This conversation with the political scientist Andrei Yeliseyeu was held to talk about the launch of the online platform Fakeby.org, created by him with the support of the iSANS expert network. Aliaksandr Atroshchankau asked the expert about Russian propaganda, Belarusian authorities’ coronavirus miscalculations, and the creation of a military dictatorship in Belarus. The cherry on top is the political scientist’s forecast regarding the term of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule.
Reference: Andrei Yeliseyeu is a political scientist, head of the iSANS Monitoring Group, Director of the EAST Center, and a regular contributor to Reform.by.
— What is the goal of the new platform Fakeby.org?
Hundreds of propaganda articles about Belarus appear every week. And if you want to uncover each one of them, then you can do only this. It would be like fighting windmills. Therefore, the Fakeby.org platform offers a more systematic approach. Each of the propaganda articles to be refuted is one or more of the 25 main propaganda stories (sometimes called narratives) that are described in one of my earlier studies. Its essence is that the entire body of pro-Kremlin propaganda in Belarus can be classified into 25 main storylines.
They do not necessarily concern only Belarus. They may relate to Ukraine, the European Union, and other countries. The main thing is that they are aimed at Belarusian audiences. The vast majority of propaganda materials correspond to one of these claims or a combination of statements. It is enough over time to have 200-300 articles from which this whole tree of narratives will clearly emerge.
— What kind of narratives?
If very briefly formulating their essence, then it’s like this: The West and the countries under its control are bad in all their manifestations. Russia is good. And only in an alliance with Russia, or even as part of it, will Belarus be successful in the future. This general claim is broken down into 25, and the vast majority of propaganda materials contain one kind of statement or a combination of several of these. These include assertions like the Belarusian protests are the result of Western efforts, with the help of which they are trying to fashion a “color revolution” in Belarus, that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition figures are Western puppets, statements that discredit Belarusian history, language, and national symbols, and so on.
In addition, this is not only propaganda that concerns Belarusians and Belarus. I single out four propaganda blocs, and only one of these concerns Belarus. The second bloc concerns Ukraine. This is a very large layer. The third bloc concerns the western countries neighboring with Belarus: Poland and the Baltic states. The fourth bloc is the collective West and other Western countries. That is, this propaganda is intended not only to discredit Belarusian history, to convince people that Belarus is part of the “Russian world,” that the Belarusian language is deficient, or that the opposition is a puppet of the West.
It also consistently discredits all neighboring countries of Belarus, except Russia. As one columnist for Sputnik Belarus wrote, the governments of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states “stood in solidarity with Hitler.” Hence the logical conclusion is that if they were all for Hitler, then the only normal neighbor with which you can build relations is Russia. Supposedly, these are hostile, pro-fascist, dependent governments that are also puppets of the West. They talk about socio-economic degradation in the Baltic countries, refuting Russia’s participation in the war in Donbass, and justifying the occupation of Crimea.
One of the main messages of this propaganda is also the assertion that Russia is one of the few truly sovereign countries, along with China and the United States. With a few exceptions, all other countries are supposedly their vassals. In general, these propaganda statements taken together are intended to create a picture of a hostile, decaying West and of Russia as the only truly friendly state for Belarus.
— Why is it important to know these narratives, let alone classify them somehow?
This is done to see the forest for the trees. These articles appear in all types of media, from social articles to state television channels. There are several dozen toxic public pages operating on Vkontakte alone, generating propaganda content daily. In order not to endlessly chase each separately, we demonstrate that this is not just a scattered set of articles but a system. A huge brainwashing system. Like a constructor, it develops into 25 specific narratives, and it is easier to work with 25 than with an infinite number. They can be refuted, played up, or you can troll and create your own modifications with a certain amount of humor.
— Today, it is not Russian propaganda that causes particular irritation, but rather Belarusian official propaganda. Why is the platform concentrating not on this, but on Kremlin propaganda?
In fact, Belarusian official propaganda after the August 9 elections very quickly became a branch of pro-Kremlin propaganda. It repeats all the main claims of the pro-Kremlin media with very few differences.
— For example?
Having a certain mainstream focus, Russian propaganda channels can nevertheless invite a holder of an alternative point of view. For example, on Russian television one could absolutely hear the following point of view: “Yes, of course, Lukashenka falsified the elections, but he won anyway and got a little over 50%.”
Belarusian state media cannot afford this. 80% and that’s it! There were more differences before the elections, but then synchronization began and it took three weeks after the elections for Belarusian propaganda to become practically indistinguishable from the Russian.
