The System of Russian Influence in the Public and Political Spheres of Belarus
Summary of the iSANS analytical report
This report focuses on the actions of the Russian state machine, as well as individual actors, in Russia and Belarus, which can be considered a revival of a Russian nationalist imperial ideology. It was this machine, which is greater than mere financial interests and career prospects, that has brought different actors together, helped them build new relationships and provided them with the existing connections. This ideology and the connections built on it permeate the entire system of decision- making and the execution of decisions related to expansionist aspirations of the Russian ruling elite.
In this report, we attempt to identify the origins of this ideology and decision-making system which dates back to the times of the Soviet Union, experienced its own crises, survived and is now dominant in the Russian ruling elite. Since this system of views and the community of people has its roots in the Soviet Union, the virus infecting the ruling and cultural elites is not only in Russia, but has spread to the former Soviet republics. The strength of this infection depends upon how “close” the people of a given republic were considered to be to the “titular Russian nation” or if they were a “part of the Slavic brotherhood”.
Belarus turned out to be the most vulnerable. It became the most Russified, with a large number of adherents of Russian imperial ideology among the elite and society. The Russian system of influence targeted Belarusian actors and later became self-building and self-replicating. Over the course of the last decade, the system became institutionalised and formalised organisationally, supported administratively and financially from Moscow. The system of cultural and social ties, the de facto common Orthodox Church and the system of education, both civil and military, have been and continue to be the primary agents of this influence in Belarus.
The first time that the Russian government openly pinned its hopes on a revival of imperial nationalism was in the mid-2000s. However, the system built back in the Soviet times based on the adherents of a Russian nationalist ideology did not cease under Boris Yeltsin and became a driving factor in building the mechanism of the current state machine.
Since 2007, the Kremlin has made ideology of imperial nationalism the basis of its aggressive foreign policy, changing the names of imperial projects from the “Russian world” to “historic Russia” and later “Greater Eurasia”. Russia’s domestic politics is not yet dominated by the national-imperial ideology, but as the level of authoritarianism grows, the influence of this ideology also increases. Thanks to the strengthening of the position of its adherents in the ruling elite, we can expect the trend to continue in this direction on the “domestic front” as well, not only aimed at mobilising public support for the ineffective decrepit regime, but also at ensuring the retention of power.
The imperial traditions in the state and the philosophical thinking of Russian figures have their roots that go back hundreds of years, including the ideas of “Moscow – the Third Rome”, pan-Slavism, Eurasianism, etc. All of these ideas have brought their meanings and shades to what now exists in Russia as a set of ideas and philosophies of imperial nationalism.
In order to assess the current operability and effectiveness of this set of ideologies, we start by examining the period of the 1960s onwards, because it was then, in the period after Stalinism, that an updated pool of ideas and ideologies was formed on the wave of confrontation between conditional “liberals/cosmopolitans” and Stalinists/great-power nationalists. This is still used by the so-called “Russian Party” (“Imperialists”, “hawks”). Moreover, it was then that the group of the “Russian Party” began to form among the new elite. On the one hand, they were looking for continuity from the pre- revolutionary history of Russia as an empire and, on the other hand, formed a new pool of mythologemes associated with Stalin – the creation of the USSR and the Great Patriotic War.
In addition, this same group of people and a group of their disciples which was not yet institutionalised, became the vehicle for these ideas in the new era. They not only witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also the restoration of the power of the security apparatus in Russia, ideologically enriching and strengthening their imperial ambitions.
This report is not an attempt to pursue a conspiracy theory. Instead, it aims to highlight the currents and trends in the development of the Russian political and ruling elite, which strengthen Russia’s imperial aspirations and desire a return to the “historical path” of aggressive policy towards its closest neighbours.
It is important to note that the role of some individuals and their ideas cannot be underestimated. For example, Alexander Dugin, who does not actually hold any prominent position in the government, had a very strong influence on the formation of the imperial ideas of Eurasianism and the “conservative revolution”. Thanks to Dugin’s “talents”, the idea of a “conservative revolution” has become so popular that almost all Russian nationalists refer to some elements of this ideology. Dugin himself was considered for some time as the most likely candidate for the Secretary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. However, this post was taken up by retired Lieutenant General Grigory Rapota, an ex-KGB officer.
Is it possible to state that the “nationalists” are identical to the so-called “deep state” in Russia, about which many works have been written? From our point of view, it is only partly possible since the “deep state” in Russia is, above all, a mingling of the security apparatus and oligarchic structures and close to Putin. As time passes, the security apparatus holds more leading positions in the competition for proximity to the body of the leader. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that almost all actors of the “deep state” are infected with this or other kind of imperial nationalist virus. In this sense, their actions in some cases are explained by this virus, and not by rational judgments.
Moreover, a broad stratum of imperialist nationalists, both “thinkers” and practitioners, offer their services to the ruling cohort and are actually implementing Russia’s aggressive imperialist nationalist policy, moving in the general direction of this policy and the corresponding “projects”. It is also important to understand that there is no unity in either the “deep state” nor in this nationalist stratum of the creators of ideologies and projects. There is, however, a constant competition for proximity to power and resources.
If a “project” is accepted for implementation, it is strictly verified by the security services (even if the project is approved by the Presidential Administration and the implementers report to it). The results must also be consistent with the declared objectives. In general, in Putin’s Russia, even the defective system of checks and balances that had existed in the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s Russia was abolished, and nationalist imperial projects, having captured the minds of security personnel and others close to the centre of power, almost completely replaced the democratic and open society projects. In the absence of functioning institutions, the public debate and political process are replaced by a behind-the-scenes competition of “projects”.
