16/06/2020Olga Kevere, strategic director of iSANS
The most well-known influence operations by the Kremlin are in misinformation and in the field of election interference.
The result of activities aimed at blurring the concept of the truth, the tasks of journalism, and turning the information field into competing narratives has been dubbed post-truth and appeared even before the Kremlin’s large-scale operations. However, as a result of large-scale actions in the area of information, post-truth has turned out to be most closely associated with the work of Kremlin technocrats.
If we look at the history of Kremlin interference in the elections of other countries, we find that the first “teams” for such operations appeared immediately after the first color revolutions. Formally, they were engaged in “alternative” election observation, but in reality they were deployed under the cover of “election observation” teams of technologists to export domestic Russian techniques to neighboring countries. The “pinnacle” of election intervention was the case of meddling in the US election, the methods of which are detailed in various reports.
In fact, we can say that now we are dealing with yet another phenomenon — post-elections. As a result of post-elections the voting audience becomes engaged in a stream of confusing messages and emotional targeted influences in place of sensible, open political discussion.
Elections, as an instrument of democracy, are already going through difficult times for a number of reasons. Even in older established democracies built on the inviolability of a social contract and civil rights, societies, despite existing values, traditions, and practices, turn out to be vulnerable to various manipulations.
In the case of new democracies – countries with transitional forms of government and weakening autocracies – societies are especially vulnerable. Since the skills of political discussion are underdeveloped or lost, there are no unshakable fundamental foundations of social structure, the work of national independent media is complicated or suppressed, and civil society has a limited space for action. For Kremlin operations, this is an ideal situation and the propaganda machinery can run full steam.
- The case of Belarus — landscape and scenarios
- Russian media mirror of Belarusian election
- What happens next?
The case of Belarus — landscape and scenarios
The pre-election Belarus represents precisely this kind of ideal situation. In addition to the factors listed above, Belarus is a part of the Russian-speaking universe and traditionally connected with Russia at different levels. This gives space for action to both the Russian media and the network of propaganda websites decorated as media, social media, and Telegram channels of various kinds. The information and public space on the eve of the start of the election campaign was rattled by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and impending economic problems.
For those who have been watching the aggravation of “brotherly love” with Russia for the past 18-24 months amid attempts by the Kremlin to launch “deeper integration”, the intrigue of the current elections was about how the Kremlin would play in the Belarusian election field and which scenarios may be deployed here. Expectations were fueled by regular “messages” through Russian Telegram channels and media about the upcoming elections, over the course of which Belarus “does not need unnecessary shocks”.
When modeling the situation, iSANS experts considered possible scenarios that could be sitting on desks in Kremlin offices and triggered by various circumstances.
Among possible scenarios:
1. Simple, easy “rocking the boat.” This would lead to a decrease in the legitimacy of the incumbent and provoke possible repressive actions. At the very least, such repressive actions would lead to another “cooling off” towards the West and, with a bit of luck, to purging civil society and media, leaving room for pro-Russian figures and narratives. This scenario, oddly enough, has no need for an openly pro-Russian candidate. It would suffice to leave the COVID crisis unaddressed or by making do with modest investments through third parties in any actions leading to moderate destabilization. The main background would be created through actions involving information. COVID-19 and the economic crisis would take care of the rest, evolving into a political crisis to be curbed by harsh repressions.
2. “Controlled” serious “rocking of the boat” is, in reality, the creation of “managed chaos”. Here, the “ingredients” are almost the same as the goals, but the costs of “rocking the boat” would be much greater. Provocateurs, mercenary agents similar to Ukrainian “titushki”, would be needed here to bring the situation at some point to a degree of tension such that either Minsk would have to ask Moscow for help or Moscow would help brotherly to suppress unrest. In this situation the incumbent stays in office, but completely loses his decision-making autonomy and then “vacates” his seat in the next election. In fact, it is the “Yanukovych scenario” in its successful form.
The civil society and the media gets completely mopped up, bang goes the “Western vector”. This scenario is feasible, however, only when there is confidence that Belarusians will not resist “fraternal help” too strongly, otherwise it will turn bloody and ugly. In a way, it’s the “Crimea” scenario they want, not “Donbass”.
3. “Russian candidate”. The scenario in which one of the alternative candidates “takes off” and gains popularity amid crises.
Even the post-Soviet space has many examples, including those involving the Kremlin. The fugitive Kyrgyz president Bakiev could probably tell the story here of his defeat.