— What are the differences and similarities with the propaganda that was and is being applied relative to Ukraine?
They are almost identical. In the picture created by this propaganda, Belarus and Ukraine are part of the “Russian World.” This imperial concept of a triune people is aimed at undermining both Belarusian and Ukrainian identities. Russian propagandists are very fond of drawing parallels with fascism and Nazism. For example, the European Union, in their view, is the successor of Nazi Germany. A fascist junta is supposedly in power in Ukraine. Today they also associate the Belarusian opposition with fascists through national symbols and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as they claim, “is guided by the ideology and practice of Hitlerism.”
A recent article published on the Telescope claims that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya supposedly has Israeli (!) and Lithuanian citizenship and, of course, is an American puppet. And here, too, there is a similarity with the authorities of Ukraine, who supposedly do not decide anything but act on the command of the State Department.
Some of the articles are completely crazy.
For example, they claim that the opposition, on the orders of NATO, is infecting Belarusians with the coronavirus, which Mike Pompeo broughtin test tubes on the Soros’s orders during his visit to Minsk. That is, both the Ukrainian government and the Belarusian opposition in their view are completely devoid of subjectivity and are ready to commit the most destructive actions against their countries and peoples on someone else’s orders.
The historical bloc is also identical, presenting the history of both Ukraine and Belarus as shameful. And all the bright pages of the history of both countries are somehow associated with Russia. That is, all blocs are practically identical and modifications concern only specific events and some details.
— The messages you’re talking about sound crazy and like conspiracy theories. To what extent are people willing to accept them?
It depends on the age and on the blocs of narratives. If we are talking about discrediting Belarusian statehood, history, and language, then Belarusians are quite steady, especially young people who do not perceive this at all. But if we take the bloc in Ukraine and the western neighbors of Belarus, we will see a greater readiness for acceptance, which increases with age. For example, a considerable number of people aged 50+ are generally ready to take seriously the reports that imperialist Poland is hatching plans to seize Western Belarus.
In general, there is a very low awareness among all age groups on Ukrainian topics, including young people. Therefore, even regarding the most basic things – the referendum in Crimea, the war in Donbass – people find it difficult to draw conclusions. And such ignorance is fertile ground for propaganda.
— But if you look at what is happening on the streets of Belarusian cities in recent months, it turns out that Belarusians did not really believe in those narratives that concern Belarus itself.
Yes, when you watch on television about a country you have never been to, where you have no friends or relatives, you can believe a lot. Another thing is to believe in what you can check with your own ears and eyes. And the statements promoted by pro-Kremlin propaganda about Belarus most often do not find support among Belarusians, to put it mildly.
By the time of the elections, Lukashenka’s rating was already minimal, and for anyone who follows the socio-political life in Belarus or simply knows how to look around, it is obvious that the Belarusian protests stem from internal causes. It is easier to believe in fables about events in other countries and distant lands than to succumb to fairy tales about the evil West if you see a thousand and one reasons for public discontent.
With such a scale of repression, where many Belarusians have an injured acquaintance, friend or even a relative, it is impossible to convince people that there is no repression or torture, and the bruises have been painted on. I would say that here the pro-Kremlin and Belarusian state propaganda have taken on an intolerable burden.
At the same time, I would not say that Russian information channels are failing at all. For example, statements by the Russian leadership regarding the events in Belarus are played very competently. And even though the Kremlin has provided Lukashenka with multiple-sided support – political, informational, and albeit small, economic – Peskov, for example, can periodically say something like they are against excessive violence. These words do not bind you to anything, but such a nod is being made. And Belarusians, who have a good attitude towards Russia, cling to this and “are happy to be deceived.” These nods are widely disseminated by pro-Kremlin channels and cloud the minds of some Belarusians.
Therefore, there is no need to speak of a complete failure of Russia’s information policy. The collapse of pro-Russian sentiments has not happened. But this process has begun.
— This is the 11% Andrei Vardamatsky talked about?
Yes. Belarusian and Russian state media reported day after day that the hostile West wanted to enslave Belarus and that Russia saved it. Nevertheless, over the past three months pro-European sentiment has increased while pro-Russian sentiment has decreased. And if nothing changes and Russia continues to support Lukashenka, promoting deeper integration, which is precisely its goal, then pro-Russian sentiments will continue to decline. This will not be some kind of sharp collapse, but they may decline by one and a half percentage points per month, and this process will continue. It will be interesting to look at these dynamics in another three months and to see how the Russian leadership will react as, of course, it is closely following them.