In order to understand how the structure of Russian influence in modern Belarus works, it is necessary to go back to the history of the formation of modern Russian imperial ideology, as well as to its structural formation during Soviet and post-Soviet times. The ideological and structural continuity is important, making it possible not only to preserve the “Russian party” (Nikolai Mitrokhin’s term) in a part of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, but also to build additional structures of influence after that, especially during the “developed Putinism”, since the proclamation of the doctrine of the “Russian world”.
In his fundamental work, “The Russian Party: Russian Nationalist Movement in the Soviet Union in 1953-1985” Nikolai Mitrokhin describes in detail the formation of the so-called “Russian Party” within the Soviet ruling elites. Thanks to this study, we know that by the mid-1970s, the “Russian Party” – whose ideology can be described as a Great Russian imperial ideology – had its own extensive network in the Soviet government, the Communist Party, the army, the KGB, academia and the creative community, especially among writers and artists.
The dominant ideology of the “Russian party” was imperial and contained a great-power vision. As it evolved, it was this particular line of thinking that became the leading one, as opposed to a xenophobic one. Even at the early stages of development, we can notice the idea of the “Slavic Trinity” with the Belarusians and Ukrainians as the younger brothers of the Great Russian Nation.
The modern “ideology of victory”, memorial and ideological work, paramilitary patriotic education, the propagation of “traditional values”, etc. also have their roots in the ideas that arose from the depths of the “Russian Party” and the circle of Russian nationalists as set out in their radical manifestations and in the educational programs of the 1960 and 70s. Interestingly, even then the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was mentioned as an initiator and example to follow in the context of historical and memorial work using the history of the Great Patriotic War and burial site search teams.
The patronage of the “Russian Party” by the ruling elite explains the relative freedom of Russian nationalists in the USSR and the relative lenience when it came to punishment when they did fall under the repression of the system for excessive radicalism.
Orthodoxy as one of the pillars of Russian statehood was an important part of the ideology of the “Russian Party” and due to its efforts, the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church during the late Soviet Union were more tolerated following previous periods of total persecution.
In the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was not ideologically monolithic, but had both progressive and “traditionalist” wings. This latter became closer to the “Russian Party”, seeing it as a continuation of the Great Russian power ideology. According to Mitrokhin, the Russian Orthodox Church viewed Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Moldovans exclusively as its own dominion which could in no way be conceded to its main rival, the Catholic Church.
The “Russian” or “imperial” party approached the period of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union with an extensive network of its participants in the Soviet government and law enforcement agencies, as well as among the creative elite. It controlled a number of media and publishing houses. Along with the removal of censorship and other restrictions during perestroika, the nationalist- imperialists gained greater freedom to promote their own ideas and organise parties and movements. In fact, the liberalisation of the political system made it possible to build a direct link between the nationalist elite and grassroots nationalists, often with armed militants.
By 1996, a conservative-imperial turn took hold in the minds of the Russian elite. The Westerniser Andrei Kozyrev lost his position as foreign minister. His successor, Yevgeny Primakov, was a former KGB officer and supporter of imperial ideology. Igor Rodionov became the minister of Defence. The Duma voted to cancel the Belovezha Accords. (We should recall that it was at the same time, April 1996, that the story of the Union State of Russia and Belarus began).
There has been a lot of discussions recently about the “Gerasimov doctrine” (a doctrine on hybrid warfare), which appeared in 2013. However, the Gerasimov doctrine, according to experts, is only an operationalisation of Primakov’s earlier doctrine. One of its key postulates is Russia’s domination of the post-Soviet space and leadership in the integration of the region (essentially, reintegration into a USSR 2.0).
It is legitimate to question the relationship between the old “Russian party” of the Soviet era, the current “Russian-imperial party” and the so-called “deep state”. However, it is unlikely that the question can be answered unequivocally. The original “Russian Party” consists of party-related administrative functionaries as well as the creative and academic elite. They supplied and promoted the ideas that were a mixture of statist Stalinism and the primacy of the “Russian people”. These ideas evolved over time. At the same time, the security agencies, such as the army and the KGB, certainly had sympathisers for the “Russian party” within their ranks, but they were not full members. In the same manner, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church could not be considered part of the “Russian Party” as such, only supporting members, especially considering the ongoing confrontation between ecumenicalists and nationalists in the church hierarchy.
Perestroika and the post-perestroika period allowed the “Russian Party” of the Soviet period to replenish its ranks and to transform it into the “new Russian imperial party”. In the Soviet Union, however, the highest party and state leadership remained above the fray, acting as a sort of checks and balances between the reactionaries and progressives and from time to time the supporters of the “cosmopolitan-liberal” approach prevailed. In addition, the values of the class struggle were more important for many in the Soviet leadership than the ideology of Russian nationalism. With Putin and the KGB/FSB coming to power in the post-Soviet period, these checks and balances disappeared. It became not only ideologically correct to be in the ranks of the “new Russian imperial party”, but also practically beneficial in terms of one’s career.
That is why Russia is now run by a single party; not by the Communist party, but by the “new Russian imperial” party of security agents and oligarchs. At the same time, this report in no way claims that this party is monolithic and ideologically homogeneous. Inside the party there is constant competition and a struggle for survival. It is also important to understand that obtaining and retaining power and enrichment (often illegally) are the strongest – and probably the primary – motivations in the modern political process in Russia. However, it is almost impossible to enter the elite circle without demonstrating one’s imperial “patriotic” convictions, and the most zealous “imperials” have better chances of success in the internal struggle of getting a bigger bite of the pie.
