Lukashenka Entertains Loyal Russian Journalists
Last week, almost one hundred journalists from Russian regions came to Belarus to enjoy a carefully staged show.
The most important component of it was Lukashenka's performance at his press conference on 16 October. Belarusian authorities use free trips for Russian journalists as an instrument of propaganda targeted at journalists from various parts of Russia, the Russian government and Belarusian electorate.
Lukashenka expects the Russians to buy his image of effective Soviet-style ruler. He tries to contrast the problems of Russia, such as social inequality and poor governance, with Belarusian “socialism and order”. Meanwhile, the Russian government is blamed for all major problems in Belarus. Lukashenka uses this tactics to persuade Belarusians that he is not guilty for the worsening problems under the Belarusian model. But as time goes on, the old propaganda methods seem to lag behind and lose their effectiveness.
A Major PR Investment
2012 was the tenth anniversary of these organized trips for Russian journalists to Belarus. 90 journalists represented 80 Russian media from 48 regions – quite a number for a propaganda campaign.
This event is much more than a press-conference. It also includes a week of travelling around Belarus and visiting enterprises, organisations, and historical and cultural sites. Of course, authorities include only the most successful sites on the list, as the aim of the journey is not to paint a real picture of Belarus but to create a positive image.
It is not easy to become a guest of this week-long tour around Belarus. The Presidential Administration carefully screens all potential candidates. As a result, one will not find representatives of federal TV channels and major newspapers among the participants.
All journalists come from regional media, as Russian regions show much stronger support for the Belarusian ruler. They present a more conservative side of Russia, and therefore like the authoritarian style of the Belarusian president coupled with myths about Belarusian order and respect for common people, which reminds them of Soviet times.
The Belarusian authorities usually act very generously during these visits: they cover all expenses, provide journalists with nice accommodation and meals. In addition, after visiting any enterprise the guests usually receive its products as gifts. No wonder that after such visits Russian journalists have sweet memories about rapidly developing little Belarus and its strict but fair leader.
The journalists understand the price they must pay in exchange for such generosity. The regime expects them to report to their audience a standard set of myths about Belarus. Some of the most popular myths include the following: they did not ruin the Soviet legacy, they did not let the oligarchs rob the ordinary people and privatise national property, and they maintain everything in good order.
Slavic Brothers that Swindle Belarus
Another goal of these conferences are to reach the Russian elite and Lukashenka's own electorate in Belarus.
Such conferences provide a good opportunity for Lukashenka to tell his Russian colleagues things that are not easy to tell in personal meetings. In other words, Lukashenka can criticise the Russian government without facing them. The conference is also a good opportunity to blame Russia for Lukashenka’s own political failures.
Support for the regime is in constant decline, and turnout at the recent parliamentary elections proved it. Lukashenka badly needs justification for his failures and Russia is very convenient for that purpose.
This year, Lukashenka sounded offended. Throughout the conference, the Belarusian president complained about the Russian government constantly swindling poor Belarusians. He blamed Russia for not letting Belarusians produce gas and oil from Russian subsurface like western countries do. Russia obviously wants to control Belarus through minerals supply, as its own production will increase Belarus independence from the energy empire.
Lukashenka also criticised the Russians for recently joining the WTO. According to the Belarusian ruler, Russia declared EurAsEC (Eurasian Economic Community) its main integration priority, but in reality joined the WTO without Belarus. Now Belarus has to “struggle” in the unexpected economic environment of the WTO without having made any special preparations.
He openly blamed Russia for the 2011 economic crisis in Belarus. Lukashenka repeated his favourite myth that the crises occurred because of the introduction of duties on second-hand cars. The duties were Russia’s initiative to protect the Russian car industry.
According to that myth, Belarusians bought huge amounts of foreign currency and rushed to neighbouring EU countries to buy used cars. This resulted in financial distortion and the subsequent sharp devaluation of the Belarusian rouble. Of course, he did not elaborate that the national currency was printed before the 2010 elections to reach the electoral promise of a $500 per month average salary.
Lukashenka also revealed some interesting facts from Belarusian backstage politics. He mentioned that he once received a luxurious Maybach car as a present from a foreigner (it could indeed be a form of bribe for the dictator’s favours).
He also announced that some Russian oligarch offered him a $5bn kickback for the privatisation of the largest Belarusian enterprise, Belaruskali. Of course, the defender of the common people rejected that generous offer.
Is the Old Game Over?
Such a PR campaign needs substantial funding, but will this investment bring the expected profit? If we look at the three main target audiences of the conference, the answers vary.
The only audience where Lukashenka can definitely succeed is the Russian regions. Ordinary Russians that live in remote places where freedom of media is restricted will likely believe the reports of local journalists that were properly brainwashed in Belarus. However, with the other two target groups the situation looks more difficult.
Russians have extensive leverage on Lukashenka and seem to actively use it while publicly expressing proper and polite rhetoric. Belarus for its part has nothing to counterbalance this leverage, since it cannot turn to the West without radical changes inside the regime. Lukashenka is trapped and is now trying to shake off responsibility, But as he confessed at the conference, Belarusian negotiators are “already laughed at” in Moscow.
The Russian establishment do not take Lukashenka seriously, like they did some 15 years ago. They fully understand the situation that Belarus has ended up and will use that situation to their advantage. Short-sighted politics of the Belarusian president are indeed worth laughing at: he becomes he is totally dependent on his “Slavic brothers”.
Meanwhile, in Belarus trust in the authorities is gradually falling. An October poll conducted by the IISEPS shows that support for Lukashenka is at around 30 per cent. After last year’s notorious devaluation, people do not believe any assurances on economic policy. They behave according to rumours and insider information from relatives and friends. Lukashenka’s pleading not guilty in front of the electorate is also likely to fail.
It looks like the regime is running out of substantial arguments for propaganda. The reality turns out completely different and becomes too obvious to not be accepted. So, the Belarusian regime faces a major challenge with an unknown outcome. Playing by the old rules is impossible, but the new rules will destroy the game.