In this scenario, we can outline two options:
- The candidate does not get registered and there is unrest. Then either scenario 1 or 2 is enacted or the situation develops towards the registration of candidates and conditionally free elections.
- The candidate gets registered and in the election receives a majority of votes in the first round or wins in the second round. This requires street pressure, support from the Kremlin, and support from some part of the security forces.
In principle, such a scenario in its opening stage does not require an agreement between the Kremlin and the candidates, and for the time being it can unfold as “scenario 1”, creating room for maneuvering. Then, in a critical situation, explanatory-coercive negotiations are held with the candidate.
In such a situation, however, there is a serious ideological difficulty for the Kremlin, for the current Russian government supporting and recognizing the “revolutionary” scenario is taboo. This is owing to attitudes to the “color” revolutions and because of Ukraine and its current situation. Domestically no one dares to consider such an option. The ratings show that Russia’s aging power vertical is far from being universally supported.
In order to use the third scenario propagandists would have to work very hard, in reality presenting Alexander Lukashenko as a “Maidan actor” and a “Westerner”, monopolizing power while the will of the people lies with a legally elected new president. The task is difficult, but not impossible.
In order to implement such a scenario though one needs full confidence in controlling events during a shift in power and in honoring agreements with the candidate. One must be also completely sure that most security officials and governing elites agree with this scenario.
In short, such a scenario carries a lot of risks and costs, but is not entirely impossible.
Russian media mirror of Belarusian election
Disclaimer: iSANS does not support any candidate running in these elections and draws no conclusion about their affiliation with any interest group. The objective of this section is to share findings about the lines of Russian media narratives regarding the Belarusian elections.
Outlining the general landscape of the actions of Russian media at the onset of the election we should point out one important general detail. The current situation is unique in its own way — in fact, all Russian media are “on the side of the choice of the Belarusian people” hit by the economic and COVID crises. All they need to do is “just cover” the campaign.
Ironically, all Russian media and public actors are playing against Lukashenko now — both the traditional “liberal” opponents and those directly affiliated with the Russian vertical of state power.
It has been a safe bet that the liberal media remaining in Russia would be writing about repressions, people’s discontent, protests and the surrender of sovereignty, and doing so with a bite, causing irritation in Minsk. This situation is dangerous primarily for Russian liberals themselves and their colleagues from the Belarusian democratic arena. Should the Kremlin greenlight the first of the scenarios the primary blame for a “disobedience festival” will be bestowed on Russian and Belarusian democrats and there is little doubt that the Kremlin, in the event of a reconciliation with Lukashenko, will frame everything as a conspiracy of “the West, Russian liberals, Russian fugitive oligarchs and the Belarusian opposition.” There have already been the first signs of this.
What is unique is that so far there have been virtually no messages about insidious machinations of Western-oriented opposition in connection with the elections. However, this is understandable — the Russians are awarding the title of the biggest “nationalist” to Lukashenko himself.
In fact, in a number of media we see the development of arguments to support the “third scenario” — namely, the transformation of Lukashenko in the eyes of at least Russian audiences into a “Maidan actor” who seized and holds on to power. The imp implication is that Lukashenko’s rating is now so low that in the case of popular unrest over the elections, this would be not a color revolution at all, but rather the will of the people who want a president who can negotiate with Moscow.
Vzglyad, which is directly connected with the Russian Presidential Administration, draws a parallel between the “raiding” of Belgazprombank and the “takeover of Sberbank” in Kiev after Maidan. Other mass media also feature “Maidan manuals” in their headlines.
Like all the Kremlin’s instruments, however, this package for turning the incumbent president of Belarus into a Maidan actor pursues several goals. In addition to “preparation” for a third scenario this is also a message for Minsk on the need to curtail the “Western vector” and “Belarusization” if they’re looking to have peaceful elections.
This theory also encompasses the idea of discontent with Lukashenko’s current policy among security officials. It is assumed that the military “will not be shielding Lukashenko from a Maidan” or even take a decisive stand in cases of crisis:
“Given that after a dozen years of absence there will be a US ambassador in Belarus with apparently broad powers to counter Russia, the picture is not very pleasant for the Kremlin. Not only does Lukashenko not intend to give in to the Moscow party in the presidential elections in August, he is also purging pro-Kremlin forces in Belarus and actively enlisting the support of traditional Western opponents (if not adversaries) of the Russian governing regime. Lukashenko’s actions and rhetoric on Russian topics are increasingly reminiscent of events in Ukraine on the eve of and after the Maidan victory. Belarus is hardly threatened by the intervention of “little green men” after the election, as its army is much better prepared than the Ukrainian army was during the period of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the Donbass, though it is difficult to say what the morale of the Belarusian army brass is. After all, Russia had time to prepare for the demarche of Lukashenko. In any case, the parallels with Ukraine are obvious, as it is also clear that for Lukashenko doing a split between Putin’s Russia and the West is a bit of stretch.”