As a matter of fact, we can now say that in comparison with the early stages, the pro-Russian imperial ideology aimed at the absorption of Belarus, concentrates on the shared Orthodox and traditional values, the “Russian World”, the historical trinity of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, and on the doctrine of the closest kinship of Russians and Belarusians, to the point of being a single nation – “Western Russia”.
Western Russianism is an historical and ideological direction of the academic, socio-political, ethno- confessional and cultural life, based on the postulate that the Belarusians are an ethnic group of the all-Russian people. It was formulated by the middle of the 19th century.
In the mid and second half of the 1990s, the Alyaksandr Lukashenka regime, aiming for a rapprochement with Russia, adopted the Western Russian ideology.
Russian ideologues are in a constant search of and engaged in the manipulation of imperial ideas that are designed to justify and legitimise Russia’s dominance in northern Eurasia. These attempts to seemingly restore Russia’s dominance have led to newer variants of ideological and geopolitical design, and those enacting it are trying to catch up.
There is strong evidence to indicate that the idea of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was invented from the depths of the “Russian Party”, and then one of its leaders was able to convince Lukashenka (whose coming to power was supported by Russia) of the prospect of taking the chair as Union State President. This idea was introduced into the minds of the administrative elite of Belarus, who made serious preparations to move to Moscow.
It should be remembered that it was in 1996 that conservative forces in Russia’s elite managed to achieve the so-called “conservative turn”, and that the former director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Yevgeny Primakov, the author of the “Primakov doctrine”, became Minister of Foreign Affairs (and soon after Prime Minister).
One might further assume that Moscow had viewed Lukashenka, whom it supported in 1996, as a local ruler who could be removed at any time by placing him in an honorary, yet powerless, position. The history of information wars and the negotiations over the Union State that reached a dead end with periodic aggravations indicates this trend. The Kremlin’s ideas about granting Lukashenka the post of chairman of the Security Council or the prime minister of the Union State and a villa in Crimea or Sochi appeared in several news reports.
According to our sources, already in the early 2000s, “trial” pro-Moscow candidates were tested in the elections in Belarus. Technologies supporting Russian-related businesses were used in their campaigns and signatures were collected by Russian compatriots.
The documents of the Union State of Russia and Belarus provide for the possibility of other states to join, which makes it possible to restore the empire. In the early rhetoric of heads of state and quasi- governmental figures, this idea was periodically voiced. In 1999, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević declared that he wanted to join the Union as an observer, and the Skupština (Assembly) of Yugoslavia adopted a resolution “On the accession of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to the Union of Russia and Belarus”. Although the Russian Duma supported this appeal, President Yeltsin did not allow the process to proceed. In 2001, immediately after his election, the President of Moldova Vladimir Voronin announced his country’s plans to join the Union State. In Kyrgyzstan, the opposition tried to initiate a referendum on joining the Union in June 2007. On 17 October 2008, the parliaments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia received the status of permanent observers at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia. And the president of the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, announced in 2010 that he wished to join the Union State. The latest trend after 2014 was the idea of the so-called “Novorossiya” to join the Union.
From the processes that have been taking place around “integration” and the Union State, it becomes clear that for the Russian side it has always been an ideologically driven process, which had the nature of re-assembling the empire by peaceful means. That is why the “gas for kisses” phase lasted so long, while the processes of real economic and political integration, which threatened the loss of sovereignty (and for Lukashenka the loss of power), came to an impasse rather quickly.
It is no coincidence that supporters of Russian imperial nationalism – Gennady Seleznev, Konstantin Zatulin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergey Baburin, etc. – have played an important role in the processes related to Belarus.
Up to a certain point Lukashenka was eagerly playing this game, hosting Slavyansky Sobors of various kinds and even becoming an honorary chairman of one of these Slavic committees. We do not know whether Lukashenka really shared the ideas of Slavic unity and “triune Russia” or simply counted on the big brother’s support against the obstinate national opposition. Regardless, the fact remains that he allowed an extensive international pro-Russian imperial network to develop in his country in the shadow of the Union State whose players operate under different masks and names, but have one goal in mind – to revive the Russian Empire.
For the Kremlin, whose imperial party grieved over the collapse of the Soviet Union and whose ideology was a wild mixture of imperialism and nationalism of various kinds, Belarus was the vassal and a shard of the USSR that served to promote the “socialist paradise” that was lost because of the “behind the scenes machinations of the global cabal”. Lukashenka’s Belarus, which exists on Russian subsidies, made it possible to idealise the USSR. Lukashenka readily supported this nostalgia actually creating the cult of the USSR and victory in the Great Patriotic War in the country.
However, after a series of rough patches in the “friendship”, and especially after 2014, it became obvious even for Lukashenka that the Slavic-Russian rhetoric is not just an interpretation, but an ideology for the imperial expansion of Russia back into its “historical” borders and a “gathering” of the “Russian” or “Slavic” world.
Pro-Russian propaganda in and around Belarus employ the following narratives, often in an extreme and grotesque form:
- Belarus did not exist until the a given year (depending on the author’s position);
- Belarusians as a nation do not exist, it is the younger branch of the Great Russian people;
- Belarus is Western Russia, a part of Triune Russia;
- the Belarusian language doesn’t exist, it’s “corrupted” Russian;
- the Russian language in Belarus is being oppressed;
- Belarusian nationalists – “Zmagars” are the heirs of collaborators with the Nazis in the GreatPatriotic War; national historical Belarusian symbols should be banned as Nazi symbols;
- The Russian Empire and the USSR were good for Belarusians;
- The Belarusians will not survive economically and politically without Russia;
- The Union State with Russia is the guarantor of the sovereignty and well-being of Belarus;
- The European Union, the United States and NATO intend to deprive Belarus of itsindependence;
- The generalised “West” is a source of moral decay (discriminatory narratives on gender,LGBTIQ, etc. are used).
