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.
The document titled «Kremlin Influence in Belarus» is restricted and not intended for a wide audience. According to the authors, it will be of interest to the expert community, diplomatic corps, and other specialists dealing with issues related to Belarus.
«iSANS reports are not only an expert or academic product. They contain a great deal of relevant and sensitive information and are of significant practical importance. We were convinced of this during the creation and promotion of previous reports on the hybrid impact on Belarus. We believe that the information collected and analyzed is valuable and can become a justification for the actions decisionmakers and can have a real impact on the development of policy towards Belarus. Were the full report to be made public now it would considerably weaken the report’s» explains Vlad Kobets, Executive Director of iSANS.
The report contains 120 pages and consists of two parts. The first part describes and analyzes the evolution of the Kremlin’s policies and tools. The second part of the report focuses on an in-depth description of the situation in Belarus regarding attempts at party building, the creation of a movement of supporters of power, and the status of state media and propaganda. The report does not contain direct recommendations on actions that can be taken by different parties to resolve the Belarusian crisis, but according to the authors should contribute to a clearheaded assessment of events.
According to the authors of the report, after the start of the revolutionary events in August 2020 in Belarus, on the one hand there was an operation «to establish Russian control in Belarus,» and on the other, «Lukashenko’s attempts to gain Moscow’s support while evading its demands that threaten its future.» At the same time, it is carrying out its own political reform to preserve personal power. Even though Belarusian society is going through a difficult period of revenge and repression, the authors believe that it still has its own important sovereignty, and its actions can undoubtedly throw a wrench into the plans of the two dictators.
In addition, the drafters of the document are certain that the international community is not using all levers of influence available for the situation in Belarus.
«The role of the international community – including the governments of democratic countries, international organizations, foreign non-governmental organizations, and the global Belarusian diaspora – in exerting effective pressure on Minsk and the Kremlin, on the one hand, and supporting democratic forces in Belarus, on the other, also holds great importance and potential. Today this potential is not fully unlocked, but we hope that international civil solidarity and the responsibility of democratic politicians will soon show itself.,» says the report.
At the same time, the authors of the report focus on the influence of the Russian authorities on events in Belarus and Lukashenko’s attempts to get support from Moscow with minimal losses for himself and to retain his power, protecting it from both his own people and Russian control.
The authors of the report maintain that Lukashenko went to the 2020 elections as a «guarantor of sovereignty» and «defender against the Russian threat» after almost two years of active pressure from the Kremlin. At the same time, the degree of anti-Russian and «anti-Maidan» hysteria was growing in the state media of Belarus every day, and its apogee was the detention of a group of «Wagnerites» in a sanatorium near Minsk. However, miscalculations in the months preceding the elections, unprecedented violence during the dispersal of protests, sadism and mass torture of detainees, and the repression that soon unfolded against all active groups of society, including the lower level of courtyard communities, ended the catastrophe of the ruling regime, and led to an absolute loss of legitimacy, in in the eyes of the people and international community, and steered the regime towards almost total dependence on Moscow.
The report’s authors believe that the Kremlin does not see Lukashenko as a long-term reliable partner and is generally interested in seeing changes in the political leadership of Belarus. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has provided Lukashenko with political, economic, and propaganda support, as it believes that a successful people’s revolution in Belarus could become «a bad example for the Russians.»
«Recall that in August, after a pause, Putin expressed his full support for Lukashenko and then sent a troop of consultants to Belarus who helped to establish a process of synchronization of propaganda, likely providing consultations necessary for the effective implementation of the Russian model of control over society analogous to the post-swamp events in Russia and the post-Maidan events in the Russian-controlled territories of the annexed Crimea and separatist areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The first and most obvious reason for the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko is that the change of power in Belarus, which would be the result of a peaceful revolution opposing the permanent rule of Lukashenko and demanding democratic rights and freedoms, sets a very bad example for Russia, where things are not exactly ideal. Zeroing out terms for the eternal Russian president through forced «voting on stumps» during a pandemic; ineffective government actions to the pandemic in terms of a medical response and regarding the issue of financial compensation to victims; a stagnating economy; a drop in living standards’ people’s dissatisfaction with poverty and corruption of the ruling groups; increasingly violent suppression of protests – these are the problems that Russia now faces. The analogies between the two countries are fairly obvious. Given this, replacing Lukashenko in response to mass protests is not something the Kremlin is willing to agree to,» write the authors of the report.
