Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This is due to its structural dependence on Russia in several fields: economic, energy, geopolitical and socio-cultural.
Russia is Belarus’s main trade partner (accounting for 50 per cent of its foreign trade and 60 per cent of its imports). Belarus has limited export outlets outside the EAEU, save for oil products (refined from Russian crude oil imported at, for now, discounted prices) and potash fertilizers. Energy dependence is a key vulnerability since Belarus imports almost all of the gas it consumes from Russia; no alternative supply arrangements are in prospect. The planned opening of a nuclear power plant in Astravets will only increase Belarus’s energy dependence since Russia is providing the financing, technical expertise and nuclear fuel.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has remained in Russia’s sphere of interest, without ever trying to break fully free from it.
Belarus’s vulnerability is also a consequence of the geostrategic choices made by the regime over the past 25 years, involving ever tighter political and military integration with Russia. The terms of the existing patchwork of bilateral agreements actually provide Russia with potential formal justification for military intervention in the event of a ‘colour revolution’ or power vacuum in Belarus. Should the Belarusian regime be unable or unwilling to oppose a ‘Czechoslovakia 1968’, Prague Spring scenario, these legal agreements could even be used to justify Belarus’s de facto absorption into the Russian Federation. Whereas many Russians have clearly outlined this threat, growing awareness of it in Belarus has not yet led to a full acknowledgment of the danger.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has remained in Russia’s sphere of interest, without ever trying to break fully free from it. At best, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s diplomatic oscillations have succeeded in raising the bidding for his country’s loyalty towards Russia. His regime pretended to be looking West, feigning rapprochement with the EU or promising democratic reforms, thereby prompting Russia to resume subsidizing the Belarusian economy for fear of losing a strategic ally. Yet this balancing act came at the price of reduced sovereignty. Lukashenka deliberately made the country more vulnerable to Russian soft power. Alongside structural dependence, other vulnerabilities also allow Russian actions to have a strong impact on Belarusian civil society. Efforts at enhancing its resilience should thus focus primarily on several entry points, outlined below.
A. Key vulnerabilities and responses
1. Weak Belarusian identity and the language issue
Given Lukashenka’s admiration and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, Belarusians remain emotionally connected with their Russian ‘brothers’ and many have Russo-centric worldviews. Russophile narratives about the common Soviet past abound in Belarus. Due to the limited circulation of alternative discourses and textbooks about the country’s European identity, historical interpretations coined by Russia and cultural patterns spread by Russian media remain dominant.
Related to this cultural dependence is the language issue. The use of Belarusian is marginal in the public and even private spheres. According to official censuses, the share of people who use Belarusian daily at home dropped from 53 per cent in 1989 to 23 per cent in 2009. This is the result of deliberate discriminatory policies by the regime, which always associated Belarusian speakers with the nationalist opposition. Russian remains the lingua franca. The Belarusian language is an academic subject, not a medium of instruction. In 2016/17, 86.6 per cent of pupils were being educated in Russian, and only 600 university students followed a curriculum in Belarusian. Russian language domination over the socio-cultural landscape contributes to the spreading of ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir) narratives and is a key medium facilitating the impact of Russian propaganda.
The situation has changed somewhat in recent years, however, as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014 has forced Belarusians to reflect on what makes them different from Russians. Using and promoting their national language is a way to distance themselves from Russian warmongers. Fearing for its sovereignty, Belarus is now experiencing a national awakening of sorts. Labelled ‘soft Belarusianization’, this initially bottom-up movement has accelerated as the authorities have refrained from repressing it.
In fact, for the first time in two decades, the regime is building on the spontaneous patriotic mood to rally the population around the flag. This, in turn, has raised the ire of Russian propagandists and politicians who see Belarusian nationalism as anti-Russian. They are threatening Belarus with a fate similar to that of post-Euromaidan Ukraine (revolution, regime overthrow, chaos and ultimately war), should the regime fail to halt the process.