The main topics and activities of propaganda include: manipulation of the memory of military victories and the Great Patriotic War, including the glorification of the “victories of Russian might” and a range of events related to the activity of commemoration; undermining Belarusian-Polish relations, denigrating and denying the shared history of Belarus and Poland and fomenting the Polish- Belarusian conflict on controversial points in history; undermining Belarusian-Lithuanian relations; denigrating the independent history of Belarus, along with the production of pseudo-historical research and documents on the need to create a unified history textbook of the Union State; and fighting against the Belarusian language, further restricting its use and opposing its revival.
A large group of public and private media organisations directly affiliated with the Russian state are the main tools of this mass propaganda. Some of them work in a targeted manner by country and region. According to reports, their funding from the Russian budget for the coming years has again been increased.
Social networks are quite actively used in spreading propaganda, including public groups and fake or real accounts, for the introduction of fake news and its promotion, or for promoting “information” about the situation in the countries as it is seen from Moscow. This includes the distribution of materials from Russian media affiliated with the Kremlin or the “patriotic” circle.
A lot has been written about Russia’s policy of working with compatriots, especially about treating the Russian diaspora in different countries as a convenient conduit for Russian interests and influence.
The policy of working with compatriots itself took shape in 1999 (Konstantin Zatulin is one of the important authors and driving vehicles of this policy) and then was modified on several occasions, including from the standpoint of the ideology of the “Russian World”. In fact, the policy of working with compatriots complements the 2013 Concept of Russian Foreign Policy in terms of “soft power”, as its use is understood in the Kremlin and Smolenskaya Square. The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020 emphasises the role of the “cultural sphere” in the formation of a single “humanitarian” and telecommunications space in the CIS and surrounding areas. At the same time, the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation stresses that Russia has the right to use military force outside of Russia in order to protect Russian citizens.
It is worth remembering that a significant number of Russian passport holders live outside Russia, as they received them shortly after the collapse of the USSR or, conversely, much later, in line with the new Russian policy on supporting compatriots. Russia often uses the issuance of Russian passports as an element of blackmailing neighbouring states and consolidating its control over part of their territories. This practice began with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in recent years the most notorious case has been the issuance of Russian passports to residents of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Dontekst People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Those who monitor the relations between Belarus and Russia remember that during the so-called “rough patch in the friendship” between the two countries, initiatives were put forward in Russia to simplify the granting of Russian citizenship to Belarusians. Such initiatives are precisely an element of state blackmail since Belarusians, as citizens of the Union State, have practically the same rights on the territory of Russia as Russian citizens.
The main affiliates of the Coordinating Council of Organizations of Russian Compatriots (CCORC) are partners of the Embassy of the Russian Federation and Rossotrudnichestvo federal agency. Co- executors of the Kremlin’s programs of work with compatriots abroad in most cases are the so-called organizations of Russian compatriots abroad, and Belarus is no exception. CCORC operates at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Belarus and is the main “non-governmental” partner in the implementation of Rossotrudnichestvo programs in Belarus.
The main sources of funding of this work from the state budget of Russia are Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the Gorchakov Foundation and the Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad.
One of the important ideological tasks in which the CCORC is involved is the legitimisation of the annexation of Crimea. A number of activities have been directed towards this purpose, involving both external experts and CCORC members.
Examples of the activities of “compatriots” within the framework of Rossotrudnichestvo events can be found on its website. In general, the topics of the events reflect the ideological spectrum of “Russkiy Mir” and the methods of processing history and culture for the purposes of propaganda.
The examination of the list of events and resolutions, as well as articles posted on the CCORC website, means that the participation of the CCORC in the implementation of the Russian imperial project becomes quite obvious. Interestingly, the Russian Embassy in Belarus is the registrant of the CCORC website which means they do not even try to create any minimal appearance of independence.
The current palette of pro-Russian organisations in Belarus is a mosaic structure, the elements of which are connected with each other by rigid or weak links. Different parts of this distributed network emerged at different times and independently of each other, but in the process of their development they came into interaction with each other as a result of political changes. Coordination in this network co-exists with competition for resources that are allocated by the Russian Embassy, Rossotrudnichestvo, the Gorchakov Foundation and the Russkiy Mir Foundation, as well as from other structures directly from Russia, including foundations owned by oligarchs.
“Professional Russian” organizations from the CCORC, which have become a typical phenomenon in many countries of the world, neighbor here with pseudo-non-governmental pro-Russian Belarusian movements, organizations related to healthy lifestyles, interest clubs and paramilitary organizations, and even parties.
While after the collapse of the USSR other post-Soviet states started or renewed their own independent development, often with different degrees of speed, the socio-political area of Belarus was stripped of strong independent actors. It is those who have maintained close ties with the Russian socio-political environment, including parliamentary parties and movements, which remained in this area. Since the main condition was loyalty to the existing head of state and his policy, the national socio-political space turned out to be unable to develop on its own and remained permeable and virtually unified with the Russian one. All this took place under the brand of brotherly relations and the creation of the Union State.
The most independent and relatively healthy element in this protoplasm turned out to be the Western-oriented national movements, which naturally retreated from the Russian sphere of influence and official Belarusian circles, pursuing a national, sovereign and pro-democratic agenda. Independent NGOs have become the second important element. They are also threatened with repression and work on the basis of the values of democracy and human rights, generally guided by the European agenda and distancing themselves from their Russian counterparts. Undoubtedly, independent media have been another important factor which allows the understanding of national sovereignty in society to gradually increase. Unfortunately they have also been purged due to being seen as a threat to the autocratic regime.