The authors of the report are convinced that the Kremlin understands that Russia’s long-term support of the Lukashenko regime or an unpopular pro-Russian candidate replacement who is not supported through popular protest will lead to a decrease in pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus and ultimately lead to a turn of the country to the West. Therefore, it is argued that Lukashenko, according to the Kremlin’s plan, should do all the dirty internal and geopolitical work himself – suppressing protests and dealing with dissenters, ruining relations with the West and Belarus’s closest neighbors, especially with Ukraine, to the extent possible, dragging Belarus into a confrontation with the West and NATO on the Russian side, and depriving the country of neutrality, even if it is only a qualified neutrality. The same goes for military integration.
According to iSANS experts, Lukashenko is now acting within the framework of the stipulated plan imposed on him by Putin in the fall of 2020 at a meeting in Sochi in exchange for support but is trying to sabotage it.
«Now, towards the end of spring 2021, the Kremlin’s position is to periodically remind Lukashenko of the Sochi agreements but not to force events, giving Minsk time to completely quash the protests while further having the legitimacy of the ruler weakened and ensuring international isolation and economic collapse. So far, Moscow is slowly choosing the scope of joint actions to which Lukashenko himself agrees, for example on oil transit,» states the report.
The report describes in detail the changes that have occurred in the information space of Belarus since August 2020.
The report maintains that a critical element of the Kremlin’s support has been work to «synchronize narratives.» The actions of the Kremlin propaganda machine have been laid out in detail in previously published iSANS studies. The authors of the current study point out that Russian media have focused entirely on three topics:
- the weakness and senselessness of street protest;
- defamation against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya;
- the subject of Western intervention.
The report says that Kremlin media avoided covering in detail many specific topics related to the crisis, including different positions in the Church, the struggle of strike committees, and testimonies of women who were degraded. It should be noted that in the first week after the August 8 elections, Kremlin media did not yet have clear instructions on how to cover events in Belarus and, therefore, the resources directly controlled
by the Putin administration published reports in which the authors wrote that there were grounds for protest. However, after a group of Russian media workers (about 40 people) were sent to Minsk on August 21, Kremlin media began to firmly follow a simple and tough line of coverage.
«Since the coordinator of this thread was Margarita Simonyan, who is supervised by Alexei Gromov (from the Russian Presidential Administration), it is given that Putin worked out his position and communicated it to Gromov no later than August 18-19. On August 21, a special operation to transfer a large group of Russian media workers to Minsk was carried out with the support of Mikhail Gutseriev. There is information that he used his plane for this and the Renaissance Hotel, owned by Gutseriev, became the headquarters of these journalists. It is obvious that Gutseriev provided this service at the same time for Lukashenko, with whom he has been associated for many years by partnership and friendship, and to Gromov. Later, for six months, Kremlin media produced a stream of messages and stories that were widely used by news portals, picked up by the news teams of Rambler, Yandex, and Mail.ru. All these stories revolved either around the discrediting of Tikhanovskaya or around the scenes of the intervention by Poland, Lithuania, the U.S., or reported on the futility of street protests,» says the report.
The authors of the report argue that during the occupation operations of Russian propagandists, training their pro-government colleagues in Belarus among other things, essentially the Russian model of control over the information space, and over society in general, began to be applied. At the same time, «informational authoritarianism» based on propaganda and ruthless control over the information field, as in Russia, is being transformed into rigid authoritarianism, the main instrument of which is repression.
«The model of social control that the Kremlin began exporting to Belarus after August 2020 combines zombie propaganda with massive repression of dissent. It is not a Kremlin invention and is characteristic of a certain stage in the development of any authoritarian regime that acquires the features of a dictatorship. The elements of this model are aggressive propaganda that divides society; the formation of an image of an ‘internal enemy’ and a ‘traitor’ in those who criticize ; a series of repressions used to establish fear in society, from the adoption of increasingly restrictive and targeted and random repressive legislation to mass application in all key areas of social and informational activity; systemic physical cruelty and violence against critics; measures to physically isolate and eliminate the leaders of the opposing side; and the creation of vigilante groups. All this is in Russia today and is successfully exported to Belarus» says the report.
The authors of the report argue that with all the changes in the balance of power in the Belarusian information field and its distribution by the government in Minsk to Russia in August 2020, several fundamental approaches in the Kremlin’s policy towards Belarus have remained unchanged. This includes the desire to keep Belarus in its sphere of influence and draw it as deeply as possible into its orbit; working on strengthening Belarus’s confrontation with the West and with the countries of the former USSR that did not assent to the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin in regarding themselves as legitimate interests; strengthening control over Belarusian society and the Belarusian information field to wipe out everything that is disloyal to Russian influence and the Russian political model.
«The Kremlin will watch with satisfaction the cleansing of active elements of Belarusian society, and then, under the guise of assistance, will use the crisis to increase its influence in Belarus and continue its actions to weaken Lukashenko and prepare for his subsequent replacement at a convenient moment» the authors of the report write.