
On 28 January, Vilnius hosted a performance of the Belarusian ballet Vitaut (Vytautas in Lithuanian). The performance has courted controversy, with the Lithuanian culture minister describing it as a provocation six months ago.
The ballet shows how joint heritage, instead of uniting the two countries, actually divides them and puts Lithuania on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it would like Belarus to transform into a Western democracy. But on the other hand, it recognizes that the Western identity of Belarus challenges Lithuania’s own identity since it requires both countries to draw on the same historical heritage.
Common heritage as the curse
Western historiography mainly looks at the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) similarly to how Alexander Lukashenka did a couple of decades ago. For many Westerners, in line with this interpretation, the Grand Duchy is a Baltic country. However, in reality, it was an alliance of Balts and Slavs, where the Slavs and their language dominated. For example, Lithuanian Statutes were written in Ruthenian; the language Belarusians often depict as the old Belarusian language.
With the passing years the history of the Grand Duchy becomes less exclusively linked to today’s Lithuania, either in the West or in Belarus. In 2012, Norman Davies, possibly the most well-known researcher of Eastern European history, published his book Vanished Kingdoms, where the chapter on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania opens with a photo of Lukashenka.
Recently, Belarus’s authoritarian leader has showed increasing enthusiasm about the Grand Duchy. In 2017, while discussing school textbooks, he argued that “Belarus needs to introduce into the minds of our people the truth: that Belarus started its history from the states of Polatsk and the GDL.” On 20 January, the commander of the Belarusian interior troops said that even the army now studies the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Many Belarusians enjoy joking that Vilnius belongs to them (as, too, do Poles). It’s no wonder that few Lithuanians find such jokes funny. They feel that Belarus is like a brother about whom no one knew, but he appeared at the moment a deceased grandmother’s estate was being shared out. Moreover, now the brother comes to Vilnius and starts to teach you the family history.
The ballet that separates
Back in September 2017, nearly six months before the performance, Lithuania’s minister of culture, Liana Ruokytė-Jonsson, described the staging of the Belarusian ballet Vitaut as “a demonstration of soft power and a provocation.” The Lithuanian authorities seem worried about the ballet’s dedication to the centenary of Lithuanian independence, and the fact that the Belarusian organisers had not consulted with them about this. The Belarusian embassy in Lithuania immediately responded to Ruokytė-Jonsson on Twitter saying that “the local fashion of absurdity has no boundaries.”
Lithuanian media occasionally write that “Lukashenka has set his sights on the pride of Lithuania” or “The day when Belarusians will say ‘Vilnius is ours’ is coming.” Quite naturally, these ‘clickbait’ headlines bring traffic to websites, but damage mutual understanding between the two peoples, which has implications for policy-making.
For instance, the Lithuanian authorities seem to fear excessive collaboration with Belarus-centric organisations. The European Humanities University, a Belarusian institute exiled to Vilnius, serves as the most famous example. It receives assistance from a number of international donors, including Lithuania, and almost everyone in the Belarusian civil society remains dissatisfied with the work of the EHU. In 2014, 40 Belarusian intellectuals, including Nobel prize winner Sviatlana Alieksijevich, wrote an open letter in support of preserving the EHU’s Belarusian heart.
The EHU spends at least $150,000 on the annual salary of the rector, despite its provision of a low-quality education. In December 2017, Lithuania’s Centre for Quality Assessment in Higher Education negatively evaluated the EHU and the Lithuanian Ministry of Education will deprive it of its licence by the end of 2018. But the Lithuanian authorities continue to support Professor Anatol Michajlaū, former rector and current president of the EHU. Insiders attribute this to Michajlaū’s promotion of a non-Belarus-centric vision of Belarus, which Lithuanians do not perceive as competition.
Disputes around historical heritage also intensify other conflicts, especially the controversy surrounding the Belarusian nuclear power plant. The station, which Belarus began building 55 km from Vilnius in 2013, has become a major stumbling block in bilateral relations, since Lithuania sees it as dangerous for its own security. According to a Belarusian public activist, “If the Lithuanians feel that you do not share their opinion about the Belarusian nuclear power plant, then you are a Russian agent.” Two-thirds of Lithuanians perceived Astraviec power plant as a threat, according to Lithuanian polling agency RAIT. According to another pollster, Spinter, only 6.5% of Lithuanians considered Belarus a friendly country in 2014.
On the one hand, Lithuania feels it should strengthen Belarusian identity in order to acquire a friendly European neighbour. Promoting common heroes such as Vitaut undoubtedly helps to that end.
On the other hand, the strengthening of the Belarusian identity may lead to sharing the history that Lithuania long considered exclusively its. Things became more complicated as both nations are small and long for a strong simple identity.
A dialogue on the two states’ common history might help to build a shared vision of the GDL, but conflicts and misunderstandings such as the one over the nuclear power plant, sow distrust. Previously such dialogue took place during the International Congress of Belarusian Studies that was held annually in Kaunas, Lithuania. However, in 2017 the Congress moved to Warsaw and this year it will take place in Minsk. So, currently it remains impossible to speak about any kind of joint textbook or other historical projects.
Rather, the countries will develop with their own internal inertias. Belarus will rediscover its history, while Lithuania will feel that its history is being stolen. It remains unlikely that it will bring any positive fruits for cooperation between the countries.