Having hitherto always advocated Russophile views, the regime has limited room for manoeuvre. It cannot challenge Russia directly on the identity issue, but it has recently multiplied symbolic countermeasures. In 2014, President Lukashenka delivered his Independence Day address in Belarusian for the first time in 20 years, in an attempt to signal a distancing of his administration from Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Since then, the authorities have taken additional steps, such as banning Soviet symbols or ‘indigenizing’ them with Belarusian colours. Yet the authorities are still unwilling or unable to set out a Belarusian national ideology and counter-narratives to Russian ones. As a result of this inertia, the Russification of public space has been going on since the 2010s. Russia maintains a discourse that what it terms ‘Byelorussia’ is a non-viable state outside the ‘Russian world’.
Without openly supporting the promotion of a more distinctive national identity, the Lukashenka regime has become more tolerant of soft Belarusianization. In the context of the regime’s typically repressive authoritarianism, this laissez-faire turn was particularly striking in March 2018, when the authorities allowed public celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Crowds (at least 30,000 in Minsk alone, including families with children) walked the streets with white, red and white flags without fear of being arrested – such a scene would have been unimaginable even one year earlier, when dozens were indeed beaten and arrested on 25 March 2017.
This event was the culmination of soft Belarusianization to date. In Minsk, it resulted from the initiative of CSOs and volunteers, who had managed in only 23 days to raise funds online for a seven-hour concert celebrating the Belarusian proto-nation state. This illustrates how civil society, when unobstructed, can mobilize in defence of the country’s identity.
2. Belarus as part of the Russian media landscape
Belarus’s social cohesion is extremely vulnerable to Russian domination of the information space and information warfare. Citizens are conditioned to follow the agenda and trends set by Russian media; 60 per cent of programming broadcast by TV channels available in Belarus consists of content produced in Russia. This includes films and documentaries, entertainment programmes, talk shows and news. A majority of viewers therefore receive exactly the same messages as their Russian counterparts, and tend to see the world through the same prism. The fact that Russian TV shows enhance Russian nationalism increases Belarusians’ sense of belonging to the ‘Russian world’. What is more, Russian media enjoy a higher level of trust than Belarusian media, whether official or independent.
Belarusians are thus very receptive to the disinformation campaigns about their country that have regularly popped up since 2010 on Russian TV, online information platforms and Russian-language social networks. Russian social networks are by far the most popular in Belarus, with 2.8 million internet users accessing them at least once a day. At the end of 2015, the Russian social media network Vkontakte had a 32.3 per cent share of the adult audience, while Odnoklassniki (also Russian) had a 30.2 per cent share (with rising popularity among young people); in contrast, Facebook had a 14.9 per cent share.
Since 2016, several Russian online news agencies – notably Regnum, Eurasia Daily and Imperiya News – have regularly published chauvinistic material containing hate speech against Belarus, questioning its loyalty as Russia’s ally as well as its sovereignty. Ironically enough, Belarus’s state censors cannot halt the spreading of degrading statements about the Belarusian people, language and culture. In parallel, Russian talk shows gather ‘experts’ to discuss the alleged rise of Russophobia in Belarus and criticize the Lukashenka regime for it. The main claim of this smear campaign is that Belarusian nationalism is an artificial, anti-Russian construct, the implication being that it could ultimately lead to Russian military intervention, as in Ukraine.
Contrary to practice in some Central European countries, where Russian disinformation and propaganda receive wide media coverage, in Belarus the fact that Russia is spreading fake news is seldom acknowledged by the authorities; it goes unmentioned by official media. As for foreign media, state censorship only filters out content critical of Lukashenka personally; a lack of human resources means that the regime cannot limit the insidious impact of pro-Russia opinion-makers and trolls.
