Press Club Belarus

Common national interests: the Russian media’s portrayal of Belarus in recent weeks

From the fight against coronavirus to trade, it is as if Belarus stands no hope without Russia

The Russian media has always paid great attention to events unfolding in Belarus, but recently – over the last three to six months – special attention has been paid to the narrative of “common national interests between Belarus and Russia”. The topic of the exclusive role of Russia in the fate of the post-Soviet states and, above all, Belarus, is being actively promoted in particular spheres of coverage, from protests to trade negotiations to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Within this, Media IQ analysis finds that the Russian State media are systematically working to form Russians' perceptions of the Belarusian authorities as ineffective, unable to control the situation in the country without Russian help. Channels do this through various methods, namely adjusting the accents of emphasis in the coverage of Belarusian events. It is noteworthy that since the beginning of 2021 independent mention of Belarus has decreased, and “Russia” is actively present in all key areas. If just a few months ago more than half of the news about Belarus was focused purely on the events that had taken place there, now in reports about Belarus, as a rule, Russia is almost always present in one form or another.

A “big brother” figure

It has been over six months since Alexander Lukashenko falsely declared himself the winner of the 2020 Belarusian Election over opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and an uprising of pro-democracy protests ensued. Meanwhile, Russia continues to affirm its supportive role in backing Lukashenko’s win. The channel Kommersant recently offered excerpts from a statement from the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Alexander Lukashenko was legally re-elected President of Belarus in the elections held on the 9th of August, and Russia respects the sovereign choice of Belarusians,” read the report. The statement of the representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry continued: “The Russian side does not support personalities, but the sovereign choice of the Belarusian people, which was made during the presidential elections on the 9th of August, 2020... we consider Alexander Lukashenko the legally elected head of state.”

Along with supporting Lukashenko’s false election win, Russia’s support of Belarus in many other spheres has been emphasised of late, namely the economy, international relations, and the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The two countries are connected by large industrial, trade, and financial integration, as the Russian state media constantly reminds its audiences. Reports focus on Russia as a key exporter of milk and baby food to Belarus. As the executive director of Rusbrand Alexei Popovichev notes: “Unlike many other basic products, imported baby food is in demand in Belarus, including those produced by Russian manufacturers and transnational companies operating in the Russian Federation.”

Russia is the leader in Belarus in terms of accumulated investments – “$4 billion at the end of 2020” reports Kommersant. The report continues: “About 320 thousand companies with Russian participation are the production of automotive, agricultural, logging equipment, chemical products,” and it claims that Lukashenko “insists on admitting Belarusian enterprises to state purchases in Russia.” At the same time, the estimate of the commodity flow in the opposite direction – Belarus to Russia – is almost always omitted. There is also no information about the discussion of investments, technological cooperation, and the supply of the same dairy products to the Chinese market. Reports aim to position the Russian Federation as the key partner of Belarus in the economy, if not the only one – as a big brother figure.

The only vaccine worth having

Coverage of the supply of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V to Belarus is another area in which this “big brother” image or protector positioning plays out. The state channel Russia 1 actively emphasises the exceptional assistance provided by the Russian Federation to Belarus in the fight against coronavirus, and talks about the recent meeting of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin with Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, who discussed “a large-scale project for the production of a vaccine.” The TV channel assures its viewers: “In early January, Russia handed over to Belarus another batch of test systems for diagnosing COVID-19” and clarifies that “such a partnership will make it possible to fight the coronavirus much more effectively.”

Meanwhile, newspaper Kommersant reports on the “joint measures of the two countries to combat infection” and TVC quotes for its viewers the statement of the head of Rospotrebnadzor Anna Popova: “Today, as a gift, a gesture of our great friendship, I presented the new vaccine EpiVacCorona, which, I am sure, will serve to preserve the health of colleagues who are at risk and the population of the Republic of Belarus”. Repeatedly, the focus is on the grand gesture from Russia, which handed Belarus the “EpiVacCorona coronavirus vaccine, developed by the Vector Center” as a “gift to Minsk”.

