Russian Media Attack Belarus: a Warning for Minsk?
The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs.
The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
Second-tier media in action. Is more to come?
First, the widely-read pro-Kremlin blogger Aleksandr Shumsky has published a detailed post saying that Belarus was a natural part of Russia and suggesting that Russia should actively prevent attempts of a pro-Western revolution in Belarus.
Then, the popular entertainment TV channel REN TV on December 20 aired a half-hour long film about Belarus claiming that the West is preparing a coup d’etat in Belarus, criticising both the Belarusian opposition and the regime of Lukashenka.
Failing to spell the names of some Belarusian politicians and media outlets correctly, REN TV told its viewers about Western-sponsored bloody revolt being prepared in Belarus. This film came out as part of a three hours long marathon of anti-Western propaganda, along with conspiracy theories and homophobia.
The influential nationalistic online publication Sputnik & Pogrom is regularly publishing articles denouncing the right of Belarusians to have an independent state, denouncing the existence of the Belarusian language and culture.
Russian media portray the Belarusian democratic opposition as Nazis and accuse Lukashenka of being weak Read more
Other publications have in the past weeks been even more aggressive in criticising things like the growth of popularity of Belarusian traditional clothing or the non-Russocentric view of Belarusian history by Belarusians.
Some of the articles, in a typical manner, portray the Belarusian democratic opposition as Nazis and accuse Lukashenka of being weak and opportunistic. The fact that Lukashenka has maintained good relations with Ukraine in 2014 is also a topic for hysterically critical publications on different levels.
Although the media participating in this campaign do not always have a formal affiliation with the Kremlin, in today's Russia there can be no illusions as to the orchestration of such things or at least their approval by state ideologists.
Anti-Belarusian propaganda has not yet reached the scale that the propaganda targeting Ukraine or the Baltic states in the past. For instance, first-tier nationwide TV channels have not yet been seriously involved in the latest round of attacks. However, this scale has certainly become the largest since a series of anti-Lukashenka films titled The Godfather aired in 2010 on the Gazprom-controlled TV channel NTV.
Lukashenka as the long-time hero of Russian nationalists
Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, motivated by Russian nationalistic slogans, were preceded by a long-term information campaign. Numerous books, magazine articles and films aiming to discredit Ukrainian statehood, the Ukrainian language and culture, to demonise the Ukrainian independence movement, have been published over the past two decades and prepared the foundations for the tragic events of 2014.
At the same time, over the past years there has almost been no similar propaganda targeting Belarus. Russian nationalistic circles have never needed to resist growing Belarusian nationalism.
Lukashenka has been viewed as a hero and even as a desired ruler of Russia Read more
The authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenka, established with direct Russian support and enjoying serious political and financial aid from Russia over the past two decades, has always had an ideology very close to Russian (or Soviet) revanchism.
In 1995, Lukashenka has de-facto restored Soviet state symbols and reintroduced Russian language as the dominating language in Belarus. The regime has cracked down the Belarusian national revival at the very same time as it has cracked down democracy and human rights.
Therefore, for the past two decades Russian nationalists could have viewed their goals regarding Belarus as almost achieved, with the exception of a formal incorporation of Belarus into Russia. Lukashenka has been viewed as a hero and even as a desired ruler of Russia by many Russian conservatives and nationalists.
Belarus: Kremlin’s next victim or its Trojan Horse?
The activation of anti-Belarusian propaganda in Russian media can be a warning and an indicator of Kremlin’s Belarusian agenda for 2015. For, in late 2014, the danger of an actual annexation of Belarus is higher than in previous years.
Russian society has greeted the incorporation of Crimea with great enthusiasm. Following this, approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin have been at an all-time high. However, towards the end of 2014 Western sanctions and falling oil prices have led Russia into an economic crisis.
The approval ratings are bound to fall, which creates a temptation for the Kremlin to repeat the "small and victorious" enlargement of Russia’s territory. And for this purpose, the compact, controlled and internationally isolated Belarus could be an attractive target.
