Updated at 20:51,24-11-2020

Russian media attack Belarus: Minsk remains on the Kremlin radar

Aleś Čajčyc, BelarusDigest

Several months after the October presidential elections in Belarus, conservative and Kremlin-affiliated Russian media and commentators have again turned their attention to Belarus.

They warn of an alleged rise in "Russophobia" in Belarus, and criticise the West for plotting to tear the country away from Russia. The last such attack took place in late 2014 but then faded as the Belarusian presidential elections approached.

With Russia's economy in trouble and the regime of President Alexander Lukashenka seeking rapprochement with the West, Kremlin pressure on Belarus may increase.

Belarus Targeted in Russia

Rather aggressive articles targeting Belarus have once again appeared on various Russian online media portals over the past few weeks: Lenta.ru, an influential, state-controlled online outlet; Sputnik i Pogrom, the well-known nationalistic website; and Pravda, the once-powerful communist newspaper - to name just a few.

All texts contain a near-identical set of messages, indicating that they are part of a coordinated media campaign. As is usual, they all criticise the promotion of Belarusian traditions, language and culture in Belarus, and accuse Lukashenka's regime of being tolerant of "Nazis" and '"Russophobes".

"Until recently, Belarusian nationalists were perceived as marginal and were represented in society by a small layer of radical youth and intelligentsia" - writes Lenta.ru in reference to the Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine. "However, the war in Donbass has changed everything. (...) The influence of youth [nationalistic extremist] organisations in Belarus is growing exponentially".

"Recently, elements of [nationalism] have actively started entering the official ideology of Belarus. This has first of all to do with the infiltration of petty local nationalists into government bodies and state-close organisations", writes Sputnik i Pogrom.

Some articles go as far as painting a picture of repression against Russian-speakers in Belarus. This is an absurd accusation given that it is the Belarusian language that remains seriously discriminated against in Belarus. Public life in Belarus continues to be dominated by Russian culture and Russian language.

Russian nationalist groups, including paramilitary cossack organisations, enjoy loyalty from Belarusian state officials and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest religious organisation in Belarus. Most of the articles also criticise Lukashenka's alleged turn to the West and warn Belarus of a scenario of civil unrest like that which Ukraine has faced.

Offline, Belarus-related activity in Russia has increased as well. In Moscow, a conference called BeloRusskiy Dialog took place on January 26, featuring a number of Russian nationalists and Kremlin-affiliated experts, along with a few members of the moderate Belarusian opposition. Three more such conferences are planned for later this year.

The press release summarising the results of the BeloRusskiy Dialog conference states that "The attempts (...) to isolate Russia from political processes in Belarus and its international relations carry serious threats to social economic and political stability in Belarus ... In parts of Belarusian society, anti-Russian sentiment is growing; there is a widespread ban on citizens educated in Russia or those with positive feelings towards Russia working in Belarusian state bodies".

Just a day earlier on January 25 a group of influential Russian nationalist leaders and writers created a political alliance. "In the future, we must direct our policy towards reunification of the Russian people within one state. By Russians we mean the triuny of Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and Byelorussians", wrote one of the members of the alliance when describing its priorities.

Shrinking resources change Kremlin's international agenda

After a rapid decline in oil prices and exacerbated by Western sanctions, the Russian economy now faces problems which it has not faced since the crisis of 1998, if not since the late 1980s. Economic difficulties have already caused some social unrest - from striking truck drivers to protesting foreign currency mortgage holders.

Russia has therefore adjusted its international activity. By involving high-ranking personalities like Vladislav Surkov and Boris Gryzlov, it is showing serious interest in the fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements to partially lift Western sanctions against Russia.

On the other hand, Russia is not the only one in economic trouble. Over the past decades, Lukashenka's regime in Belarus has been heavily dependent on Russian economic support. In the coming years, this help is likely to disappear. This will weaken Lukashenka's authority.

Belarus needs external economic support and is currently in talks with both the IMF and Russia to receive loans. As Russia's resources became more scarce, it is to the West that Lukashenka is more and more actively looking for help.

Trading loyalty to Russia against economic benefits is what Moscow wants to prevent Lukashenka from doing. The public discussion of a threat of a Ukraine-like scenario for Belarus might therefore be a warning message to Lukashenka from conservative groups in the Kremlin.

Putin's rating and the imaginary Western threat to Belarus

The Russian media for several years painted a picture of a threat from phantomic Western-sponsored enemies to Ukraine and its Russian speaking population. After that, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass followed. Now the same picture is being painted of Belarus.

Following the annexation of Crimea and the wider confrontation with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings in Russia skyrocketed from 45 per cent in November 2013 to 87 per cent in November 2015. A "rescue" of Belarus from a phantomic Western threat might help boost Putin's public support once again, should his ratings fall because of economic problems.

Whether the benefits of unfriendly actions against Belarus will prevail over their costs for the Kremlin is not yet clear. Moscow is likely to have several scenarios on the table and will act depending on the situation.