In August 2020, as the rest of the world looked on, protests erupted across Belarus. Peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to demand justice after a discredited election reinstated Alexander Lukeshenko as President, instead of widely claimed rightful candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
As well as crushing the protests physically, with brute police and military force, the Belarusian government used propaganda tactics, more difficult to discern in an international context both by virtue of being propaganda, and published or broadcast in Russian language. Yet the disinformation promoted by Belarusian domestic state media does not only concern those who are continuing to protest for democracy in Belarus, three months on from August. It concerns countries across the West. In similar propaganda techniques to the Kremlin, Belarusian state-owned media regularly disseminates a set of narratives about the European Union and the United States that serve the government’s strategic objectives. By highlighting weaknesses in Western democratic systems, denigrating Western values, and warning of hostile foreign interference in Belarusian internal affairs, their directive is one that seeks to repress democracy.
Anywhere but hereIf you pick up a state sanctioned newspaper in Belarus, you will likely be used to messages suggesting that life in the West is much worse than in Belarus. Belarusian state media regularly dwell on political, social, and economic failings of Western European or US American governments, and regularly suggest that unemployment in the US and key European countries is rampant and rising, leading to deep dissatisfaction among citizens and high levels of emigration. Such reports often contrast unfavourable news from abroad to the stable domestic situation in Belarus, in order to underscore the positive performance of Lukashenko’s government. When Belarus 1, the country’s largest TV channel, reported on the state of the EU’s economy since COVID-19, stating: “The economic picture in the EU is not a happy one. The EU’s total GDP plummeted by 11.4% in the second quarter. Compared to last year, the European zone’s business activity was curtailed by over 14%. One of the main problems is an increase in unemployment. The number of jobs decreased by 2.7% in the EU.” Meanwhile, state media omit to report on or compare the record number of citizens who left Belarus in 2019.
A related narrative that frequently emerges suggests that Western political elites are out of touch with their citizens, and don’t care about ordinary people’s problems. For instance, earlier this year state TV channel ONT reported on a state visit by the French president to Lithuania suggesting: “The analysts state that Emmanuel Macron completely forgot about the problems in his own country while on his road trip abroad. The further he is from the streets of Paris, the less he hears the noise of ‘yellow vest’ protesters and hard dispersals.”
Mocking social justiceBelarus is deeply religious, with Christianity – specifically the denomination of Eastern Orthodoxy – prevalent. There is little to no dialogue around LGBTQ+ rights (although several LGBTQ+ activists in the country backed opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the international press, hopeful of change). Under Lukashenko’s governance, traditional ‘family values’ are held in utmost importance, and endangered by progressive causes including feminism, access to abortion and gay rights. In contrast, the media in Belarus holds up Western values as hollow, lacking integrity and at times degenerate. The ‘moral decline’ of Western society is a popular topic across state media channels. In particular, the LGBTQ+ agenda and associated events such as Pride parades are depicted as Western concepts that are fundamentally at odds with Belarusian society.
More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has been positioned as the latest social justice ‘trend’ and one that attempts to dictate beliefs and values to others. Belarus 1, for example, reported “These [European] values are losing their glitter and attractiveness very fast for many countries. ‘Critical race theory’ requires every white person to have a constant feeling of guilt only because they are white, because they bear the responsibility for crimes committed many centuries earlier by their ancestors.”
Free speech has become a lightning rod within such coverage. Belarusian state media – much like Russian state-owned media – contend that there is no such thing as free speech in Western society. Reports explain that, when people express opinions that go against mainstream thinking, or that are construed as politically incorrect, they risk losing their jobs and being ostracised from society due to ‘cancel culture’. A segment on ONT discussed this in relation to free speech on social media suggesting: “The paradox is that on the one hand, these [social] networks support those powers who say ‘no to censorship’, but on the other hand, they censored Trump in a most rigid manner. I cannot imagine a country that can afford to censor somebody’s postings in such a way. […] They say that the free Internet comes to an end.” In other words, the idea of free speech in the West is mocked and derided, held up as hypocritical.
Flawed democracyIt may come as no surprise then that Western democracy itself is often portrayed as deeply flawed. Belarusian state media have repeatedly tried to discredit democratic processes of other countries and state owned media call into question the effectiveness of these democratic systems altogether. News stories regarding democratic countries’ economic, political and social failings and shortcomings appear frequently.
Poland is a country that is often used as an example in these contexts. In July 2020, the Polish presidential election saw incumbent President Andrzej Duda narrowly re-elected in a second round of voting. Belarusian channel ONT suggested this election win lacked legitimacy, with Aleksandr Zlobin (anchor on the Kontury programme) stating:
“He [Duda] won only in the second round, by the way. He got nothing more than 51% of the votes. That’s it. It means that it is quite possible to say there is a lack of legitimacy. Moreover, his opponent – the mayor of Warsaw Trzaskowski – demanded that the results be cancelled. He alleged that the media covered the election race one-sidedly. Following the example of Warsaw, Minsk could well declare, for instance, that Tshaskovsky is the legitimate head of state. It could be so if we wanted to interfere in their internal affairs and leave our footprint – but that would not be a neighbourly thing to do.”
The ONT anchor noted that Duda’s inauguration ceremony took place in a half-empty hall of the Seimas, without foreign guests and some former Polish heads of state – implying that the inauguration was perceived as so illegitimate that few wanted to attend.
