Today, no one will be surprised by the information about the interference of Russian forces in the governmental policies of neighbouring countries. Russian propaganda and disinformation remain the most significant issues bothering many countries, especially, the ones of Eastern Partnership. Following the tragic events in Ukraine, many Western experts started to ask the question — is Belarus the next target for Russia? – writes Anhelina Pryimak on the recent report by the iSANS, for the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.
Free Belarus. Coercion to “Integration”: Russia’s Creeping Assault on the Sovereignty of Belarus
Anhelina Pryimak 30 May 2019
Today, no one will be surprised by the information about the interference of Russian forces in the governmental policies of neighbouring countries. Russian propaganda and disinformation remain the most significant issues bothering many countries, especially, the ones of Eastern Partnership. Following the tragic events in Ukraine, many Western experts started to ask the question — is Belarus the next target for Russia?
Over the last few months, Belarus has been suffering from a “hybrid war” created by Russian influence on society and social media space through various instruments and actors, thereby to make Belarus give up its political and cultural sovereignty.
International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) – consisting of the group of experts, public and political figures, media activists, and journalists from Belarus, the European Union, Eastern Partnership countries, the USA and Canada – have prepared a report based on the research examining Russian deep interference in Belarus’ politics and media.
According to the creators of this report, the main idea and the purpose behind the investigation is monitoring coordinated misinformation campaigns floating from the Russian forces and fighting its propaganda, and, of course, supporting the independence of Belarus.
Relatives or neighbours?
Russia’s interference is often explained as “deep integration” between two nations tightened not only by a border but also with their cultural, historical and spiritual unity. While the real reason lies behind Belarus’ location which is of in the strategic interest of Moscow. The argument is often presented as “geopolitical restriction of Belarus’s sovereignty”; this idea has its roots in the USSR and the Brezhnev doctrine, which limited the sovereignty of Eastern Europe countries.
The strategy of interference is mainly coordinated by the Administration of Russia. The interference itself has a clear purpose and implementation plan performed by Russian and Belarusian actors, who – by their nature – are far-right. ultra-conservative. anti-Western activists and politicians fighting for life in the “Russian world”.
What is more, these actors are also known to be the followers of xenophobic, neo-Nazi ideas and activities. Many of them have participated in the process of preparation and implementation of the actions in Ukraine, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and the Balkans.
It is worthwhile to mention that these activists have no financial issue, as Russian state agencies, businesses connected to the administration, and other channels perform the role of sponsors funding Russian ideology with millions of euro.
For instance, The Gorchakov Foundation’s expenses in 2017 were equal to 86 647 000 rubles (1 203 330 euro) while The Russkiy Mir Foundation (literal translation of the name of this foundation is “Russian World”) had 532 900 000 rubles (7 042 647 euro) as its expenses. And this number is to increase.
“EU prepares for Maidan in Belarus” and other propaganda
It is a mistake to assume that first attempts to create pro-Russian groups in Belarus were done in 2014, after the Ukrainian crisis. The report shows that the very first activities can be dated back to 2010. However, the process of consolidation has started after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Russian Spring in Donbas and Luhansk regions.
Russian authorities have used and still do use the same techniques for undermining the integrity of the political process in Belarus – as in other countries – fake news and propaganda.
For this reason, here is an example of one of the most anti-Western provocations: “EU prepares Maidan in Belarus“. Russian media, such as Sputnik or Life.ru has been targeting the audience of Belarus with such titles knowing well that, after the tragic actions in Ukraine, the biggest fear of the population of Belarus is to repeat the same scenarios on their territory as its southern neighbours.
On the eve of presidential and parliamentary elections in Belarus, a significant increase in the dissemination of false information is expected.
Various social media platforms will have a new pro-Russian advertisement, fake news about propaganda meetings, and also an increase in the creation of fake accounts and public groups, as well as influential blogs, in order to reach a wider audience. Telegram is an important instrument of influence on politics in Belarus. It is one of the most popular social media platforms with a great amount of pro-Russian channels openly working for Russia.
While part of the population can analyze the media content provided by Russians, the other part, unfortunately, will fall for the bait.
According to iSANS experts, the main vulnerable groups to Russian disinformation and other forms of the hybrid war include young people lacking critical thinking, employees of state-owned enterprises experiencing financial difficulties, military officers attracted by the better economic state of the Russian military, administrative and business elites tightened to the administration of Russia, and, finally, representatives of Russian Orthodox Church.
Those, attracted by the Russian world, usually live on the East side of Belarus, closer to Russia, and do not speak the Belarusian language in their everyday life and also do not even consider it as their own native language giving preference to Russian. It is likely that the reason for this is also one of the media propaganda statements about the Belarusian language being artificial.
Russia does not need to use its great military capacity, to send troops of “green men” to “integrate” Belarus. Such a movement would be considered as an aggressive interference in the territorial integrity of the sovereign country and would cause further isolation of Russia on the international political arena following a new wave of sanctions on businesses. Therefore, Russian forces prefer splitting and brainwashing the Belarusian society with propaganda, disinformation in media and economic pressure on the governmental entities.
The problem of unprotected Belarus
“The report has been created on a fully voluntary basis to create an effective civic resilience to protect Belarus” – says one of the creators of the report.
Currently, there is no powerful democratic opposition in the government to support basic human rights and freedoms. Belarus significantly lacks the independent media institutions and non-governmental organisations who could fight the propaganda coming from the eastern neighbour. Each attempt to raise a voice against the current situation in Belarus is simply being oppressed by the authoritarian regime of President Lukashenko.
“In a democratic state or in a state in a democratic transition, it is vibrant civil society and active independent media act as guarantors for the resilience of the whole society against external hybrid interference”.
To a great fortune, a new generation of pro-Belarusian activists has appeared recently. The young and motivated representatives of civil society fight Russian propaganda, promote the Belarusian language, organise public events on the importance of preserving national identity and country’s sovereignty. However, without the real reforms, Belarus will not be able to preserve its sovereignty.
In this remaining year, the state must act clearly and consistently in the fight for its sovereignty as the upcoming wave of Russian disinformation is rapidly approaching and will soon cover Belarus ahead of the elections.
Instead of flirting with the West, and re-approaching the brotherhood with Russia, the government of Belarus should focus more on its national political, economic, social and cultural aspects to preserve the sovereignty and to not repeat the Ukrainian scenario.
However, the results of the elections are not as much important for Russia, as it is widely known – there are no free elections in Belarus, whereas the idea of showing a weak leader [Lukashenko] is the goal. And as a continuation, the promotion of an argument in defence of “deep integration” with Russia as the only possible scenario for further development of Belarus.
iSANS experts recommend Belarusian society and international actors to not overestimate the rationality of Russia’s decisions on Belarus.
The government of Belarus have been living inside of the “Russian World” bubble and, therefore, has the Russian perception of reality and of the other countries. That is why it is significantly important to support non-biased independent media sources, civic pro-Belarus movements, NGOs without links to Russia, and spread the Belarusian language in social media, TV, newspapers, cinematography etc.
With the next presidential elections in Russia scheduled for 2024, Belarus has approximately two-three years to fight the Russian interference in order to protect the sovereignty and not be absorbed by the Kremlin.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.
Editorial Assistant at Visegrad Insight and Head of the Projects Management at BETA Polska; BA in International Relations and European Studies graduate, Lazarski University