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An Easy Target for Russia

The anti-Belarus smear campaign in Russian media has gained momentum and even led to arrests at the end of last year. 

by Andrei Yeliseyeu and Veranika Laputska 26 January 2017

In the last few months, Belarus has become a target of a conspicuous Russian disinformation campaign. Until then, obvious disinformation and media attacks on Belarus were only sporadic and came from some marginal Russian online media.

 

What changed in late 2016 was that big Russian media outlets, including state channels, started to claim that Belarus is allegedly “going down the Ukrainian path.” They spoke about the alleged growth of a nationalistic and anti-Russian mood in Belarus, and the country’s “drift to the West.”

 

A number of Russian websites also published a series of chauvinistic materials containing degrading statements about the Belarusian state, people, language, and culture. Some articles openly questioned the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus. These websites, such as Regnum.ru and EADaily.com, have often labeled many recent governmental decisions in Belarus as nationalistic and anti-Russian, in the process distorting and manipulating facts.

 

Screenshot of the Regnum.ru homepage

 

One example was an attempt to popularize the usage of the national language last year, when a number of Belarusian regional authorities celebrated Thursdays as “Days of the Belarusian language” in kindergartens. Regnum reacted with an article cautioning Belarusian parents not to take their kids to these schools where the Belarusian language might sometimes be used, as “[a kid] will speak [Russian] with an accent … and an inability to speak the standard language is considered a sign of low social origin, which hinders social development.” The article also referred to the “vast majority” of Belarusians “who wish to be reunited with their large motherland.”

 

Not the Best of Relations


The anti-Belarus campaign in the Russian media takes place amid continuing tensions in bilateral relations. The two countries have not yet settled a year-long dispute over the price of natural gas for Belarus. The Kremlin has been asking Belarus to pay the debt on its gas bill, which now exceeds $400 million, and in retaliation for the lack of progress, Russia started to cut oil supplies to Belarus in June 2016. Imports of duty-free crude oil from Russia and exports of refined oil products to the EU and Ukraine have crucial significance for the Belarusian economy, and the Kremlin’s decision has led to big losses.

 

In addition, Russia has been partially restricting the export of Belarusian dairy and meat products to Russia from time to time, citing either the alleged re-export of embargoed Western products or problems with health standards. Although the share of restricted products is minimal in the overall volume of Belarusian milk and meat exports to Russia, in December 2016 Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka publicly lashed out against Sergei Dankvert, the head of Russia’s Agricultural Control Agency. Yet the Russian ban on exports concerning a dozen Belarusian agriculture producers continues.

 

Lastly, adding insult to injury, the disgruntled Belarusian president dared to ignore the Russia-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union summits that took place in St. Petersburg on 26 December 2016. Without any official reason given, neither Lukashenka nor the prime minister nor any other high-ranking Belarusian official attended the summits. Lukashenka had already boycotted CSTO summits in 2009 and 2013, in an attempt to place pressure on Russia to be more accommodating to Belarus.

 

The Power of Russian Media


About two-thirds of Belarusians watch Russian TV channels on either a regular or occasional basis. Furthermore, as a national poll run by the independent Belarusian sociological company NOVAK from early 2016 revealed, 70.5 percent of respondents fully or partly trusted the messages coming from Russian media, whereas both Belarusian official and independent media were seen as less trustworthy.

 

The same poll found that Belarusians quite often believe the main messages circulated by the Russian media about foreign policy and beyond. Asked to explain the reasons for their change in attitude toward Russia, quite many respondents said they were proud of Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing Russian claims of victory over ISIS in Syria, and referring to the alleged improvement of Russia’s image in the world.

 

That element of trust clearly makes Belarus very sensitive to potential Belarus-related disinformation campaigns in Russian media, especially from Regnum.ru, actually a federal information agency, which has taken the lead in publishing articles degrading Belarus. To make matters worse, the site has around 1 million visitors per day, which makes it quite influential among the Russian-speaking internet audience.

 

Our monitoring and analysis of the Belarus-related content published between August and November 2016 by Russian online media, including Regnum, has revealed dozens of ridiculous claims concerning Belarus.

 

A number of articles openly claimed that the Belarusian nation does not exist, with one author writing that the Belarusians are “a Western/Polish project aimed at dismembering the Russian people.” And, according to Regnum, Svetlana Alexievich, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, has been fomenting anti-Russian feelings among Belarusians.

 

The Belarusian language is also one of the main targets of media attacks. According to some Russian media, Belarusian is either an artificial language or a dialect of Russian, allegedly “invented with the aim of turning Russians into Poles.”

 

One of the Regnum articles says that Belarus “may become a naval power by annexing Lithuania’s and Latvia’s territories.” Regnum urges Lukashenka to discuss with Putin the partition of Ukraine and the Baltics as soon as possible. Regnum also writes that the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative was invented by Polish chauvinistic circles in order to annex Belarus and to start a crusade against Moscow.

 

Belarus Reacts with Arrests


Between 6 and 9 December last year, Belarusian authorities detained three Belarusians who were Regnum and EADaily.com contributors,  under Article 130 of the Belarusian Criminal Code: suspicion of inciting national or social enmity. They could face up to five years in prison.

The Regnum editorial staff issued a statement saying that it considered the detained contributors “political prisoners who are punished for their principled views against the actual cooperation of Belarusian authorities with the chauvinistic, Russophobic, and neo-Nazi part of the Belarusian opposition.”  

 

In an interview with BelTA, the state news agency, Belarusian Information Minister Liliya Ananich said that “the authors of these articles and their clients try to bring discord between our countries and peoples [Belarus and Russia].”

 

It is obvious that Lukashenka or his close circle sanctioned these arrests, which shows that Belarusian officials take Russian media disinformation seriously. An effective long-term strategy to counter such propaganda attacks would be the creation of high-quality Belarusian media that can compete with their Russian counterparts. However, that is expensive and takes time.

 

So far, Belarusian authorities have chosen the most radical and cheapest method available to combat the anti-Belarus rhetoric in some Russian media, which is to arrest their mouthpieces. We will need to keep an eye on the reaction in the Russian media in the near future. Whether the anti-Belarus campaign fades away or, on the contrary, takes a new impetus, could have long-term repercussions on the relationship between the two countries, especially given the disturbing trust many Belarusians place in the media emanating from just next door.

Andrei Yeliseyeu and Veranika Laputska are research fellows at the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Center. The EAST Center is a Warsaw-based think-tank focused on East European studies and media analysis in the region.  

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