As well as using semantics to shape the story, Russian channels use omissions, choosing not to report on a telephone conversation between Lukashenko and President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping, about Belarus buying a vaccine from China. The exception was Interfax outlet, which gave a truncated version of the topics of conversation. The Interfax report highlighted China confirming its readiness to supply Belarus with the COVID-19 vaccine in the required volume, the exchange of information on measures taken to counter the spread of infection, and congratulations on the occasion of the next anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The fact that Belarus may source vaccines from multiple suppliers is minimised, with Russia’s Sputnik V positioned as the only vaccine worth having.

The protests: the same, but different

When protests broke out in Russia in support of Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny in January, comparisons with the ongoing protests in Minsk were rife in Russian media reports. This has continued, strengthening the alignment of Russia and Belarus as facing similar threats to governmental power. Russia 1 recently broadcast Lukashenko’s confident statement that “Minsk will continue to sway and shake” and the clarification that he “understood this together with the Russian leadership back in the middle of last year”. What is happening in Minsk and Moscow “did not come as a surprise to the authorities of the two republics,” he added, further stressing collaboration.

Elsewhere, Lukashenko assured audiences that Belarus “is being used from the outside” as a “springboard for an attack on Russia” – a fact which the Belarusian special services have long warned Moscow about.” Lukashenka is convinced that if external players interfere, Belarus will become a battle field for resolving third party issues. On the Solovyov LIVE channel, the politician and reserve colonel Semyon Bagdasarov, commenting on Lukashenko’s regular meeting, recently exclaimed: “Lukashenka is right! They will swing until 2024... there is a certain structure, a system aimed at destroying the Russian Federation, at the top of the pyramid of this system are the military-political, economic interests of the Western countries, led by the United States and NATO.” As is typical of Russian state media coverage, here Russia and Belarus are portrayed as having a common enemy in the West.

Joint threats

One way in which this idea of the joint threat is constructed by the Russian state media is through reports that bolster this narrative as historically rooted. The TV channel Russia 1 recently recounted a visit from Lukashenko to students in Belarus, in which he told them: “The powerful of this world need Russia to be the way it was under Yeltsin in the mid-90s.” He emphasised the special connection between Belarus and Russia and the presence of common enemies – Western superpowers – who “during the reign of Boris Yeltsin in Russia conducted active and open work.” He adds that it was “the US special services that controlled all the processes” because it was “with them that the privatization and destruction of Soviet Union weapons began”. Lukashenko mentions past events in Belarus in his statement, assuring that “this process also flared up in the country, but I quickly suppressed it.”

Overall, Lukashenko suggesting that during Yeltsin’s rule, America puppeteered Belarus and Russia and that recent attempts at a protest in Belarus could have led to a similar situation.

Meanwhile, Russian media continue to shape a line of confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West, with the Republic of Belarus is assigned the place of a frontier. This is backed up by Lukashenka's statements about Belarus and Russia being threatened by “the same puppeteers”. However, Russia also emphasizes that the same European countries that represent a joint threat also recognize the Kremlin's status as a force that has a priority influence on the current state of Belarus. For example, following the recent visit of EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell to Russia, Russian media repeatedly reiterated that European diplomats recognise Russia’s power to dominate influence on Belarusian political processes. The channel TVC reported: “Russia's participation is necessary to influence the situation in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Belarus and Ukraine." The message is that Belarus and Russia have common enemies in The West ad that Belarus and Russia have joint plans and a future, but Russia is at the helm, a diplomatic force for good in Belarusian politics.

A shared destiny

Overall, Belarus and Russia are portrayed as having not just a shared history but a shared destiny. To mold this narrative, the Russian media have used several traditional propaganda methods and techniques of manipulation: contrasts, lies, appeal to emotions, lack of references to sources, quotes taken out of context, unsubstantiated conclusions, exaggerations, manipulative semantics, and, crucially, repetitions. Over time, the effect of aligning Russia so closely with Belarus across reporting is that an independent mention of the word “Belarus” without a link with the word “Russia” will cause the audience or viewer to feel unnatural. At the same time, the exceptionally positive role of Russia is emphasized. It is emphasized that support and assistance is provided not to Lukashenko, but to the people of Belarus.