The Polish elections were also recalled during coverage of President Lukashenko’s inauguration. For instance, “Glavnyi Ephir” on Belarus 1 referred to Andrzej Duda as “he who assigned himself president” and observed “Maybe you don’t know, but the current President of Poland was accused of vote rigging during the elections, using administrative resources and using the state media in their own interests.” There were some challenges surrounding the Polish elections – for instance, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that public broadcaster TVP failed to provide balanced coverage and “acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent”. Trzaskowski did challenge the election results in court. However, on 3 August, the Polish Supreme Court formally ruled against cancelling the election results.
In Belarus, meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused outright to consider complaints about election rigging in Belarus – despite the fact that significant fraud and repression tactics had been noted by domestic and international observers. Confusingly, by citing accusations of election irregularities in other countries, Belarusian state media are attempting to manipulate public opinion – showing that what is happening in Belarus is “normal” and happens in other countries in the same way.
A geopolitical threatAnalysis by Press Club Belarus has found that the effect of this portrayal of the West is not just to provide a point of comparison against which the Belarusian government can paint themselves in a falsely positive light, but to engender fear. The message is that the dissatisfied, degenerate, broken democracies of the West are attempting to interfere with the values of Belarus, but it does not stop there: Belarusian state media often remind viewers that the West also has motives to infiltrate the country on a geopolitical level, that EU and NATO are trying to interfere in internal Belarusian affairs through a range of diplomatic, economic and military tools – sometimes even against the wishes of their own publics.
Since the recent protests and particularly since the advent of Russian communication specialists to assist Belarusian state media, a narrative of Western interference in Belarusian domestic affairs has escalated. According to this narrative, the West wants to transform Belarus into a ‘buffer’ territory to Russia. Belarus would become a military-political base from which the West can then exert its destabilising influence in the Russian Federation. Reports suggest that the West would like Belarus to radically terminate its multifaceted relations with Russia – including terminating its participation in the Union State of Russia and Belarus, as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. This would also involve cutting off access to the lucrative Russian export market, which would have devastating economic consequences for Belarus.
“The citizens of Belarus are acting self-destructively for the sake of an external idea,” Dmitry Egorchenkov of the Institute for the Strategic Studies and Forecasts of the People’s Friendship University of Russia commented for BelTA in September. He was speaking about the pro-democracy protesters. “Like, let us kill ourselves so that the ideals of freedom shine all over Europe. But no one stops to think: what will happen to Belarus? What will happen to jobs and the economy? Where will Belarusians go to work if they wreck their own economy?”
Belarusian state media also describe theories of foreign-orchestrated insurgency, the idea that Western countries are orchestrating the protests in Belarus to advance their own goals, as outlined above. For instance, BelTA published a commentary by Canadian political consultant Kenneth Fernandez on 23 September that “a carefully planned series of protests is financed by shadowy foreign funds, which, together with certain organisations, are directly linked to the implementation of similar takeovers in other countries.” He continued: “In pursuing their goal, namely the overthrow of the incumbent government, [such organisations] use a variety of means for inciting violence […] [and try to use global media outlets to influence] public opinion, especially in Western countries.”
Lukashenko himself tends to draw upon the spectre of foreign invasion as a tactic to portray himself as a defender of the Belarusian people and nation. A few weeks before Fernandez made these statements, Lukashenko had already warned that military threats from abroad were serious. During his 14 to 15 August meetings with representatives of military and security services, and at a political rally on 16 August, Lukashenko mentioned “specific” Polish plans for the annexation of Belarus’ Grodno region. During a Security Council meeting on 19 August, Lukashenko ordered the protection of the state border “in order to prevent the transfer of militants, weapons, ammunition and money from other countries to Belarus for financing the riots.” On 17 September, Lukashenko once again warned of the Western military threat:“We understand that there are very few techniques left in their arsenal before starting a hot war. Therefore, we are forced to withdraw troops from the streets, as I have already said, to ready half the army close to the western state border, primarily with Lithuania and Poland. Unfortunately, we are forced to strengthen the state border with our fraternal Ukraine.”
It is likely that this alarmist rhetoric and the subsequent military mobilisation was not as a result of real fear of a Lithuanian or Polish invasion, but fear of the scale and intensity of the civic protests in Belarus. Rallying the army against a western military threat – and requesting Russian military presence in the country for the same reason – would be one possible strategy to ensure the complete loyalty of the Belarusian army. It would be a way to protect the most important state facilities and prevent the security situation from escalating. As it transpired, and as is visible in the many videos that have circulated online over recent months, it was also a way to quash protests with violence.
After 26 years in power – the longest standing leader in Europe, or as some put it, ‘the last dictator in Europe’ – Lukashenko has his propaganda machine well oiled. By portraying the West as a place where unemployment is endemic and political correctness is becoming a new form of authoritarianism, the Belarusian state media aims to remind citizens of Belarus that a more democratic political landscape is not to be desired – . Press Club Belarus’s analysis of Belarusian state media has uncovered clear examples of disinformation, misreporting and blatant fear mongering. Meanwhile, international coverage of the pro-democracy movement in the country has significantly waned. If we want to see the end of autocratic rule in Belarus, we must dispel the state media's disinformation and maintain the spotlight on those fighting for democracy.