Natalya Frolova, journalist The Insider, specially for Civic Resilience Center Res Publica.
In telling the story of today's Belarus, Russian propaganda must cope with the difficult task of conveying polar ideas to the domestic audience. It simultaneously supports Lukashenko and humiliates him, promotes the idea of integration with Russia and emphasizes the "sovereignty" of Belarus, admits sincere fraternal feelings towards the Belarusians and presents them with a claim: "How will you pay us back?" But the image of an insidious enemy, one guilty of the political crisis in the neighbouring country, is crystal clear: it's the collective West, including Lithuania.
In Russia, despite the closest of ties with the neighboring country, the attempt of the Belarusians to get rid of the Lukashenko regime has yet to be accepted. According to the Levada Center, which has been recognized as a "foreign agent" in Russia, more than half of Russians considered the last presidential elections in Belarus to be fair. Approximately the same number of Russian citizens condemned the protests that followed, seeing Western provocation behind them.
"In Russia, only about 20 percent of those polled supported the protesters in Belarus. Basically, those are younger people who use alternative sources of information rather than television. And those are the same people who approve of the protesters in Russia itself," says Denis Volkov, head of the Levada Center. According to him, most Russians consider Belarus to be almost the only true friend of Russia, and therefore ask the question: "Why are they doing it? They have everything, good food, no environmental problems, excellent sanatoriums".
As the protests fade away, the interest of the Russian public in the situation in Belarus withers. Today, people are more concerned about compulsory vaccinations, the rising third wave of the pandemic and financial problems. But the government-controlled media keep on reacting to the events in Belarus.
Dry objectivity and scream shows
Major Russian publications, which still claim to be independent, in the realities of modern Russia are forced to listen to what the Kremlin says. In order not to slip into propaganda, they try to create an objective picture of events in Belarus. From the news, one can learn both what is happening with the opposition (if there's a major newsworthy story - for example, the former presidential candidate Viktor Babariko being sentenced by a court) and what the Belarusian authorities are doing. But RBC, Kommersant, and Vedomosti continue to call Lukashenko the "President of Belarus" without questioning his victory in the August 9, 2020 elections.
For example, when discussing Babariko's recent verdict in an apparently fabricated case, Kommersant deliberately observes objectivity: it provides comments by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and another opposition leader Valery Tsepkalo, but ends the report with the arguments offered by a Belarusian pro-government expert and a deputy of the Russian State Duma, who argue in a similar vein: they say Babariko knew what he was doing when he acted on someone's orders.
It is well known that the last thing you read or hear is that which remains in your memory. And such a structure of the report not only leaves the reader with the conclusion that is convenient for the Russian authorities (any opposition activist is a puppet of the West and will be punished for it), but, in fact, legitimizes Lukashenko regime. An illusion is created that both sides of the conflict have equal opportunities to defend their positions.
"Russia's major TV channels set the main news topics (i.e., tell people what to think), but with an emphasis on government approved experts. As regards talk shows, which have turned into "scream shows" in Russia, the channels shape the emotional attitude of Russians (i.e., tell them what to think and feel)," says Solvita Denis-Liepnice, an expert on propaganda and disinformation, associate professor of the Vidzeme Higher School of Applied Sciences.
The shows 60 Minutes on Channel One or Dmitry Kiselev’s Vesti Nedeli present Russians with a ready-made set of arguments that plainly and correctly (from the Kremlin's point of view) explain the events in Belarus. For TV propagandists, there is no such thing as a suffering Belarusian people or Lukashenko's cruelty, rather there are silent and friendly people led by a resourceful provincial president, whom extremists and terrorists supported by the West are trying to overthrow.
The kitchen maid that leads the extremists
The Belarusian opposition is presented in the main Russian propaganda media as a bunch of puppets. It is not very difficult to create a negative public attitude towards the leaders of the Belarusian opposition. It is enough to emphasize the helplessness of the protest leaders, without mentioning the reasons for such helplessness. In a country with a cruel authoritarian regime, there can be no strong professional politicians. But admitting it in Putin's Russia means leading the Russian audience, which has had the formula "who, if not Putin," stuffed down its throat, to seditious thoughts.
