Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert
At a meeting in Luxembourg on June 21, the EU Council adopted the fourth, most extensive and painful package of personal sanctions against the regime in Belarus. The sanctions list includes 78 Belarusian officials, including those closest to Alexander Lukashenko, and 8 companies. EU sanctions, which include freezing assets and visa bans, have been supported to varying degrees by the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
And on June 24, the Council of the European Union officially introduced new sectoral sanctions against the Belarusian economy in response to the worsening human rights situation in the country, harsh repressions against the opposition and journalists, the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk, and the arrest of Roman Protasevich.
iSANS, the international initiative to counter hybrid influence in Eastern Europe, has released a report on the Kremlin’s interference in the Belarusian agenda after the presidential elections on August 9, 2020.
Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert
The Telegram messenger was accessed by 500 million monthly users this year. The main difference between it and other platforms is its anonymity, lack of censorship, and uncontrolled distribution of information. These capabilities quickly became in demand by Kremlin media.
For «packing» and subsequent dissemination of information the Kremlin often uses Telegram channels, which are administered from Russia. Subsequently, this information quickly spreads through networks of interconnected channels and moves into the media.
The top Russian-language political channels for April 2021 include channels from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Of the 20 most popular, 13 are anonymous. This creates an ideal field for promoting Russian narratives and makes Telegram a convenient tool for information campaigns and operations.
At the same time, unlike traditional media, the dissemination of information in Telegram is unlimited and Russian-language materials are actively re-posted in Ukraine and Belarus. This was picked up by the Kremlin and, in parallel with large Russian channels, they run or control networks of smaller regional ones, both in Belarus and in Ukraine.
How the Kremlin learned to control Telegram
Most of the major Telegram channels about politics are controlled either directly from the Kremlin or by Kremlin-adjacent structures and groups of influence. The loyalty of anonymous channels has been the result of focused work and large-scale cash injections. The goal is to try to control the mood over the internet, discredit the opposition, and develop a pro-government agenda.
Some channels were purchased, and the owners of others were intimidated and suppressed. By the time the blocking (April 2018 to June 2020) of Telegram was rescinded the Kremlin had gained full control over the political segment of the service.
Areas of work in Belarus
Having learned to use Telegram for internal needs, the Kremlin is assigning the same methods to influence Belarus. It is possible to trace clear directions of the use of Kremlin-controlled channels relative to Belarus.
Stories are aimed at supporting the idea of the need for deepening integration with Russia; discrediting and splitting the Belarusian protest; creating an image of an enemy from the U.S., EU, and Ukraine; and creating an attitude towards Lukashenko depending on the agenda at a given time.
The latter succeeds especially well, since Lukashenko, who monitors the (primarily Russian) stories of the main Telegram channels, is an excellent target for practicing reflexive methods of control.
After the protests in Belarus changed character due to the threat of physical eradication of participants, Lukashenko’s main task was to clean up the internal political field quickly and totally, so that by the time of even simulated constitutional reform there would be no hint of opposition. The Kremlin immediately took advantage of this, throwing in information about a split among the Belarusian opposition.
It is important for Moscow to take advantage of the situation and obtain from Lukashenko concessions and obligations that it will be impossible to win back, no matter how the political situation in Belarus develops. At the same time, Russia continues to force Belarus to deepen integration and strengthen military cooperation.
The protest potential of Belarusian society and the West’s support for Belarusians’ appeal for democratic changes irritate the Kremlin and force it to operate more actively. Demonstration of a common threat from the West plays into the hands of both Lukashenko and Putin. Moscow uses it to get almost any concessions it wants from Belarus, and Lukashenko uses it to gain a foothold and legalize the destruction of political opponents.
The Kremlin has not yet succeeded in guaranteeing fully controlled leaders and political projects in Belarus that could simultaneously meet the political demands of Belarusians and ensure Russia’s strategic interests in the region. Therefore, Russian propaganda is forced to act selectively at this stage to support and make use of Lukashenko’s legitimacy. At the same time, the idea is being promoted that Lukashenko has remained in power only thanks to Putin and the Kremlin but remains ungrateful.
The Kremlin seeks to play off the creation of an imaginary political competition in Belarus, to form controlled political parties, and at the same time to act to split a possible union of supporters of the Belarusian protest. One of the Kremlin’s methods aimed at imposing its own agenda on Belarusians is to inject information about Lukashenko’s dissatisfaction with Russia and on the beginning of the process of transition of power.
To maintain and strengthen this agenda, the Kremlin uses controlled «leaks,» «insiders,» and «rumors.» This conspiracy is spreading through several large Russian anonymous Telegram channels that set the trend for further stories on channels and media from the pro-Kremlin pool.
How it works
To understand how the information dissemination scheme through Telegram works, we will consider several similar «packings» using the example of popular Telegram channels. We will look at the anonymous Nezygar channel and that of the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow, Aleksey Venediktov, «aavst,» which systematically throw in information supporting the main direction of the Kremlin’s work vis-a-vis Belarus. The Nezygar channel now has 337,000 subscribers and Venediktov has 133,000.
On December 23, 2020, Nezygar wrote: «In government circles in Minsk they say that Lukashenko is leaving the presidency in the spring. Against this background, the Western party will clearly try to seize the initiative.»
«They will try to increase the number of their supporters among MPs and seize the most important posts in government.» For the sake of reliability, the post is supported by a quote from an unnamed source who is close to «government circles.»
On February 17, Nezygar writes:«Minsk is reporting that Lukashenko’s team is preparing an ‘alternate airfield’ in the West. Bargaining is taking place for the conditions of care in exchange for the interests of the Family. The Vatican could become the guarantor of compliance with agreements.»