It is these three components – national political pro-Western movements, independent civil society, and independent mass media – that have allowed Belarus to start growing its own “skin” and have helped a new generation of public and media activists of Belarus to appear in recent years, who see no other way forward but the independent development of the country.
However, in parallel with the process of growth of supporters of sovereignty in Belarus, in Russia there were processes of degradation of rudiments of democratic institutions and growth of conservative imperial ideology under the aegis of the “Russkiy Mir”, consolidation of the authoritarian regime with the participation of old and new socio-political actors, cleansing of the socio-political and information field from the opposition, civic activists and independent media, which eventually led to the emergence of hybrid and open military aggression as the most important instrument of foreign policy.
Since the borders of the socio-political field between the two countries have remained permeable throughout this time, all the processes taking place in Russia have had a direct impact on Belarusian political and public actors.
The year 2014 turned out to be a watershed year for the pre-existing order in the region. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas split the Belarusian society, and the processes of dividing the society into those with pro-Russian convictions and those who support state sovereignty began to accelerate. The change of generations also had an impact on these processes.
With regard to Belarus, Russia has identified two key goals: to involve Belarus in the conflict with Ukraine on its side at all levels, from the high political level to the level of human relations; and to prevent the use of the window of opportunity to resume relations with Europe which opened when Minsk became a negotiating platform for the settlement of the Donbas conflict and virtually all Western sanctions were lifted from Belarus.
The first goal was to be achieved through the recognition of Crimea’s annexation by Minsk at the international level, the participation of people with Belarusian passports in hostilities on the side of the LPR-DNR, the participation of Belarusian politicians, GONGOs and pro-Russian organizations in the events in Crimea or the LPR-DNR or in the events dedicated to their integration into Russia, and the dissemination of relevant expansionist and pro-imperial narratives through the network in and around Belarus. That is why we now see the attack against the so-called idea of neutrality of Belarus and “conservative leadership in Eastern Europe” which the moderate Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) promoted for Belarus until recently.
The second goal was to be achieved by increasing the number of participants in the network of pro- Russian organisations. This network would spread various kinds of anti-Western, pro-integration and anti-Belarus narratives, increasing the number of pro-integration “Russkiy Mir” events by focusing on young people and their involvement in the activities of the network, within organisations or individually. These tasks required increased funding and the intensification of the pro-Russian network of influence, as well as its diversification.
In these groups, the ideas of “triune Russia”, Slavic unity, moral decay of the West and of Russia as a stronghold of traditional values, glorification of the victories of Russian weapons, including the history of the Great Patriotic War and the Russian Empire, are carried out directly or covertly; references to pseudoscientific and “analytical” materials and websites of organizations of the Russian “patriotic” circle are distributed.
An analysis of the links in the social networks of pro-Russian “influencers” in Belarus shows their strong, long and extensive ties with Russian actors, including those associated with the LPR-DPR and other hot spots organised by the Kremlin.
The system of influence built in Belarus by pro-Russian actors is not centralised. Yet, all actors in it are connected to each other, they communicate between themselves and often coordinate their activities. Since there is a certain competition for resources, they try to avoid public scandals. There is no reason to doubt that the main actors of this network coordinate their actions both with the Russian Embassy in Belarus and with Russian curators outside the country.
In the last months of 2018 and early 2019, there was a sharp increase in the activities of this group of organisations and people oriented towards Belarus, accompanied by a storm of propaganda on websites and Telegram channels where the prospect of the Anschluss of Belarus by Russia in the near future is being actively discussed.
Upon closer examination, it turns out that a number of the leaders of Russian organisations engaged in the promotion of the “Russian world” and the “deep integration” of Russia and Belarus trace their ancestry from neo-Nazi movements (Russia National Unity (RNU), “Russkiy Obraz” (“Russian Image”), etc.), such as Alexey Kochetkov, Stanislav Byshok, Yevgeny Valyaev and others. Among their Belarusian partners in “integration” we find figures of similar radical origins.
The main backbone of pro-Russian activists in Belarus began its activity in the 1990s and early 2000s within imperial-nationalist organisations and movements. Thus, Nikolai Sergeyev was one of the founders of the nationalist Slavyansky Sobor “Belaya Rus” which maintained direct contacts with Russian National Unity (RNU), as well as closely cooperating with “Slavyansky Nabat”, where Lev Krishtapovich actively wrote. Writer Andrei Gerashchenko, the current chairman of the CCORC, was also present in “Belaya Rus”. Later, after the collapse of “Belaya Rus”, Sergeyev created his own NGO – BOO “Rus”. Sergei Lushch, who started his activity among neo-pagans, turns out to be the creator of “Rus Molodaya” (Rumol), largely based on former RNU members and skinheads.
A recent investigation conducted by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty confirmed how closely the “patriots” and extreme right were linked in Russia, merging on the basis of imperial Eurasian ideology. In particular, they uncovered that Anna Bogacheva, an active employee of the Prigozhin’s “troll factory” who was sanctioned by the United States for interfering in their elections, and Anna Bogacheva (aka Trigga, a party alias), an active member of the neo-Nazi “Russian Image”, were the same person. She can also be found as a “media security trainer” in the ranks of the “Russian Image”, who landed near Minsk to participate in a Rumol event. She travelled to Belarus several more times for events jointly organised by Lushch, Byshok and Kochetkov. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty also notes the possible acquaintance of Trigga and Maria Butina, who was imprisoned in the US for trying to exert covert influence on the country’s politics and who was recently deported to Moscow. Interestingly, Trigga also went to the US to intervene in the election. We can also very confidently say that these two women knew each other.