Moreover, in 2015, presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Belarus. Together with a growing risk of a serious economic crisis in Belarus, this creates vulnerability and a window of opportunities for the Kremlin.
In this information war Lukashenka may just be a Trojan Horse in Kremlin’s hands Read more
This also corresponds with what Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin ideologue and PR mastermind, said in his recent interview when commenting on the media attack being mounted against Lukashenka "[Putin’s system today] can’t bear any compromises and must turn an insecure ally [like Lukashenka] into an enemy".
Moreover, the criticism of Lukashenka will be a good topic for the Kremlin to turn society’s attention away from the economic problems and the failure of the war in eastern Ukraine, Pavlovsky said.
On the other hand, there is a less widespread opinion out there that in this latest information war Lukashenka is just a Trojan Horse in the Kremlin’s hands. Some Belarusian activists suggest that this wave of propaganda may have been initiated by Lukashenka himself using his regime's influence in the Russian media.
This could help him gain support from progressive circles inside Belarus and get sympathy and support from the West ahead of the 2015 elections. As to Lukashenka's actions in the Ukrainian crisis, several Russian pro-government commentators agree that his actions are being coordinated with the Kremlin or even follow Kremlin's instructions.
“His dependence on Russia is enormous, and everybody understands that”, says an expert quoted by the notorious pro-Kremlin online outlet Vzglyad. Despite all the seeming disloyalty on Ukraine, Lukashenka is nevertheless continuing on with Belarus' growing involvement into Russia-led post-Soviet integration bodies, writes Viktor Militarev, a Russian right-wing writer and activist, in a column for Izvestia, the largest pro-government newspaper in Russia.
Anyway, if the media attacks on Lukashenka continue and keep growing in terms of their scale and prominence, this time it might indeed be more than just another staged conflict between Russia and its capricious vassal.
Alexander (Aleś) Čajčyc is a Moscow-based writer, consultant and member of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic
Belarusian Orthodox Church Seeks More Independence from Russia
Belarusian Orthodox circles call it the beginning of a new era, as Metropolitan Pavel, its new leader who recently moved from Russia to Belarus, stated he would ask the Moscow Patriarchate to grant the Belarusian Orthodox Church self-governing status.
Currently, the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch constitutes a part of the Moscow Patriarchate and lacks the authority to deal even with minor issues without Moscow's consent.
The Belarusian authorities and the clergy support the idea because they want to limit Russian influence. The Moscow Patriarchate will likely ignore the request from Belarus, but it may not last forever.
The First Timid Step to Independence
The war in Ukraine has intensified the desire of the authorities to control those institutions that are dependent on other states. Though Belarus remains a largely atheistic country, the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys great credibility among Belarusians.
According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution in the country, with 63% of Belarusians stating they trust it.
For Russians who feel like they living amongst their enemies, Pavel’s statement was akin to a knife in the back. Read more
Pavel’s initiative brought joy for the Belarusian clergy, but not empire-minded Russians. A popular Russian news site Regnum accused Belarus of moving towards autocephaly (i.e. complete separation from the Russian Orthodox Church).
The Russian Orthodox sites mostly condemned the statement of the Belarusian Metropolitan, and the Moscow Patriarchate keeps silence. For Russians, who feel like they live amongst their enemies, Pavel’s statement was akin to a knife in the back.
The wishes of the Belarusian Orthodox Church are no doubt reasonable. The Belarusian Orthodox Church has a very weak position in the Orthodox world and remains the only Exarchate, a mere province of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia. The Belarusian Orthodox Church unites all of the dioceses in Belarus, but lacks any power over them and is unable to make decisions on its own.
Metropolitan Pavel got his job without so much as a discussion about his candidacy with the Belarusian clergy, orthodox Christians or the authorities. Even now Pavel's Range Rover has Russian registration plates on it. Needless to say, his announcement regarding the Belarusian Orthodox Church's aspirations for greater autonomy came as a big surprise.
