Russian television turning into the ‘Trojan horse’ in Belarus?
On 28 November 2017, participants of the Russian political talk-show Mesto Vstrechi [Meeting Place], compared Belarus to an ‘unfaithful wife,’ a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘second Ukraine.’ The show reflected angry reactions to the participation of Belarus in the recent EaP summit in Brussels and its recent attempts to improve relations with the EU.
Soon thereafter, Belarusian TV and Radio Company, which controls the content of the Russian broadcaster NTV within Belarus, removed Mesto Vstrechi from the TV schedule. Both Belarusian official media and the president of the country complained of foreign media destabilising and misinforming the society.
Currently, Belarusian TV channels eagerly use Russian-produced content, ranging from news to entertainment. Yet the other side of the coin is the Russian domination of the Belarusian media market, with a potential to become a security issue.
NTV crossing the line?
The Russian TV has a history of going after Belarus and its leadership. Back in 2010, on the eve of the presidential elections, it broadcast a film, presenting Lukashenka in a negative light and reprimanding him of not keeping his ally promises. Eventually, Belarusian president had to negotiate with Putin a special agreement to stop personal attacks.
This year, Belarusian president did not directly comment on the NTV incident but lamented in general about the disgraceful behaviour of the powerful states’ media and their pseudo-analysts. Speaking at the 2nd Congress of Belarusian Scientists on 13 December, he blamed them for the destabilisation of the Belarusian society, yet cautiously refrained from specifying the states he meant.
Belarusian official media were more clear on the subject. One of the leading official newspapers, Belarus Segodnia, reacted to the NTV talk-show with a sarcastic caricature, accusing the channel of “bringing dirt into the house.”
One of the ONT channel’s shows in early December also took time to uncover the anti-Belarusian hysteria in the Russian media. Participants criticised their one-sided approaches to Belarus and a selective choice of participants, depriving Belarusians of opportunities to defend themselves in a fair discussion.
Both the head of the oppositional Popular Front (BNF) Ryhor Kastuseu and political scientist Vadzim Baravik pointed out the fact that Russian media had been spreading a provincial image of Belarus for a long time. The deputy of the Belarusian House of Representatives Ihar Marzaliuk stressed a strategic partner status of Belarus for Russia. At the same time, he confirmed that Belarus would not renounce friendly relations with Ukraine and has a right to pursue its own interests, including the rapprochement with the EU.
Hybrid media market in Belarus
Television and radio within Belarus remain under strict state control and supervision. According to the survey on the Information Security of Belarus, presented on 14 December 2017 by the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Center, the domination of Russian TV and radio in Belarus remains unchallenged. Currently, only one TV channel, Belarus-3, uses exclusively Belarusian language for broadcasting.
The EAST survey reveals that up to 90 per cent of the content offered by the Belarusian cable TV providers is Russian. For instance, all popular entertainment shows, such as X Factor, are available only in their Russian versions, as these are less expensive to acquire than to produce new ones.
Entertainment shows, along with news and political talk-shows are also available on so-called ‘hybrid’ channels, such as NTV-Belarus and RTR-Belarus. Controlled by the Belarusian TV and Radio Company and carrying Belarusian names, most of their content nevertheless remains Russian. Nearly 43 per cent of the viewers in Belarus watch Russian and ‘hybrid’ channels on a regular basis.
Apart from spreading a colonial view on Belarus, some entertainment shows have dubious quality, offering stories about aliens, conspiracy theories, and anti-science. In October, Belarusian STV announced that it would broadcast a Russian REN TV show, presenting the ‘flat Earth’ hypothesis.
A long fight against the Russian propaganda ahead
After the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the flood of pro-Russian propaganda, Belarusian authorities have been trying to limit the Russian information power on the ‘hybrid’ channels.
Yet taking off the schedule some of the most offensive shows or moving them to late time slots turns out to be insufficient. According to the political analyst Valer Karbalevič, Aliaksandr Lukashenka still has not figured out how to deal with the issue of the Russian TV in Belarus.