It is enough to emphasize the helplessness of the protest leaders, without mentioning the reasons for such helplessness
Dmitry Kiselev demonstratively and mockingly presents Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was never supposed to become a presidential candidate and was forced to step in after her husband Sergei was arrested, as an insecure individual who doesn't know how to dress properly or fold her hands in public or as a housewife reading from a piece of paper: "The role that has befallen Tikhanovskaya weighs her down, she does not pull her weight in any respect."
This image seems to neutralize all Tikhanovskaya's international efforts to have the new Belarus recognized - after all, in the eyes of Russian viewers she cannot but lose to such an experienced politician and "strong business executive" as Lukashenko. Kiselev says ironically: in Russia everyone has long abandoned the Soviet formula that a kitchen maid can rule the state, while in the West this has yet to be understood.
While Tikhanovskaya remains in exile, she does not seem to pose a particular threat, there are also those in the opposition who, according to Russian propaganda, pose a real threat to Belarus. This means that Lukashenko's order to land the Ryanair flight with the founder of the NEXTA web portal Roman Protasevich on board was quite justified. This incident, perceived in the West as an act of state piracy, was justified by RT correspondent Konstantin Pridybailo on the Russia-24 TV channel as a necessary and completely legal decision:
"Roman Protasevich lived in the European Union for a year, then in Lithuania, then in Warsaw, he is really charged with terrorism in Belarus, he wrote for the channel which called for unauthorized rallies. There was no chance of him being extradited. He flies over the territory of Belarus, so the country may at least take some measures, land the plane, and arrest a citizen. It was a one in a hundred or even one in a thousand chance"
The propagandists emphasize that such plane landings are a normal practice in the West. Quoting Putin, Russian propagandists never tire of recalling the 2013 incident in which the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales made an emergency landing in Vienna. At the same time, they neglect to mention that the target then was not a journalist, but Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee accused of espionage, and the plane landed with the permission of Morales himself.
Support the regime, not Batka
It would seem that against the background of the opposition being portrayed in this manner, Lukashenko should bask in the admiration of the Russian state media. But, despite the support for his regime, Russian propaganda does not spare him at all. It is not difficult to explain this paradox: defending the regime in Minsk means indirectly defending the Putin regime, while praising Lukashenko means creating a rival to Putin.
Praising Lukashenko means creating a rival to Putin
"In the mid-90s, when the idea of a union state surfaced, Lukashenko roamed the Russian regions and arranged press conferences. With Yeltsin being sick and Russian officials only capable of making long-winded speeches, he was quite recognizable and popular, he looked young, charismatic, and was quite popular among the common people, he looked like a competitor", says Solvita Denis-Liepnice. "But this story of relationship has now taken a different turn. Visuals produced by the Russian TV channels make Lukashenko look like Putin's ugly girlfriend. Compared to him, Putin looks like a serious intelligence officer, a man of his word."
One of the meetings between Putin and Lukashenko, which took place in Sochi in May 2021, provided plenty of pretext for mockery of the Belarusian dictator. The hosts of the 60 Minutes TV show, Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov, relished the Internet's reaction to Lukashenko’s bathing in the cold Black Sea: "It's not us, it's Internet users who say: Lukashenko decided to brazenly cosplay Putin <that is, to recreate the famous shot in which Putin is swimming the butterfly - ed.> to demonstrate to his enemies that he is still no slouch - he swam in the Black Sea with the water temperature being 17 degrees Celsius." At the same time, the hosts made it clear why Putin did not follow suit - after all, he did not need to demonstrate his superiority, which was already obvious compared to the Belarusian visitor.
The condescending and derogatory attitude towards Lukashenko cannot but create a certain attitude towards Belarus in the audience. Propaganda in Russia never gets tired of reminding: “Belarusians are the younger brothers of Russia”. In the current situation, this translates into an endless demonstration of the Russian leadership's vast experience and determination in matters of foreign policy. Both regimes are currently under sanctions, and the Russian state media assert: Belarus should follow the example of Russia, a country which is not intimidated by sanctions. In addition, propagandists remind their audience that, despite all the tension in relations, the United States continues to deal with the Kremlin (meetings between Biden and Putin, Kerry and Lavrov), while Minsk has found itself in international isolation.