— Do you think it will take this fall painfully?
There is no monolithic group that sits in the Kremlin and thinks in the same way. Naturally, the Russian politicians that are related to the events in Belarus may be concerned. But there are those who care much less about the situation. I am sure that it is more important for Putin and a large part of his circle to preserve real and effective mechanisms of political, economic, and military control over Belarus than the location of Belarusians themselves. And they are quite ready to give up part of pro-Russian sentiments.
We see this in the case of Armenia. Putin punished the Armenians and Pashinyan for the “velvet revolution” at the cost of undermining pro-Russian sentiments. As a result, Armenia’s dependence on Russia in military-political respect increased, even though many Armenians in Russia became disillusioned. Something similar is happening in Belarus in the sense that Russia is achieving its goals, but at the same time loses support.
After all, Russia’s goals have not gone anywhere. The process of deeper integration and, in fact, the transformation of Belarus into the BSSR-2 intensified at the beginning of 2019.
The initialed the Program of Action for Deep Integration last September and on the eve of the elections the Belarusian side hinted opaquely that if Russia renders political support a movement towards deep integration would begin in the fall.
Lukashenka was given political support at a difficult moment, so it is his turn to fulfill his promises. I suspect Lavrov reminded him of this during his last visit a few days ago.
— In April you wrote that if Lukashenka does not suddenly change his mind and his policy regarding COVID-19, then he will be taken out within the next two years. Do you want to adjust your prognosis?
I wrote about this in April, bearing in mind that even then Lukashenka had a low rating. Further disregard for the epidemic looked like an underestimated but very important prerequisite for the already critical devaluation of trust in government agencies, and from this originated mass actions of disobedience.
There is a consensus in the analytical arena that Lukashenka’s inadequate measures to counter the coronavirus have contributed to the mobilization of Lukashenka’s opponents. I am not saying that very strict measures and restrictions should have been taken. The problem is that Belarusian propaganda created a false dilemma over the coronavirus. That is, either take scarce measures and reject the danger of an epidemic or introduce the most severe kind of lockdown and close everything. Different countries approach this issue differently and we see that there is a wide range of action between these two extremes.
At a minimum, they should have started with high-quality and honest informing of people about the threat and course of the epidemic. Local lockdowns were also possible in certain places with an adverse epidemiological situation. Belarusian television liked to say that we are doing “like in Sweden.” This is not true. Sweden has taken more active steps to combat the spread of this illness than Belarus and has also organized high-quality and honest communication. The actions of state-owned media, like in Belarus, would be, in Sweden or any other rule-of-law state, the subject of a criminal investigation. The Belarusian Criminal Code contains Article 338 on the provision of services that do not meet the safety requirements for the life and health of consumers. What about information services?
Essentially, state-owned television channels played a trick on their heads and in various ways minimized the danger of coronavirus infection, which, of course, had a negative impact on public health. Even after the statistics on mortality for April-June surfaced through the UN, not a single Belarusian state television channel reported on this. They completely turned a blind eye to this problem. According to the Belarus Channel 1, the coronavirus has been defeated because Prime Minister Raman Halouchanka was vaccinated with the Russian vaccine. That’s the logic and that’s the kind of informing.
— You also mentioned specific figures for mortality…
I based my April study of the possible consequences of the coronavirus in Belarus on the work of Imperial College London, which made projections for all countries of the world based on various scenarios and the degree of provision of national health systems. It followed from it that if the Belarusian authorities did not take more adequate and decisive measures to counter the epidemic, then the number of deaths in the country could reach from 15 to 30 thousand. The excess mortality in Belarus in April-June alone was not 5,500, as reported, but up to 7,000 people, as more accurate calculations showed.
This means that in April-June, the real number of deaths associated with coronavirus in official statistics could be underestimated by about 15 times. And if the scale of the understatement continues, then considering the current official figure of coronavirus deaths of more than 1,100, it can be assumed that the real excess mortality in December could already exceed 15,000. This is a gigantic figure, which in a state governed by the rule of law would lead to an investigation, a criminal investigation into the actions of government agencies. At minimum, an assessment of how sufficient and justified they were. In the meantime, it turns out that Belarus may become one of the most affected countries from the coronavirus among not only European countries, but throughout the world.