Legal actions have been taken, however. The Ministry of Information has occasionally blocked extremist pro-Russia websites (for example, sputnikipogrom.com in 2017), but only after whistle-blowers pointed to the danger they represented and the fact that they were breaking the law. In 2016, three Belarusians who had published articles accusing Belarus of Russophobia on the Russian online news platform Regnum were detained for ‘inciting national hatred’; they remain under partial house arrest. In order for this response not to appear as a provocation, the authorities took similar repressive steps soon after against a Belarusian blogger known for his anti-Russian publications, Eduard Palchys, the founder of 1863x.com.
The state response to Russian media domination is cautious and low-key. Even though a growing segment of the government is aware of the danger, the regime seems unable to tackle it. It either does not know how to, or fears that obstructing Russian soft power would be seen as unfriendly or disloyal. The regime has no strategy; so far it has only taken reactive, isolated measures in response to sporadic Russian information warfare. There are signs, however, that it is getting ready to step up its response with the adoption of amendments to the media law. An Interdepartmental Commission for Security in the Information Sphere was established in November 2017. The state secretary of the Security Council, Stanislav Zas’, was appointed to head the commission, which includes representatives from the Presidential Administration, the Ministry of Information, the ‘force structures’ (siloviki) and the official state media.
The fact that no independent journalist was invited to sit on this commission illustrates the short-sightedness of the government’s response to the Russian challenge. In fact, in Belarus investigative journalists (from Nasha Niva, naviny.by, Belapan, etc.) and some bloggers remain the best watchdogs in terms of countering Russian disinformation. Acting as opinion-makers in spite of the risks incurred, they play a key role in debunking fake news originating from pro-Russia sources.
Society is still ill equipped for combating this information aggression. This is because those most susceptible to Russian propaganda constitute the regime’s core supporters: the military, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, who rely on state paternalism and therefore indirectly on Russia’s subsidizing of the economy.
Box 2: Bright spot – the Belarusian School Society
The best shield against disinformation is education; to make society more resilient, the media literacy of the average citizen must be enhanced. Such a task cannot be left in the hands of journalists or human-rights defenders; teachers fulfil this role better.
Since 2009, the Belarusian School Society has developed a professional training programme for raising media awareness among teachers and pupils, providing the former with tools for teaching how to filter information, identify fake news and keep a critical eye out for potential propaganda. The project has been successful because it focuses on methods rather than content. It relies on innovative – by Belarusian standards – techniques, such as the use of online platforms, a ‘pyramidal’ mentoring system, ‘horizontal networking’, the exchange of information on best practice, and massive open online courses (widely known as MOOCs).
With the support of Swedish donors, the Belarusian School Society published a textbook in Belarusian providing real-life examples (such as Russian propaganda material on the war in eastern Ukraine) and exercises in debunking propaganda and fake news. The Ministry of Education investigated the book on grounds of suspected extremism, but in the end did not ban it. Each year, some 200–300 teachers throughout Belarus undertake the training programme. Back in their schools, they share what they have learnt and establish local platforms for training their peers. Pedagogic experts contributed to the development of the initiative, and positive assessment of it has gradually convinced some key officials of its value too.
3. GONGOs and the Russian Orthodox Church
Unlike in Ukraine, ethnic Russians are spread all over Belarus (with higher concentrations in garrison towns such as Brest rather than, as might perhaps be expected, in the eastern borderlands with Russia). The number of ethnic Russians, and their share of the population, is in decline (from 13 per cent in 1989 to 8 per cent in the last census in 2009). This is mostly due to assimilation as a result of mixed marriage. Dual nationals are believed to be less pro-Russian than average Belarusians. Even though they usually have close emotional or family connections with Russia, ethnic Russians and Russophile dual nationals have never felt the need to organize themselves into lobby groups. Russia is nonetheless trying to use these ‘compatriots’ as go-betweens for the dissemination of Russophile narratives, possibly with a view to securing their support as a potential Fifth Column infiltrating Belarusian public life. Via the Rossotrudnichestvo federal agency, the Russian foreign ministry controls a network of pro-Russia associations, CSOs and GONGOs in Belarus, several of which operate under the umbrella of ‘Russian Houses’ in regional capitals. Alongside other public-diplomacy organizations (such as the Russian International Affairs Council and the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund), Rossotrudnichestvo organizes seminars, training sessions, meetings and festivals in Belarus. It distributes grants to support projects that promote Russian interests and narratives, especially among youth organizations such as the neo-fascist ‘Rus’ Molodaya’ (RuMol).