Trigga-Bogacheva is not only a specialist in various internet operations, but was also a co-owner of a company associated with this activity. In this connection, one may ask about the ties to Prigozhin’s “Patriot” media holding with the management and promotion of the regional system of pro-Russian propaganda sites in Belarus.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) considers Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as its dominion. Orthodox nationalism is an integral part of the ROC’s current ideology, and it appears that at this stage the nationalists in the ROC have almost completely defeated the ecumenicalists who advocate for dialogue with representatives of other faiths. Accordingly, relations with other countries, including Belarus, are considered through the prism of the ROC’s domination and opposition to the Catholic Church (as well as to “Litvinism” and “Polishness”).
In Putin’s Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, as an institution in which the nationalist and statist forces have control, actually merged with the state and the ruling elites, including the security services. The ROC is used by the state as a tool of “soft” or, more precisely, hybrid power. Rossotrudnichestvo allocates funds for the promotion of “traditional values” by the ROC. Within the framework of the cross-border scheme of influence on Belarus, the Presidential Grants Foundation has already allocated money for ROC projects related to Belarus and promotion of the ideas of the “Russian world” twice.
The Belarusian Exarchate, or Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), has existed since 1989. 1,270 parishes are united in ten dioceses, the assembly of the heads of dioceses is formed by the governing body of the Exarchate – the Holy Synod. It is not an independent church but is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Exarchate is headed by a Metropolitan appointed by the Moscow Patriarchate.
A significant part of the BOC functionaries come from the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Russia, which became a stronghold of Orthodox-Power nationalism in the 1970s and 80s. However, the BOC is not a monolithic vassal of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Moscow circles are concerned about the reliability of the domination of the Moscow Patriarchate, the possible desire of the BOC to gain autocephaly or even a greater degree of independence. In addition, the Orthodox leaders, as we can see from various documents, have expressed a concern about the “offensive” of Catholicism in Belarus.
Researchers have written about the long history of confrontation between the hidden autocephalous Exarchate faction and Russian Orthodox nationalists within the BOC. The recurrent public debate confirms a validity of the thesis to this day. In particular, Belarusian language is the subject of contention. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, sermons in the western regions are read in Belarusian, and in the eastern regions in Russian. A significant number of priests and bishops come from Western Belarus, and Belarusian is their native language.
As suggested by Mitrokhin and others, the nationalist wing of the BOC at the level of prominent figures in the Exarchate apparatus is connected to extreme right-wing national-radicals, including the neo-Nazi RNU, at least under Metropolitan Filaret in the 1990s. It should be noted, however, that the leadership of the BOC periodically disassociates itself from particularly zealous fundamentalist anti- Semites when events receive widespread publicity.
The Orthodox nationalism of the ROC also has a secular face and many Russian figures who are in one way or another connected to Russian expansion into Belarus have been a part of this community.
It should be noted that one of the key mouthpieces of anti-Belarus propaganda is the leading Russian ultra-conservative Orthodox Tsargrad TV channel of the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, who is likely the organiser of pro-Russian hybrid actions in various countries. In particular, Tsargrad TV actively promotes the results of all the “polls” in social networks related to the “deep integration” of Russia and Belarus.
One of the processes related to the “deep integration” which is taking place in the State Duma of the Russian Federation, also takes place with the active participation of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists. It is carried out by the Inter-factional Deputy Group of the State Duma for the Protection of Christian Values.
The Inter-factional Deputy Group has created and actively uses the so-called Public Chamber of the Union State. The fact that the initiative was established as a fait accompli is reflected in a statement by the Standing Committee of the Union State which claimed it had nothing in common with this initiative.
The Duma’s Inter-factional Group for the Protection of Christian Values, thanks to the composition of its initiators and participants, is in fact one of the strongholds of the “conservative revolution”. Its activity is not so much aimed at the protection of Christian values per se, but rather at the implementation of conservative and imperial projects.
In their activity, the members of the Public Chamber intend to build an “effective infrastructure” to counter “anti-Russian and anti-Slavic propaganda”. On website of the Public Chamber of the Union State, a significant place is occupied by messages related in one way or another to Orthodoxy and its
unifying character for Russia and Belarus. The Public Chamber’s report stresses that its activities were blessed by His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill, Patriarch Exarch of All Belarus Pavel, and a number of priests.
Veteran organisations of Belarus, especially organisations of those who have participated in the relatively recent hostilities, cause particular concern due to their long-standing and strong ties with Russia, their security agencies and the ideologues. As Pavel Usov’s report on military cooperation has shown, practically the entire officer corps of the Belarusian army has, in one form or another, received a dose of Russian imperial ideology through the common system of military education since the times of the Soviet Union. This could be cadet and military schools or the Academy of the General Staff, where, as noted above, such imperial ideologues as Dugin and Starikov have lectured, and where Dugin’s books and lecture notes are used as teaching aids. However, according to researchers, in the system of the Soviet retraining of higher personnel a strong role was played by the “Russian Party”. Therefore Dugin and Starikov only continued the traditions already established in the Soviet times.
In this sense, the Public Chamber of the Union State is certainly such a project. The list of its members includes a large number of people on both sides who were related to the security forces and the implementation of imperial projects in Russia in some way.
From our point of view, the activity of the Public Chamber of the Union State is aimed at restoring and strengthening Russia’s ties with the administrative, security agencies, business and cultural elites of Belarus in order to ensure public support for a Crimean-style scenario when the parliament, once again appointed in unfair elections, will vote at the request of Moscow for the Constitutional Act of the Union State. This will require massive pressure to force Lukashenka to sign it.