On February 23, Nezygar published a message saying that «in Belarus, the ‘Yeltsin scenario’ for the transition of power may be chosen.» With reference to several sources both in Russia and in Belarus, it is reported that, «Lukashenko in Sochi asked for another six months to complete the «transition of power.» Moscow will act as a guarantor of compliance with the agreements during the «transition.» «Lukashenko must hold a meeting with the opposition before May 1, including with Coordination Council members Latushko and Tikhanovskaya, Babariko and Kolesnikova should be released by April 15.»
As we see, the events taking place confirm the opposite development of the situation. Nezygar’s prediction about Lukashenko’s meeting with Latushko and Tikhanovskaya before May 1 is unlikely to come true. Rather the opposite since the regime accused the protest leaders of terrorism.
In the last month, no discussions of the situation in Belarus happened without mentioning Aleksey Venediktov’s prediction about a certain turning point on May 1. On March 25, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow on his channel «aavst» published a sensational story about Lukashenko and the opposition holding talks with the participation of the OSCE and the U.S. Venediktov refers to a telephone conversation between U.S. State Department adviser Derek Chollet and Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. According to Venediktov, during this conversation the terms and conditions of negotiations between the opposition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian authorities were discussed.
The original post received 90,000 views on the channel itself and was widely disseminated through other media and Telegram channels, including Nezygar. This led not only to the viral dissemination of Venediktov’s «insider information,» but also to the fact that close political observers were busy discussing whether this was true and whether Lukashenko would meet with the opposition.
Even the most implausible information, deliberately «leaked» onto a large Telegram channel, becomes widespread and sets the direction for the information agenda.
On April 9, Nezygar supported the issue of the imminent transfer of power and reported that «Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters is preparing for negotiations with Lukashenko.» Now, however, the deadline has been postponed, and it was specified that «the process will drag on until October.» Germany is lobbying the talks this time, but Makei, who is again actively involved, «promised the opposition the release of political prisoners, registration of parties, fair elections to local councils, and the closing of criminal cases against opposition leaders. In return, Tikhanovskaya must recognize Lukashenko as the winner of the elections.»
On April 21, before Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, Nezygar published a poll asking «What will be in the President’s message?» with multiple responses – «integration with the DPR and LPR,» «integration with Belarus,» «a last warning to the West» – which fully supports the Kremlin’s pumping of information both on the eve of Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly and before the Lukashenko-Putin meeting on April 22.
This systemic information «packing» is designed to instill in Belarusians the belief that Russia is controlling political changes in Belarus and is a determining factor in the internal policy of Belarus, regardless of who is the leader.
Attempts to split the protest movement
Using controlled channels on Telegram, the Kremlin is also seeking to create a negative image of the leaders of the Belarusian protest and create a split between the main groups. This process is fueled informationally by the actions of the Belarusian security forces. In addition to trying to portray the leaders of the protest as terrorists, Russian propagandists use the following techniques:
publish materials about people who supposedly will make actual decisions under the formal leadership of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya;
toss in information about the split in the protest movement, using for this, among other things, the fact of Latushko and Babariko creating their own political parties;
disseminate information about the proximity of the leaders of the protest to top officials from Lukashenko’s circle, specifically the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Makei;
accuse Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s partner organizations and those close to her of cooperating with all kinds of special services.
An example was the campaign aimed at discrediting the unity of the Belarusian protest, namely about the existence of conflict between Pavel Latushko and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, which began in the fall of 2020. On November 4, Nezygar writes that «the Belarusian opposition has split into two camps. One center was formed in Lithuania headed by Tikhanovskaya under the supervision of CIA agent Franak Viacorka. In Warsaw, the former Minister of Culture Pavel Latushko is heading the government in exile and Valery Tsepkalo was appointed the shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs.»
On December 23, Nezygar, referring to the GopSelMash Telegram channel, published a post saying that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Makei «turned out to be a «petri dish» for raising oppositionists» and that «some of the main opposition figures – Tsepkalo and Latushko – are suddenly working as ambassadors.» It is worth noting that this channel with 618 subscribers had a post that garnered 80,000 views.
On February 5, Nezygar again reposted an article by GopSelMash, in which former Prime Minister of Belarus Sergei Rumas was named «among the leaders of the «government of the transition period.»«They say that Tikhanovskaya will be the symbolic head and Rumas will be the real head of the government. The ex-prime minister was also named among the leaders of the «government in transition.» This post also received over 78,000 views.
An analysis of the content and focus of Telegram channels shows that the Kremlin uses them, along with other media, to conduct information operations in Belarus. Their main task is to curb protest movements, discredit the opposition, and help Lukashenko to clean up the political field in Belarus, while simultaneously putting pressure on him to realize necessary integration concessions.
Introducing multidirectional messages and narratives into the information field leads to the creation of controlled chaos. And this is the most advantageous situation for the Kremlin, because then it becomes much easier to impose its agenda on Minsk. This also applies to deepening integration with Russia and in justifying the need to strengthen the military presence of Russia in Belarus, in addition to the creation and use of political projects controlled by the Kremlin.
Alongside with intimidating Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Europe in general with military force, the Kremlin is also stepping up its undercurrent of anti-European rhetoric, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, which are also clearly part of their battle strategy, evidential in modern-day life on a large, abundant global scale.
Reżim w Mińsku jest skazany na szukanie nowych wrogów, ponieważ organy bezpieczeństwa muszą udowodnić swoją niezbędność. Na krótką metę pomaga to utrzymać sytuację pod kontrolą, ale jednocześnie skraca czas życia reżimu.