Lukashenka in the Background
Metropolitan Pavel does not hide the fact that greater independence remains in the interest of “the priests, believers, and heads of state structures”. Lukashenka's regime wants the Belarusian Orthodox Church to gain more self-governing status, as it will increase the authorities’ control over the religious institution.
Looking at Ukraine, where the Kyiv Patriarchate plays a great role in uniting the country, the Belarusian authorities would like to have their own religious stronghold, able to function without constantly having to look back at Moscow.
the Belarusian authorities want to have their own religious stronghold, able to function without constantly having to look back at Moscow. Read more
The authorities and the Belarusian Orthodox Church has a solid history of cooperation, as Lukashenka said in 2008 that "the Belarusian state considers the Orthodox Church to be the main ideological force of the nation". The authorities financially support the construction of churches, and the Orthodox Church has exclusive rights of influence in certain spheres of the state’s activities such as education, health care, and crime prevention.
The Church supported Lukashenka during the referendum in 2004, which removed limits on the number of times he could run as president. As Lukashenka said in 2002, “for our part, we have the right to expect assistance from the side of the clergy”.
Why the Belarusian Orthodox Church Needs More Rights
Self-governing status within the Moscow Patriarchate should not be confused with autocephaly and separation from it. The Russian Orthodox Church has five levels of independence.
First, there is the metropolitan district, like in Kazakhstan, which lacks any rights to make its own decisions. Second, there is an exarchate, which brings together a large number of dioceses, but has no power. Belarus is an exarchate. Third, there are self-governing churches like in Estonia or Latvia. Pavel wants to upgrade the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch to this level.
Currently any talks about the fourth and fifth levels which are close to having autocephalous status ,and which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Japan have, remain impossible at this time.
According to the Metropolitan, “it hurts” that the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch remains at such a low level. Today decisions of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch, even technical ones, cannot come into force before the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch in Moscow considers them. Belarusian priest Alexander Shramko has said that this demonstrates “total distrust”.
Metropolitan Pavel is unlikely to want more autonomy for the church because he loves Belarus. He just wants to fix the structure he manages Read more
As a result, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains sluggish and is gradually losing Belarus. 120 thousand Orthodox believers and 58 thousand Catholics attended religious services on Christmas, which is not all that impressive when one considers the fact that there are seven times more Orthodox christians than Catholics in Belarus.
The Catholic Pilgrimage to Budslau seem to be the major spiritual event of the year in Belarus, and Protestant churches, despite repression against them, keep growing. It remains unlikely that Metropolitan Pavel wants more autonomy for the church because he loves Belarus. He just wants to fix the structures that he manages.
Is Independence Possible?
It remains unknown when the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church will consider giving greater autonomy to the Belarusian Orthodox Church. But as the statement by Metropolitan Pavel grew to become the main religious news in Belarus, it will be difficult to ignore. Even if the Patriarch of Moscow delays the process in the coming years it will still have to be answered. The speed of Moscow's response will depend on how often Minsk will raise the question.
But the delay may be also harmful to the Moscow Patriarchate. If the Russian Orthodox Сhurch turn a blind eye to the justified requests of Belarusian Orthodox Christians, the idea of pushing for autocephaly, or autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate, will spread more acutely. It was no accident that Metropolitan’s words about greater independence received a resounding ovation from the present priests.
The wishes of the Belarusian Orthodox Church will certainly raise suspicions, not only in the Patriarchate, but also in the Kremlin. The Russian authorities, who strongly influence the Orthodox Church, can see this move as an attempt to reduce their influence in Belarus.
Therefore, the final decision may not made by the Belarusian and Russian clergy, but between Putin and Lukashenka. The issue is not one of religion, but the independence of Belarus. And Minsk and Moscow certainly have contradictory positions on this issue.