With Russia’s Putinisation, the penetration of Orthodox-nationalist ideology into the army and security agencies grew stronger, became total, and the Russian Orthodox Church actually became an official ideological partner of the Russian army. Thus, the ideological indoctrination of all those who fall into the system of Russian military education, including Belarusians, experience several channels at once.
According to Belarusian experts, many veterans of the law enforcement and security agencies, including Russian ones, often prefer to settle in Belarus at a rather young and combat-ready age at which they retire. According to various sources, the largest “diaspora” of Russian security veterans is now in Brest. This may be for several reasons, including the fact that it may serve as a “combat reserve”, a Western outpost of “a territory of Russia’s interests”.
The “former” security and military officials are part of various structures of Russia’s influence in Belarus and it is hardly worth doubting that they use all their connections and capabilities. For example, the composition of the Public Chamber includes several interesting characters from this group. This includes General Vladimir Shamanov, a former commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, head of a Russian military group in Abkhazia in August 2008, and a notorious commander of Russian troops in the first and second Chechen wars. For this, he earned the label “one of the bloodiest generals in Russia in recent decades”. Another prominent figure is Leonid Reshetnikov, a Lieutenant General of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia (in reserve) and former director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS). In September this year, Bulgaria banned Reshetnikov from entering the country for ten years as part of an investigation into charges of espionage against Nikolai Malinov, a Bulgarian pro-Russian activist and leader of the “Russophile” movement. The investigation believes that he received money from two Russian organisations associated with Reshetnikov – The “Two-Headed Eagle” Foundation and RISS – to pay for the reorientation of Bulgaria’s foreign and domestic policy.
In the Public Chamber of the Union State there are many people with close ties to various security agencies in both Russia and Belarus. One of our experts, on condition of anonymity, assessed the chamber as “a ready instrument for annexation”.
Veterans’ organisations, because of their links with Russia and its ideology, have great propaganda and organisational potential and are becoming an integral part of the system of Russian influence in Belarus. Those organisations of participants in the combat actions in Afghanistan and other “hot spots” may be the most important ones.
Many of the figures who promote imperial nationalism have gone through combat operations in Afghanistan. Among those whom we have already mentioned include: General Igor Rodionov, who took Dugin to the Academy of the General Staff; the ideologue Alexander Prokhanov (who served with Rodionov); and the politician Sergei Baburin. Franz Klintsevich, a native of Belarus and Russian politician, is the head of the Russian Union of Afghanistan Veterans.
“Boyevoye Bratstvo” (“Brothers in Arms”) is headed by Colonel General, State Duma Deputy and former Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov. Among the organisation’s membership has both Russian and international legal entity. The Belarusian Union of Veterans of the War in Afghanistan is included as a member. In order to strengthen the influence abroad, a special “Brothers in Arms without Borders” project was created. This project is being implemented in cooperation with foreign and international organisations of veterans. It organizes joint events, meetings, exhibitions, academic and expert conferences, cultural events, concerts, forums and thematic projects. Within the framework of the project, “programs” are implemented in the post-Soviet republics, including Belarus.
“Boyevoye Bratstvo” brings together veterans of local wars and military conflicts in which servicemen of the USSR and later Russia participated. A significant influx of new members of the Bratstvo is now taking place from among the soldiers and mercenaries who participated in the occupation of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas.
It is important to understand the role played by Boyevoye Bratstvo’s in the annexation of Crimea. Veterans of the organisation began to arrive in Crimea starting 18 February 2014, and exerted active pressure on the defenders of Crimea, including the Ukrainian military, as well as on deputies.
Gromov’s deputy had stated that if “the West starts to rock the boat,” then “Boyevoye Bratstvo” will take appropriate actions. The question arises surrounding what “Boyevoye Bratstvo” and its members and partners in Belarus were to do if they believed that “the West is rocking the boat” and arranging a “Maidan” in Belarus, or if senior comrades suggest that it is time to support those in Belarus who want to be with Russia.
Frankly speaking, even if they exaggerate the possibilities of the “Boyevoye Bratstvo” (the operation conducted in Crimea leaves little room for doubt about their possibilities), it is worth watching the situation in Belarus very closely. It is quite possible that it could organize a vote on the Constitutional Act of the Union State in parliament, especially if something happens to the leader of the nation.
Russia’s direct military or hybrid aggression has primarily affected Russia’s Eastern Partnership neighbours, creating hotbeds of instability along its borders. In essence, Belarus remains the last country where there have been no obvious conflicts initiated by Russia or reinforced by the Kremlin’s agents of influence. Nevertheless, the infrastructure for the projection of Russian influence has been created even before the “Russian spring” of 2014. And in 2014 it moved to a different, forceful phase, causing some among the Belarusian elites to sober up from the brotherly ideological narcotic . The Belarusian society is also undergoing a generational change, and the young people, who often go to Lithuania and Poland, look more to the EU than to their imperial neighbour to the east.
This sobering up of some of the Belarusian elite and the change of generations has caused anxiety in the last two years among the participants of the Kremlin imperial project. In response, they have actively used the techniques and the participants of previous hybrid wars, especially the war with Ukraine, as well as the propaganda arsenal of the media controlled by the Kremlin and the “patriotic oligarchs”.