Opening up the TV market for other neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine, might be a viable solution. However, Belarus slows down this process, even though Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents agreed on this issue three years ago.
In the ideal-case scenario, the increase of the Belarusian-produced content could be achieved by liberalising conditions for Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel broadcasting from Poland. Having celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017, it is known for providing independent coverage of Belarus-related themes and producing political and entertainment programs in the Belarusian language.
Considering these options, Belarusian authorities’ greatest fear is that media based outside Belarus could become the major providers of alternative views and opinions, dangerous for the regime’s own stability.
Hence, the usual practice of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry is to deny accreditation for Belsat journalists, making their work in Belarus illegal and placing them at risk of persecution or arrest. For instance, in April 2017, the accusation of “illegal production and dissemination of media content” resulted in several fines for Belsat journalists from Homiel Larysa Ščyrakova and Kastus Žukouski. The amount of the fines for both exceeded € 3.700, which equals an average annual salary of a working Belarusian.
In the long run, going cheap by broadcasting Russian television further cements dependence of Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence, as it has been in the Soviet times. For the future, Belarus has to figure out a viable strategy to survive in information wars, yet one thing remains clear – the regime is unlikely to loosen its control over the media.
Lukashenka and the Eastern Partnership: time not ripe for a summit
After a lengthy pause, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka declined the invitation of the European Union to lead his country’s delegation at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Brussels. On 24 November, the day of the summit, he chose to visit a small provincial town in Belarus affirming that his foreign minister Vladimir Makei was perfectly capable to manage the job in Europe.
Why did the Belarusian leader deliberately miss the long-awaited opportunity to rub shoulders with Europe’s most powerful men and women? Few politicians and experts expected such a decision. Speculations abounded about Lukashenka’s motives. Was it the lack of Putin’s approval? Did Merkel refuse to meet the Belarusian peacemaker? Was he afraid of possible obstruction in Brussels?
The long-awaited invitation finally received…
On 9 October, an anonymous EU official told Radio Liberty, a US-funded news portal, that the European Union was ready to welcome Alexander Lukashenka to the forthcoming EaP summit in Brussels. The EU launched the Eastern Partnership in 2009 to promote economic integration and European values in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
For the first time in eight years, the EU placed no restrictions on the level of Belarus’s participation in the EaP’s main biennial event. Ahead of the previous summits, the EU made it clear through diplomatic channels that the Belarusian ruler was not welcome.
In fact, the European Union could not shun the Belarusian president any longer. Brussels lifted the bulk of its sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime almost two years ago. While avoiding any meaningful democratic reforms, Belarus has kept talking to the EU on many issues, including human rights. Minsk has been trying to curtail its repression against opposition and civil society: the last major slip happened eight months ago when the authorities arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters.
A decision to continue snubbing the Belarusian ruler could seriously undermine the positive dynamics of the relations between Belarus and Europe. Also, EU officials may have hoped that the never-really-experienced taste of top-level European diplomacy could motivate Lukashenka into injecting more substance in Belarus’s rapprochement with Europe.
… only to be politely refused
The following day after the EU invitation to Lukashenka leaked to mass media, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei announced that Minsk would take the decision of participation at the EaP summit “in due time,” after “analys[ing] all the circumstances.”
The lack of high-level contacts between Minsk and Brussels in the run-up to the summit signalled indirectly that the Foreign Ministry was not preparing Lukashenka’s trip there. On 15 November in Moscow, Makei effectively confirmed this assumption. Asked about the level of Belarus’s representation at the EaP summit, Makei replied that “it [would] be determined by the current level of [the country’s] interaction with the European Union”.
In fact, despite the positive dynamics, Belarus-Europe contacts have generally failed to rise above the ministerial level. Moreover, in the two years since relations began to improve, Makei exchanged visits with only a handful of his EU counterparts.
His boss, Alexander Lukashenka, has remained a political outcast in Europe. The Belarusian leader’s only “visit to Italy” in May 2016 was a mere face-saving encounter with an Italian ceremonial president on the way to his meeting with the Pope.