There will be no annexation, but there may be a joining up
Summing up the results of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko in Sochi, the host of the 60 Minutes show Skabeyeva, in fact, summed up all the criticism directed against Lukashenko: "After the meeting in Sochi, he did not ask for economic assistance again, thank God! He did not recognize Crimea, did not discuss the single currency. There was no talk about the integration process, alas! The prospects of the union state were on the agenda, and this is a nightmare for the West, which saw the terrible word "annexation" in Lukashenko’s visit to Putin".
In Moscow, Lukashenko is considered an unreliable partner, and Belarus a weak state. At the same time, the state media keep repeating that Russia perceives Belarus as an independent state and annexation is out of question. At the same time, pro-Kremlin political scientists periodically talk about the possibility of Belarus joining up with Russia. For example, they compare it with Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechnya: you can, they say, have enough autonomy within Russia, maintain your "cultural code" and prosper economically (i.e. stop endlessly begging the Kremlin for money). But so far there have only been cautious hints, barely discernible against the background of the official line. Even when Putin, in what he calls his recent "analytical material" about Ukraine, promotes the idea of a triune people of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, he denies Ukraine's right to statehood but does not question the independence of Belarus.
And, according to Denis Volkov from the Levada Center, this approach has been fully adopted by the Russians: "In general, there is an understanding that this is a different country, but there is a certain union state, whose workings no one understands. The attitude towards Lukashenko himself has noticeably deteriorated over the past two years: more and more people say he is sly and cunning, he needs more from us (Russians - Ed.) than we from him."
Do you want it to be like in Ukraine?
The stubborn unwillingness of the Belarusian dictator to recognize the annexation of Crimea and his attempts to maintain neutral relations with Kiev to the last are constantly exaggerated by Russian propaganda. Moreover, the discussion of Belarus is always a convenient excuse to jump over to the topic of Ukraine and, notably, its "Russophobic" leadership. According to the propagandists, the Ukrainian leader has never missed an opportunity to harm Lukashenko in response to his loyalty: for example, Ukraine refused to accept Belavia planes even before the European carriers made such a decision or has been allegedly preparing "terrorists" to be sent to Belarus with the aim of overthrowing the "legitimate leadership".
The topic of Ukraine is also convenient because it is a kind of an anti-example. State propaganda has convinced millions of Russians that after the 2014 Maidan (the overthrow of the regime of the former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych), chaos and devastation have reigned in Ukraine. This means that any attempt to leave Russia and get closer to Brussels and Washington will lead to the same dire consequences for any other country. Russians are being intimidated by this terrible picture of the hypothetical future for Belarus.
By "betraying" Lukashenko, Ukraine, according to Putin's propaganda, is acting at the behest of the West. The Baltic states are also "henchmen of the West", incapable of pursuing an independent policy. Both Moscow and Minsk accuse their collective enemy of destabilizing Belarus - this is how they present any attempts to support human rights defenders, independent journalists and anyone who puts up peaceful resistance to the regime and ends up behind bars for it. The West is also responsible for the failure of Belarus-Russia integration, although it would be a disadvantage to Lukashenko. He understands perfectly well that in a fully-fledged union state he will immediately lose power. That is why today it is good for the Belarusian dictator to promote the controversial idea of an alliance of two independent states, which is currently under threat, and to shift the blame onto the "enemies":
"The West aims at curbing development, disrupting integration projects and changing the course of the Belarusian state. But we will not just survive. We will use this moment, as the Russian Federation did when the sanctions were imposed on it, to strengthen economic cooperation and make our states absolutely independent".
Defending democratic principles means acting childishly
The Russian propagandists have already compiled a list of their main enemies. Lithuania is on it together with Poland, the USA and Germany. Traditionally, in relation to Lithuania, the Russian state media have been developing several topics: lack of independence in political decision-making, ingratitude towards Russia as the successor of the USSR "which industrialized the rural Lithuania," Russophobia, anti-Semitism and aiding the Nazis.