This, coupled with rumors circulated over the last year through Telegram channels about various conspiracies involving security forces, can be considered a direct threat. It is noteworthy that here the possibility of a second or third scenario is explicitly articulated.
The block of media messages associated with the main candidates is very interesting:
- Valery Tsepkalo and Victor Babaryko are candidates from the elites;
- candidates have no Maidan in mind, they stand for fair elections;
- candidates will be able to reach an agreement with Moscow;
- Babaryko consulted with Moscow.
In principle, the first three points fit into conventional blackmailing techniques and follow the messages that were promoted last year through Telegram regarding the people and elite’s discontent with Lukashenko’s policies and the Kremlin’s readiness to acknowledge this discontent all the way up to regime change in Minsk, so long as it all works out without too much hassle and bloodshed. However, these arguments are circulated by the very same people who, according to our data, manage pro-Russian telegram channels targeting Belarus.
The first and primary question is why would the Kremlin blow Babaryko’s cover if he really was a Russian candidate?
And why this was done through Bloomberg and not through Kommersant, which is usually used stove-piping of the kind?
We have an idea who Bloomberg’s interlocutor at the Russian Presidential Administration is, and this person would have to have had serious reasons for taking such action.
All in all, for us this “ratting out” is proof that Babaryko did not have any preliminary agreements with Moscow, and the Russian Presidential Administration was, at best, possibly considering the option of negotiating with him at subsequent stages.
The statement about consultations undermines Babaryko as an independent candidate and makes it extremely unlikely that he will make it to the elections. Did Bloomberg’s interlocutor proceed from his knowledge of the real situation and the domestic popular mood in Russia and in Belarus and it turned out that “rocking the boat” now was too risky? Was it because of Babaryko’s high rating, or the unwillingness of Belarusians to accept “fraternal help” in the event the situation gets out of control? Was it because Babaryko, by not consulting with the Kremlin, proved disloyal and thus casted doubts about his willingness to negotiate? (See more on the Kremlin’s logic regarding Belarus- West relations and Babaryko in a box ).
From other sources, we know that an overly tough “Plosča 2010” – type option is not considered desirable within the Russian Presidential Administration for a number of reasons.
So, why Bloomberg and then Forbes in Russian? Bloomberg is read by all whom the Kremlin targets abroad with their messages, both in Europe and in the US. Bloomberg raises no suspicion of being biased, and what is delivered through this agency has a seal of credibility. If something needs to be reported to a serious audience about Babaryko and the Kremlin’s position on Belarus, therefore, Bloomberg is your agency.
The connection with the Kremlin is now so toxic, at least in politics, that the mere fact of consultations with the Kremlin prevents Babaryko from seeking support in the West, even if he wanted to.
Another message goes to the West: Belarus does not have a strong pro-Western candidate, so stay out. In fact, the whole situation in Belarus, according to the same individual, is the result of the “Russia-US” struggle for spheres of influence, which the Belarusian president carelessly got himself into. And here we see a combined message:
“We surrender our candidate and leave Lukashenko in for another term, but relations with the US should see no further development.”
Babaryko turns out to be a convenient casualty in the Kremlin’s games over the sovereignty of Belarus.
At about the same time, surprisingly, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Mezentsev, made a statement regarding the interference of “third countries” with the affairs of the Union State.
Radio Kommersant explains the meaning of what is happening:
“The Kremlin may not be too happy with Alexander Grigoryevich [Lukashenko], but there is no one more fitting seen on the horizon. The other participants in the race are much less inclined to talk about the Slavic alliance and affirm a movement towards Europe… No one would change six of one for a new half a dozen of the other in the Old City Square, and taking part in organizing a Maidan would be a total travesty. Moscow, it seems, does not want fundamental changes in the Union State, but at the same time does not want another triumph of the perpetual leader.”
It was also a safe bet that the “consultations with the Kremlin” announced through Bloomberg will be amplified by all Belarusian mass media, such that every active Belarusian would be aware of it. This was supposed to cut off (according to the Russian Presidential Administration) the support of a certain segment of the pro-Belarusian audience.
Of course, now we have the conflict around Belgazprombank to watch, and we also cannot say with certainty which of Moscow’s scenarios for Minsk will prevail.