The foreign ministry’s press service only officially confirmed that Lukashenka would stay home by 21 November—just three days before the summit was to be held—pointing out that “a high-level visit [was] usually the culmination of the sides’ mutual efforts to develop cooperation, which marks the achievement of profound systemic results.”
Why did Lukashenka decide to stay home?
The routine nature of most summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, where no “profound systemic results” have been achieved for years, never stopped Lukashenka from attending them. The Belarusian ruler also readily went to summits of such remote groupings as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, whose agenda never affected Belarus directly.
However, Lukashenka could hardly expect the same warm reception from officials and politicians in Brussels as he got used to enjoying among his post-Soviet or third-world counterparts.
Quite a few voices in the media and the expert community claim that Lukashenka decided to skip the summit because he did not want to irritate his Russian ally or, in even stronger terms, that Putin prohibited Lukashenka from going.
Indeed, the Kremlin views the Eastern Partnership as a Trojan horse designed to lure the former Soviet republics away from Russia. However, while Minsk has always taken these concerns into consideration, Lukashenka would never have missed the summit had it had a chance to produce tangible results in the development of Belarus-EU ties.
Lukashenka, with the help of domestic media, has already received all the public relations benefits he needs from the mere fact he is a persona grata in Europe again. German foreign minister Siegmar Gabriel—willingly or unwillingly—helped him with this, as he shared his “high hopes that the president himself [would] come because it would also be a good signal” during his visit to Minsk on 17 November.
Makei focuses on the economy and legal framework…
In Brussels, Vladimir Makei welcomed the shift of attention in the EaP to regional synergies in transport, energy and connectivity areas. He also called for trade facilitation between Belarus and the EU.
The foreign minister expects the successful completion of negotiations on the priorities of the partnership up to 2020. According to some sources, Lithuania prevented the adoption of this document during the Brussels summit demanding the inclusion of stronger language on issues relating to the Astraviec nuclear power plant. Belarus hopes to launch talks on a framework agreement with the EU next year.
However, in his statement, Makei failed to mention the visa facilitation agreement, which is the primary EU-related issue to most Belarusians. The negotiations on the agreement, which would make Schengen visas cheaper and easier to obtain, have stalled since 2015.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian foreign minister did not forget to promote Lukashenka’s favourite foreign policy ideas. These include the Helsinki-2 process, an initiative for Europeans to abandon their geopolitical rivalries with Belarus as the global discussion site, and the “integration of integrations” between the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
In Brussels, Vladimir Makei signed a High-level Understanding on a TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Networks) extension with Federica Mogherini, which will help to draw EU funds into large-scale transport projects in Belarus.
The Belarusian delegation made sure that Russia received no condemnation for its aggressive actions against some of the EaP countries. The summit’s final document mentioned Belarus in quite a positive way, stating appreciation of the fact that “the EU’s critical engagement with Belarus has become more comprehensive.”
…while the opposition highlights human rights agenda
However, the European People’s Party EaP Leaders Meeting, held in Brussels a day ahead of the EaP summit, adopted a declaration which spoke in much stronger terms about the need for the Belarusian authorities to drastically improve their human rights record.
The document also called for the participation of representatives in opposition parties from Belarus in the dialogue between the EU and Belarus. At the EPP pre-summit meeting, leaders from the centre-right coalition in Belarus, Anatoly Liabiedzka, Vital Rymasheuski and Yury Hubarevich had the ear of top EU officials as well as heads of state and governments from several EU and EaP partner countries to convey an alternative vision of Belarus’s relation with Europe.
The EaP summit demonstrated that there are now few to no realistic prospects for any substantial progress in Belarus—EU relations. The Lukashenka regime will avoid implementing any drastic structural reforms to the bitter end. All it can offer to Europe is its role of a “donor of stability” in the region and an endless and futile dialogue on any issue.
Europe, in its turn, has no energy, courage and means to replace or even move aside Russia in her role as Belarus’s main partner and donor. In this context, the relationship between Belarus and the EU can be easily managed for years by diplomats and mid-level officials, without Lukashenka’s public involvement.