— Did Lukashenka understand this? Is this the reason for the transformation that you wrote about of the regime from a personalist dictatorship into a military one?
I think he underestimated the possible consequences of the epidemic. In democratic countries, the mistakes of a high-ranking politician are corrected by other branches of government. In Belarus, they are all crushed, because the entire state machine has become hostage to the ideas of one person. I wrote about the transformation of the political regime based on an analysis of the changes in the leadership, which he began to effect at the end of 2019. By the beginning of summer 2020, it became clear that Lukashenka was transforming his regime from a kind of “civilian” personalist regime into a personalist military regime. First was the appointment of the head of the presidential administration, Major General of the KGB Ihar Serheenka. Then Lukashenka eliminated the heavyweight Mikhail Myasnikovich with a civilian background, sending him to Moscow to a high position in the Eurasian Economic Commission.
In June, Lukashenka reshuffled the government when he changed Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas with his civilian background to the security official Golovchenko. The same thing happened with the head of the KGK, Ivan Tertel, who at that time became Lieutenant General of the KGB. Lukashenka was consistently replacing the conventional civilian component surrounding him with strongmen. The term “military” in the context of the political regime should not be misleading. It does not mean the army but all power structures. Even before the elections, it was obvious that never in the history of Belarus did the security forces have such an influence on decision-making in all areas. They started filling up virtually everything. After the elections this only became more obvious. The last significant step is the appointment of security officials in the regions as detachments for the power vertical.
— Why was this done?
It must be admitted that in the event of a rapid fall in Lukashenka’s rating and an increase in protest sentiments, this was a rational move. Analysis of dictatorial regimes shows that personalist (specifically personalist, not collegial) military regimes are more stable than civilian ones. Lukashenka, I think, does not know all these political science terms and does not read about them, but he feels it and acts accordingly, eliminating additional risks for himself. Imagine a situation where Rumas remained prime minister and after the elections he broke away and made a public statement in support of Tsikhanovskaya and the Coordination Council. This could be the beginning of a domino effect for the ruling power vertical. Lukashenka had a presentiment that the “civilians” could not endure the pressure of society and he resisted this quite rationally.
— But it is uncomfortable and unstable to “sit on bayonets.” This same Myasnikovich at one time ensured the loyalty of the vertical to Lukashenka during the transfer of power to him from Kebich.
I’ll give you one example. The websites of all executive committees had a section on the presidential elections. Among other things, there were published decisions on the forming of the composition of district and precinct election commissions. These were specifically documented specific decisions with dates, numbers, and surnames. Soon after the elections, most of the executive committees removed these sections. What does this mean? The fact that the decision makers were aware of the real results of the elections and that Lukashenka did not really win but was crushingly defeated. And they began to be very careful. On the one hand, none of them said that they were separating off, but on the other, they began to protect themselves and remove evidence of their involvement in electoral fraud. Of course, the presidential administration saw this and appointed the security officials Yury Karaev and Valery Vakulchyk as Lukashenka’s assistants in the regions. On the one hand, this is a formal demotion from ministerial posts, but on the other hand they were entrusted with an important function of strengthening the power vertical. In fact, Lukashenka is creating detachments for the local executive committee members.
— If such regimes are more stable than “civilian” dictatorships, what can we say about the duration of such a regime?
The conclusion regarding the stability of such dictatorships was based on an analysis of the evolution of authoritarian regimes by researchers in the field of political transitions. That is, likely through these reshufflings, Lukashenka secured himself a somewhat longer rule than if there had not been any. However, this conclusion does not tell us how long the Lukashenka regime will last – three months, a year, or three years.
If we talk specifically about the Belarusian situation, then I tend to lean towards my April forecast – from several months to two years, starting from April 2020.
Although Lukashenka has managed to stay in power during this very difficult period and not collapse, he is in a very difficult position.
First, we have not yet felt all the consequences of the second wave of the coronavirus. It already has had a very negative impact on public health and is likely to have political consequences as well. Secondly, we have not yet entered a deep economic crisis, which is inevitable. Further destabilization is possible in six months and after a year. The development of the situation itself depends on many factors, about which we know little or nothing: what deliberations are taking place in the heads of Lukashenka’s closest circle, what the Kremlin has planned, how Belarusians will react if he pushes for deeper integration… But it is obvious that a regime in such a difficult position will not be able to hold out for many years.
This article is also available on Reform.by.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Андрей Елисеев: Лукашенко предчувствовал, что «гражданские» могут не выдержать