In order to fully assess the scale of the impact of the Russian hybrid operation on the elites and society of Belarus aimed at persuading them to accept the country’s entry into the renewed Russian empire, it is necessary to conduct additional studies. The present report, however, together with our previous publications, outlines the structure of the Kremlin machine created in order to impact Belarus. It also indicates which parts of the Belarusian society the Kremlin is trying to involve or has already involved in its “integration project”. It revealed several new topics and areas for research which we will devote our subsequent studies to. In particular, we are planning on conducting a study of imperial influence on the sphere of education, since this is too extensive a subject in itself to be included in this review. The question of the vulnerability of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the degree of penetration of the Russian imperial ideology at different levels of the BOC as a structure of great strategic importance to Russia (especially after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church received autocephaly) also requires a separate analysis.
It is important to clearly recognise that some awareness of the threat that the Belarusian leadership has faced after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 has not yet led to a systematic and consistent reaction from the authorities to the numerous hostile statements about statehood, identity, language and other anti-Belarusian actions undertaken by agents of Russian influence. In fact, the authorities have not taken real steps to supplant the imperial agenda. What has been done during this time is that a few high-profile statements have been issued, apparently designed to calm the part of Belarusian society that expresses concern about the threat of loss of sovereignty.
Thus, back in April 2014, immediately after the Russian annexation of Crimea, when speaking to parliament, Lukashenka expressed himself in very harsh terms about pro-Russian activists who alleged that the Russian language was being attacked in Belarus: “people should be treated as saboteurs,”I’m addressing the KGB: such and, according to journalists, he was genuinely surprised that such provocateurs had not yet been expelled from Belarus.
The following year, 2015, during the traditional large annual press conference for Belarusian and for- eign media, Lukashenka also gave a robust answer to a question regarding the growing activity of the so-called “Cossacks” in Belarus, who professed an open pro-Russian ideology, supported separatists in Donbas and organised, according to press reports, several military field camps in Belarus: “Find these ‘Black Hundreders’ who not only run through the woods, but also ‘talk rot’ [speak extremely disapprovingly] about Belarus. Take appropriate measures and report back. Believe me, measures have been taken in this regard. Therefore, if you are aware that there are some “Black Hundreders” running through the forests, we will catch them quickly. Whatever is contrary to the sovereignty and independence of the state, whatever is contrary to the interests of the people, will be uprooted”.
Lukashenka also responded to reports of a sharp increase in the activities of anti-Belarusian organisations, websites and groups in social networks in late 2018 / early 2019. Speaking about relations with Russia during the annual press conference, he stated that “in Belarus everything that the Russian media write is analysed”. “When they begin to blame us for something, I collect and put on the table a pile of these documents, all the links – from small bloggers to specially created sites. I say [to the president of Russia]: listen, what if we in Belarus created such sites and began to pressure you tomorrow, exactly the way you do in relation to Belarus?”
These sporadic high-profile statements are not in any way backed by any actions – with the only exception when in 2016 three Regnum News Agency journalists were arrested, detained for 14 months in a pre-trial detention centre on charges of inciting ethnic hatred, and found guilty in court. They had claimed in their publications that Belarus is a “non-state”, that the Belarusian language is a dialect of Russian and an indication of second-class, and that the Belarusian people do not exist in principle. Finally the court handed down a mild sentence with a deferral of execution, and the journalists were actually released in the courtroom.
In fact, these rare declarations are almost never followed up by real actions, and all Russian agents of influence working to undermine Belarusian sovereignty, and their Belarusian partners – pro-Russian organisations, figures and websites – continue to operate in the country rather freely with direct organisational, political and financial support from Moscow. Throughout many years Lukashenka built up his power on the idea of Slavic unity and the close kinship with Russia. He suppressed the Belarusian national identity for too long and allowed the pro-imperial anti-Belarusian networks to develop freely. Now, apparently, it has become difficult for him to significantly change course and take real steps in order to protect the country from the threat of a takeover from the east. In the absence of independent institutions in the country capable of ensuring the resilience of Belarusian society to hybrid aggression, an authoritarian leader cannot be the guarantor of the country’s independence, even if he really wanted to, and was not merely seeking to retain his grip on power. In other words, Moscow holds serious leverage over Lukashenka.
There is a hard way out of this situation, but it does exist. In principle, we can only repeat the recommendations we proposed in our first report and also developed in more detail in the summer of 2019.
Only a robust, stable and free civil society that is not under the pressure of the authorities and the free Belarusian media which rely on it can become a guarantor of Belarus’ independence, an antidote to the toxic influence of imperial propaganda and anti-Belarusian actions of pro-Russian actors and their own pro-Russian elites.
In this situation, it is in the interest of the Belarusian state to at least equalize the opportunities for independent NGOs, whose access to registration and funding is now difficult, and of pro-Russian actors, who freely receive and use massive infusions of Russian money; to allow the pro-Belarusian opposition to be elected and to work in parliament; to liberalize media legislation so that independent Belarusian media can work and protect the Belarusian media space; to adopt legislation on localization of Internet services, linking the provision of information by news services and search engines to events and sources in Belarus, not Russia; to expand the space for Belarusian cultural and educational initiatives; not to introduce unified textbooks of the Union State on humanitarian subjects, especially on history; to find a possibility of training officers and teachers of the new generation of military educational institutions in the West (possibly also in neutral countries like Finland, Switzerland, etc.); to increase the amount of education in Belarusian language; to expand opportunities for Belarusian public events and memorial activities.
Only after the expansion of the space of free activity of patriotic people and organisations for the benefit of the country will it be possible to strengthen the ability of the Belarusian society to resist external hybrid aggression and its agents inside the country. The authorities in Minsk should understand that in a one-on-one clash with their imperial neighbour they are doomed to defeat – and it will not only be Lukashenka who will lose the battle, but the whole country, which will have lost its independence.