The U.S. and its allies in the region, the Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine, are the usual targets of Russia’s state-owned media. But recently Kremlin-controlled channels seem to have turned on Moscow’s longtime regional friend Belarus, making many in Minsk very nervous.
Nominally one of Moscow’s closest allies, Belarus doesn’t regularly feature in Russian media. But since late 2016, a flurry of talk-shows and articles have addressed an alleged rise in Belarusian nationalism that, according to the coverage, if left unchecked by Moscow, could lead to a Maidan-style uprising in this NATO-border state.
Ultra-conservative, fringe sites sympathetic to the Kremlin account for much of this coverage, but more influential, government-run entities like the First Channel and Regnum news agency promote the claims, too.
The question is why.
Belarus is often referred to as Russia’s closest ally, but it is a purely transactional relationship, often described as “oil for kisses.” Generous subsidies for Russian energy imports and massive Russian loans have long propped up the Belarusian economy and, in exchange, Moscow gains the loyalty of a buffer-state between Russia and NATO.
Over the years, though, Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has done his own thing. He did not endorse Russia’s takeover of Crimea or the Russia-aligned rebels in eastern Ukraine, and has made overtures to the Kremlin’s rivals when he doesn’t get his way — most recently, in backing “brotherly Ukraine” and a strong European Union while demanding lower prices for Russian gas supplies.
Lukashenko has long used such tactics, but the conflict in neighboring Ukraine and talk of a “new Cold War” have raised their risk dramatically.
In February, after Belarus announced plans for visa-free travel for short-term visitors from 80 countries, including EU members and the U.S., Russia promptly erected checkpoints for the first time along the countries’ shared border — a move which Lukashenko has warned could trigger a “serious conflict.” Already, Russia has deployed two mechanized military brigades close to the Belarusian border.
“Russia would like to turn Belarus into a military outpost, to put pressure on Ukraine and the EU,” comments Arseny Sivitsky, director and founder of the non-governmental Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies. “We think that Belarus may be the next strategic surprise of Russia.”
Others don’t go so far. Security analyst Andrei Porotnikov, a former police investigator who now works for the Belarus Security Blog, sees a longer-term strategy against Lukashenko.
“They’re not trying to get rid of him, but to weaken him,” so that before the 2019 presidential elections “Lukashenko will go to them on his knees asking for money so as to retain his power,” he predicts.
In an ex-Soviet republic where Russian is still the lingua franca, state-controlled Russian TV is a powerful conduit for reaching either goal. Most Belarusians still get their news primarily from television. Rebroadcasts of government-run Russian channels account for four out of the nine TV channels available free-of-charge in Belarus.
The authorities in Minsk are well aware of Moscow’s ability to influence public opinion.
“A majority of Belorusians support Russia’s position on Ukraine, Donbass and Crimea. They believe that there are Nazis there [in Ukraine],” says Belarusian opposition politician Mikola Statkevich. “They support Russia because they watch Russian TV.”
Particularly during ongoing protests in Belarus against the president, that support could become critical.
But Minsk already has a counter-measure in place.
For years, the government-controlled Belarusian channels (Belarus RTR, NTV-Belarus, ONT, STV) which rebroadcast Russian TV programs have removed any controversial content about Belarusian politics before airing the shows.
On these hybrid channels, the evening news comes from Moscow first, Minsk second. The live Moscow broadcast starts a few minutes later in Belarus for on-the-spot censorship, according to Michal Janczuk, deputy chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. If a program contains something negative about Belarus, advertising takes the report’s place.
The Belarusian government began this practice as a way to counter any “negative information campaign against Belarus,” explains Dzianis Melyantsou, a senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a non-governmental think-tank in Minsk.
Offending content, such as a 2010 NTV anti-Lukashenko documentary called “The Godfather,” may not air in Belarus, but the message for the Belarusian government is clear.
Belarusian channels do their best to air counter-propaganda about Russia. “Constantly on Belarusian TV, we have small pieces of information, negative information, about Russia. About their turmoil, about their corruption, about the oligarchs,” says Melyantsou.
The only channel considered to be an independent source of TV news in Belarus is the satellite channel Belsat TV, but it now faces an uncertain future. The channel is mostly funded by the Polish government as part of Warsaw’s broader democratic initiatives in Belarus, but Poland recently cancelled its contract with the channel; a move which may leave Belarus with no source of uncensored TV news.
But Melyantsou believes that Russia’s critical coverage of Belarus isn’t just intended for the Belarusian market.
“They are preparing the Russian population for the idea that there could be some kind of conflict with Belarus,” he claims. “Not on the scale of the Ukrainian conflict, but the Russian authorities are very angry about the Belarusian position towards Ukraine and the conflict in Donbass.”
Yet Lukashenko does not play a one-handed game. On March 21, amid reported energy talks with Russia, he charged that “Western foundations,” Western intelligence services and Belarusians who had “fled” the country are using the protests to stir up trouble in Belarus. Russian media nodded approvingly.
Lukashenko’s accusation, however, did not prevent him from publicly inviting NATO to observe joint military exercises with Russia, scheduled for this September.
“Lukashenko tries to make [President Vladimir] Putin nervous, and there is this kind of game [where he says] ‘I’m going, I’ll be gone for good!’ But where can he go? Who would support him?” asks politician Statkevitch.
Ultimately, analyst Porotnikov believes, Lukashenko himself is nervous. “Crimea showed that it is difficult to forecast what the Kremlin will do. It is not often rational...”
Meanwhile, with Belarusian media muddied by disinformation, analysts in Minsk are divided over how the situation with Russia will play out.
Belarusians “cannot understand the truth, this is impossible,” says analyst Melyantsou. “Here, there is propaganda from every direction...”