“Zmagars” as a universal expression of evil: Belarusian propaganda has put a halter on a long-standing pro-Kremlin label 

“Zmagars” as a universal expression of evil: Belarusian propaganda has put a halter on a long-standing pro-Kremlin label
Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP

“Zmagars” quickly turned into a Belarusian analogue of “Banderites” from the history of anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

Belarusian state propaganda underwent tremendous changes after the presidential elections and by September it had become a branch of pro-Kremlin propaganda. By that time, all the main propaganda narratives had taken shape in full and were synchronized on Belarusian and Russian television channels.

What it lacked until recently was a capacious analogue of the “Banderite” members from the anti-Ukrainian propaganda model – a specific all-encompassing label that could be strung with offensive connotations and attached to broad groups of undesirables.

Lukashenko’s go-ahead: From opponents and “svyadomyye” to “zmagary”

The word “zmagary,” which is sometimes used in the collective form “zmagarye”, has become a kind of equivalent in Belarusian history in recent weeks.

Until September, it showed up on unpopular pro-Kremlin sites and toxic groups on social networks and did not appear, or rarely appeared, on the “big screen.” Alexander Lukashenko preferred to use the word “svyadomyye” for his opponents, but he did not abuse it too much.

The situation has changed dramatically in recent weeks. Belarusian state television correspondents and announcers have begun to juggle the word “zmagary” regularly and often. One of the recent stories on Belarus Channel 1 uses it five times.

Apparently, Lukashenko personally gave carte blanche for its widespread use, who in turn began to use it. At a meeting on woodworking on October 6, he talked about unreasonable “zmagary” in connection with “svyadomyye”:

“I paid close attention during the election process to when our ‘zmagary” and ‘svyadomyye’ shouted: ‘Give us reforms!’ Here are the reforms we need to develop. The main thing is to deepen production based on forest resources.”

Speaking about the events in Kyrgyzstan, he also stated:

“Their situation is like in the mid-90s, 1993-1995 in Belarus. This is what yesterday’s opponents and “today’s zmagary” call for. ‘Let’s bring back the 1994 Constitution!’ Here is the result. Here is already the third coup.”

Thus, according to the Belarusian ruler’s remarks, yesterday’s opponents suddenly turned into “zmagary,” and the state propaganda immediately picked up on this transformation.

Who are the “zmagary?”

Pro-Kremlin websites and the public on social media sites have commonly used the label “zmagary” in slightly different contexts. In a narrow sense, when referring to representatives of the democratic opposition, human rights defenders, and cultural activists. In a broad sense, it has been applied to all people with pro-Belarusian views.

Moreover, “pro-Belarusian” for radical pro-Kremlin resources did not necessarily mean support for the “Pahonia” coat of arms and the white-red-white flag as historical Belarusian symbols or the use of the Belarusian language in everyday life. Sometimes the designation “zmagar” was bestowed on groups of people who, in the opinion of such resources, did not sufficiently support the deepening of integration with Russia.
Belarusian state television channels now call “zmagary” not only people related to any political structures or public organizations, but all Belarusian protesters. Generally, we are talking about all those who disagree with Lukashenko’s policies – that is, the majority of the country’s citizens.


From marginal websites to prime time on national television

“The patriotic procession is moving towards Victory Square, but the so-called ‘zmagary’ are already trying to meet them there,” Grigory Azarenok broadcasted from the STV television channel in a recent report. His colleague Yevgeny Pustovoy, also on the STV, proudly calls himself an “experimenter on zmagary.”

“The standard ‘zmagary’ have gotten on absolutely everyone’s nerves”, “the safe city life has been trampled by the ‘zmagary’ literally in a day,” – this is how the destructive role of the ‘zmagary’ in Belarusian protests and civil disobedience actions is reported on by state television.

Methods of discrediting “zmagary”: stupid people, criminals, and terrorists

The state media use a whole arsenal of propaganda methods to slander “zmagary,” attributing to them the most base feelings and humiliating qualities. All this happens either without presenting any facts or with the use of serious manipulations, or at least employing large-scale generalizations.

Relatively speaking, it is enough to find a bad detail in the biography of a couple of people who had at least some relation to the protests (if at all) and extend it to all protesting “zmagary” without exception.

  • Attributing mental disability and negative qualities and generalization

“The complete dysfunction of our ‘zmagary’ lies in the fact that they really believe in what the Telegram channels write. They take ‘Sveta Litovskaya’s’ ultimatum seriously,” reports STV.

And then there is this from Belarus Channel 1: “And the white-red summer has passed, autumn has come, and the intellectually undeveloped have noticeably diminished. The heads sick from fake news have cooled down and trends on Instagram have changed. It’s hard to be a zmagar.”

They also state that the whole “philosophy of the ‘zmagar’” consists of a disregard for other people and a completely dirty message is constructed: “If these kinds of people are in power then we will see what real terror, blood, and dictatorship are.”

  • Unsubstantiated attribution of extremist and terrorist actions and generalization

In a lead-in to the story about “the contribution of the so-called ‘zmagary’ to the struggle” in the form of alleged attempts to derail trains, the host of the Belarus Channel 1 says that “To stay in the news they chose extremism and terror.”

“Kyrgyzstan is coming to help you,’ the escaped ‘zmagary’ leaders contemptuously declare on foreign channels. Cannon fodder for the not-quite Maidan is being pushed into becoming outright criminals!” says another Channel 1 story with a hint at attempts to forcibly seize power. At the same time, not a word is said about the reasons for the mass protests and the opposition forces’ proposal for peaceful dialogue.

  • Attributing criminal characteristics to “zmagary” through the stories of individuals who allegedly took part in protest actions

“This is a story about how the so-called ‘zmagary’ make money. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a group of four guys and a girl ‘of easy virtue’ robbed a foreigner. All are active participants in the protests,” says Belarus Channel 1 in the lead-in to the story. Confirmation of this story relies on the words of a police officer who refers to the girl who was detained.

  • Baseless generalized comparisons with criminal gangs and references to national traitors

Nikolai Karpenkov, head of the organized crimes unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, in an interview with the Belarus Channel 1, said the following: “Color revolution soldiers are ‘zmagary.’ For real, real men who love their homeland are not with them. The best comparison is that of organized crime groups like in the ‘90s.”

  • Baseless comparisons with collaborators, fascists, and Nazis

“The disgraced, pitiful, and ridiculous ‘zmagars’ were forced, tails between their legs, to get lost. The policemen could not stand the song ‘Victory Day’ and, well, it wasn’t they who won!,” said Grigory Azarenok and Yevgeny Pustovoy from STV about Belarusian pensioners, who participated in a recent protest.

There are no “zmagary,” and that’s it!

Naturally, no one wants have business with fascist traitors, washed up cynics, and crazy terrorists, which is how this propaganda portrays “zmagary.” In this context, the comment of a joyful participant of a rally in support of Lukashenko on the ONT television channel looks quite natural:

“When we are here, we forget that these zmagary exist! Here in this gathering there’s such a positive atmosphere that they are not here, and that’s it!”

Thus, the Belarusian state-owned media have adopted the label “zmagary,” previously used by marginal sources of pro-Kremlin propaganda, and now regularly used as hate speech against the large groups of the population to which this label is affixed.

Материал доступен на русском языке: «Змагары» как универсальное выражение зла: Белорусская пропаганда оседлала давний прокремлевский ярлык