Updated at 14:52,24-02-2021

Belarusian authorities unable to resist Russian propaganda

Artyom Shraibman, BelarusDigest

On 24 June Aliaksandr Lukashenka, on a visit to defence industry enterprises in Barysau, said that his personal major priority is maintaining the security of the state.

The Ukrainian crisis demonstrated that a state can preserve military security only if it has effective defence against informational threats.

However, in this area of national security Belarus seems virtually helpless against the deep penetration of Russian state propaganda into Belarusian media space.

Liberalising the media with an emphasis on promoting its national interests and identity may have at one time been the most feasible path to improve the situation. But the authorities fear the risks of changing the political status quo and avoid any reforms.

Exposed Informational Flank

The informational realm in which most of Belarusians live has never been truly Belarusian. Russian TV channels dominate in Belarus and always have.

All of the Russian central federal channels that provide pro-Kremlin news – 1st Channel, "Russia" Channel, NTV and others – broadcast in Belarus. Belarusian state TV news coverage includes such channels as Belarus-1, Belarus-2, CTV and ONT.

Though the proportion of Belarusian to Russian would at first glance appear almost equal, in fact TV audiences tend to trust Russian news over its domestic counterparts. Russian channels are much more well funded, look more professional and have historically been less biased, or to put it differently, not as straight-forward propagandistic as Belarusian TV. The latter has changed as of late, but public perception remains the same.

Occasionally the Belarusian authorities censor Russian TV when it criticises or mocks Lukashenka personally, but this is indeed a rare event. The risk here being that heavier censorship would more than likely make Russia resentful.

Of course, the opposition-minded Belarusian channel Belsat does any airtime on Belarus cable TV. To watch it one has to purchase a satellite - and the number of satellite TV viewers throughout Belarus remains extremely low.

Regarding alternative sources of information, pro-government newspapers dominate the market of print media and online media has failed to become a serious alternative to TV. Although more than 60% of Belarusians use the Internet, not all of them use it for the news.

As the founder of the most popular web-site in Belarus Tut.by Jury Ziser put it: "By-net [the Belarusian segment of Internet] has become more pop-like". By this he means that after the rapid spread of Internet access throughout Belarus new users appeared to be more interested in entertainment and not in receiving independent news.

As a result, the Belarusian authorities have managed to limit the freedom of the independent media, but have also generally failed to provide protection for the country’s media and informational environment from potential Russian interventions. The information war surrounding the Ukrainian crisis has shown just how dangerous such defencelessness can be.

Blatant Propaganda Works Better

Russian and Belarusian state media coverage of the events in Ukraine have been notably different. Belarusian state TV pursued its typical tactics, attempting to achieve some level of balance between the two conflicting parties. Thus, coverage of Ukraine was usually bordering on being impartial, with special emphasis only being placed on the horrors of Ukrainian destabilisation. These scenes were meant to have Belarusians appreciate their nation's stability and reject any sentiments of revolution.

At the same time, Russian coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, by many assessments, surpassed even Soviet propaganda with its level of bias, plain lies, its demonisation of its opponents, and even occasional blatant xenophobia towards Ukrainians.

All those who disagree with the Kremlin's policies, including the Ukrainian government, get labelled as being fascists. Opponents of the anti-Ukraine propaganda campaign have launched a special web-site, Stopfake.org, to expose the daily lies eminating out of Russian TV.

In Russia the impact of this propagandistic treatment of the crisis in Ukraine has exceeded all expectations: according to the polls of the leading Russian independent sociological institution Levada Centre, Putin’s support rate has mushroomed to 81% at the beginning of June, with 88% supporting the annexation of Crimea. Sociologists have explained the reason for this significant shift in public opinion: 94% of respondents said they got their news about Ukraine from Russian TV.

In Belarus, its impact was not nearly as impressive but the excessively emotional, anti-western message from Russian TV, especially on the basis of its, sacred to a majority of Belarusians, anti-fascist rhetoric, it appeared to be far more effective than the restrained coverage provided by Belarusian state media.

Belarusian authorities unable to resist Russian propaganda

This table demonstrates that Belarusians’ views have immensely shifted towards a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation over the three month period stretching from December 2013 - March 2014 (26.6% growth). The polls pending to come out in June will likely show this trend continuing to gain ground due to fact that the intensity of Russian propagandistic coverage has only increased since March.

Meanwhile, the growth of pro-Russian views in a country like Belarus – which is problematic in terms of its national identity issues – can be rather dangerous for the future of its independence. Precisely these kinds of views among the local population have become impetus for the success of the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilising efforts in Eastern Ukraine.

How to Ensure Informational Security?

In its conflict with Ukraine, Russia uses its state media as a tool for obtaining its geopolitical goals. Polls show it is working rather effectively. So, what would be the most appropriate defence against such a weapon?

The Ukrainian government went as far as shutting down Russia's federal (state) TV channels and prohibiting them from broadcasting within its borders. The Belarusian authorities cannot, and do not, want to pursue the same path. Russia remains a geopolitical ally and its largest economic supporter, so simply turning off its TV channels in Belarus could be too risky.

Media expert and political observer Aliaksandr Klaskouski believes that the only feasible response can be "the development of an independent national Belarusian media space", as he stated to Belarus Digest.

This means liberalising the whole gamut of media outlets and not interfering in the process of strengthening Belarus' national identity and patriotism by encouraging independent media to flourish on its own.

Had the government pursued this path earlier, it could have created the first line of an effective defence needed in any informational war that Russia might wage.

But at least two problems stand in its way. First of all, the Belarusian authorities are not in the habit of thinking strategically: they are too busy dealing with day-to-day issues, running the economy in through excessive micro-management. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that, generally, they fail to foresee the challenges the country may face in the middle- or long-run.

Most importantly, however, reliance on strengthening the Belarusian national identity or a free, dynamic media contradicts the very essence of the Belarusian regime. When choosing between a gradual, calm slide deeper and deeper into the sphere of Russian influence or developing institutions of an independent state, Lukashenka inevitably chooses the former. It seems safer to him, allowing him to balance (without unexpected hiccups) that may be implied by any liberalisation or upsurge of the Belarusian national spirit.

As a result Belarus is caught in an unenviable trap. Russian information policy has become a significant security threat in the region, but the Belarusian government remains impotent and unable to address this challenge because it is either afraid of Russia's possible reaction or fears to lose its own base of power.