The Russian media (including the outlets claiming to be independent) assert that by supporting the Belarusian opposition the Lithuanian leadership intervened in the internal affairs of Belarus and thereby drove its policy vis-à-vis its neighbor into a dead end. For example, Kommersant shifts the blame for the current migrant crisis onto Vilnius. According to the newspaper's logic, Vilnius simply makes its own life harder:
"... Alexander Lukashenko has said Minsk is "ready to sit down at the table" of negotiations and discuss the conditions for overcoming the crisis. However, the Lithuanian authorities are unlikely to go along. Last September they announced they did not consider him a legitimate president. They made that abundantly clear in Vilnius on Monday by assigning diplomatic status to the office of the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Thus, Lithuania is faced with a dilemma: the official position of Vilnius does not allow direct negotiations with the Belarusian authorities, while Svetlana Tikhanovskaya cannot influence the migrant situation in any way".
The pro-Kremlin political scientist Grigory Yoffe from Radford University (Virginia, USA), whose articles often appear on the pro-Kremlin portal Lenta.ru, accuses the Lithuanians of infantilism:
"First, the Lithuanians shut down their Ignalina nuclear power plant in 2009 at the request of the EU. Now a Belarusian nuclear power plant (BelNPP) has been built next to Lithuania and it seemed like an opportunity to buy cheap electricity, but they decided to condemn it. It resembles a situation when a child hits the table running and then punishes the said table by angrily banging his fist against it. When Lithuania punishes Belarus by economic sanctions, while being dependent on Belarusian cargo flows, psychologically it resembles a split personality. Then they will be crying for help. Naturally, they are at the forefront of the fight against the dictatorship and they are counting on the EU's help. But in reality, they have been inflicting a lot of damage on themselves".
The newspaper Izvestia came out with a loud headline "The Bundestag called the construction of the wall on the Lithuania-Belarus border a circus show." The newspaper uses an old trick by presenting the opinion of one of the 709 deputies, a USSR native Voldemar Gerdt, as the opinion of the entire parliament. At the same time, Izvestia does not mention that Gerdt represents the Alternative for Germany party which has close ties with the Kremlin and has been advocating the recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory.
What's in it for the Kremlin?
The heads of state and non-state media receive recommendations on how to cover important events for the Kremlin directly from First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian President's Administration Alexei Gromov and his staff, who supply the media with so-called temniks (instructions). In the case of Belarus, these temniks serve two main purposes, closely related.
First, at any cost not to let Belarus out of Russia' sphere of influence, as happened with Ukraine. Ukraine's "exit" is perceived in Moscow, and personally by Putin, as extremely painful – as witnessed by Putin's recent article and his video comments on it. Secondly, from the point of view of the Putin regime, no "orange revolution" should be allowed in Belarus. The overthrow of Lukashenko, no matter how bad his image is, compared to Putin's, in the opinion of the Russian leadership may create a bad precedent for disgruntled Russians who do not trust the authorities. During the pandemic, this has been strongly underscored by the massive reluctance to be vaccinated with any of the vaccines developed in Russia, especially Sputnik V which has been widely advertised by the government. The Kremlin is concerned about the loyalty of the population on the eve of the imitation "elections" to the State Duma, scheduled for September 19. This is evidenced by the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, the strongest pressure on the human rights community, and the unprecedented sweeping purge of the media in which the independent Meduza, VTimes and Proekt were declared "undesirable organizations".
But in addition to those two purely domestic goals, there is a third one, which Moscow has been striving to attain for years. After all, propaganda is also able to reach those whom the Kremlin considers "compatriots," that is, Russian-speaking residents of other countries, especially those who live in countries that are "unfriendly" from the point of view of the Putin regime, such as the Baltic states. The Russian leadership wants to undermine the confidence of the citizens of those countries in the policies their governments pursue and infect them with the dangerous germ of cynicism that destroys trust in democratic institutions.
This article is prepared jointly with The Insider, an independent online newspaper specializing in investigative journalism, fact-checking and political analytics.