At the moment, however, we see that in Russian media the “Russian candidate” Babaryko can very quickly turn into a “Belarusian nationalist” who financed “Belarusization” with Russian money.
In this sense, the comparison of Babaryko with Khodorkovsky made by Venediktov on “Ekho Moskvy” also puts Babaryko in the “basket” of “fugitive oligarchs”.
This is especially possible if some kind of reconciliation between Moscow and Minsk is reached and there is need, as we mentioned above, to present an international liberal conspiracy and mop up the civil landscape in Belarus.
Who framed Victor Babaryko and why – a short study in Kremlinology
So why, in order to “make it unpleasant” for Viktor Babaryko, Bloomberg itself was needed, whether it achieved its “unpleasant” purpose, and also why the whole story was needed with fabricated consultations. There was no place for explaining the entire Kremlin logic in the above section, so we will provide the required explanations in this box.
Let us look again at the text of the statement of the anonymous from, presumably, the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. This statement, foremost, states that “in the current situation with Belarus the United States is to blame.” That is, we are talking about the Kremlin’s geopolitical claims against the United States, which is returning its ambassador to Belarus, supplying oil to reduce dependence on Russia, and so on. In this context, this same person from the Presidential Administration claims the sovereignty of the Kremlin over Belarus (in reality, feudal law), declaring as if in passing that the most popular alternative candidate was not just a part of Russian business directly related to Putin’s inner circle, but “consulted” in Moscow about his nomination. To send a message of this kind to the United States, you need serious international media. None of the domestic Russian media is suitable for this kind of business. In the eyes of the West, as conceived by the author of the message, Belarus apparently remains under the control of Russia, including candidates and presidential elections. At the same time, because of the toxicity of ties with the Kremlin, the appeal of Babaryko as a possible partner for dialogue with the West drops sharply.
It seems to be understandable from the geopolitical part of the Kremlin’s logic, but why make things “unpleasant” for Babaryko?
For this exact same reason exists the idea of the feudal law of the suzerain. The fact is that without “consulting” with any extensions of the Kremlin, Babaryko put into doubt the entire system of relations with Belarus and, more broadly, the CIS, as the Kremlin imagines it. We all know well from the history of the last 20+ years about the tradition of Belarusian actors and politicians from other countries of the former USSR traveling to Moscow for “consultations” and support. In reality, this is how Moscow’s right to the region as an area of its legitimate interests developed. And now, none other than the leading alternative candidate in the Belarusian (part of the Union State) presidential race is being nominated without even notifying anyone, without asking permission. This, in the eyes of the Kremlin, is the scrapping of the system, a rebellion against the suzerain.
And now we can add that Babaryko is not just an independent heavyweight candidate, but for 20 years he has been a top manager, which means that he is a part of Russian business closely connected with the state and Putin’s inner circle. Given this, independent nomination without prior notice is also the highest manifestation of disloyalty (the ability to negotiate aside). And, from the point of view of the Russians, there is also a deliberate creation of risks for Belgazprombank, since Russia knows well what happens to businesses that turn out to be associated with independent politically active figures.
We are not suggesting that questions about Babaryko and Belarus occurred to Putin, who is currently sitting in a bunker with a decontamination tunnel, but they would have come up sooner or later.
In short, Babaryko challenged the Russian system at all possible levels. They just do not forgive this kind of thing. What could be done to save face for the Kremlin at this stage was done – the candidate was “privatized” publicly, and at the same time was handed some trouble, according to the views of that same person from the Presidential Administration.
What happens next?
So far, to be honest, there are no good scenarios for Belarus. It seems that the current leadership of Belarus is not ready to steer the country through free elections and start any handover of power. Up to now only promises of dispersal, executions, arrests, and references to a civil war have been heard.
Powering up the repressive machine will push the country into dependence on Big Brother — both economically and politically.
The purging of the civil and media spheres in the process of freezing the country would have devastating consequences — it will free space up for Russian and pro-Russian actors fed and nurtured by the Kremlin. And one shouldn’t be delusional that state-owned media and GONGOs will be able to somehow resist them. They employ the same talent that only recently labored under the banner of the glory of the “union state”.
Belarusian society is now too annoyed to listen to state propaganda and follow a pre-determined course. The only possible way out is to end cautionary searches and seizures and transfer the discussions to a normal socio-political plane, minus the batons and handcuffs.
As they say, it is better to take the lid off the boiling pot than to try to hold it down with gaffer tape.