Pro-Russia GONGOs are used to camouflage propaganda and provide a civil platform for increasing Russia’s legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. These GONGOs consist mostly of ultra-nationalist and paramilitary groups that train and send volunteers to eastern Ukraine to fight a so-called ‘holy war for Novorossia’. In the past decade, ‘patriotic’ sports clubs run by Russian Cossacks or veterans from the Afghanistan war have mushroomed throughout Belarus. While they officially provide leisure services (for example, shooting clubs at local gun ranges, paintball games, and summer camps for teenagers), they are suspected of conducting paramilitary training.
Smaller paramilitary groups operate locally in close coordination with the Russian Orthodox Church, which fuels them with a clearly pro-‘Russian world’ ideology and agenda. The Russian Orthodox Church is a powerful channel of Kremlin propaganda and its head, Patriarch Kirill, appoints the Metropolitan of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Two-thirds of Belarusians are therefore under the confessional jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Numerous priests who fled war-torn Donbas established pro-Russia communities in Belarusian parishes, notably in the Vitebsk region. The Vitebsk-Osha diocese helped them recruit young Belarusians, who were trained in Russian Cossack camps before joining pro-Russia rebels in Donbas. These groups are not concentrated in the eastern regions; out of the 30 or so that were dismantled by the State Security Committee (KGB) in 2015, 10 were operating in the north-western Hrodna oblast. Representatives and members of the Russian Orthodox Church tend to disseminate anti-Western messages on issues that artificially cleave society – for example, LGBT rights. They also welcome and encourage Russia’s aggressive foreign policy towards Ukraine.
Pro-Russia GONGOs remain fairly marginal and disorganized, and the regime has never thought it necessary to dismantle them fully. However, the KGB closely monitors the paramilitary groups established under Cossack and/or Orthodox supervision, and is thought to have taken control of most of them in 2015–16 when it became known that 15 of their camps were operating under the auspices of an Orthodox parish head. The state’s response to the influence and actions of the Russian Orthodox Church appears too limited, however. Whereas President Lukashenka always seeks a say in the appointment of foreign envoys, he could not prevent the nomination in 2014 of Metropolitan Pavel, a Russian citizen, as head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Official efforts to counteract the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church remain symbolic only. Lukashenka’s personal confessor, Fyodor Polnyj, has openly offended Metropolitan Pavel on several occasions and is doing his best to limit the influence of the Moscow patriarchate inside Belarus. Lukashenka, for his part, is courting Pope Francis to please the Catholic minority while also trying to signal to Russia that Belarusians are not its spiritual vassals.
Due to limited institutional capacity, the ability of non-state actors to resist the influence of Russian GONGOs and the Russian Orthodox Church is close to nil. Instead, independent investigative journalists and pro-Belarus bloggers are identifying the most subversive organizations and calling the attention of the authorities to illegal activities. These whistle-blowers and the KGB seem to collaborate unofficially: for example, by exchanging information about paramilitary groups recruiting pro-Russia mercenaries. Once awareness about illegal activities has been raised by bloggers, the KGB has a legitimate pretext to intervene. Whereas it could not crack down on Russian GONGOs on its own initiative without the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) retaliating, the KGB cannot leave such issues unanswered once they are public knowledge.
Figure 2: Drivers of Russian influence in Belarus, and state/civil society responses
B. Opportunities to strengthen resilience
Since the lifting of Western sanctions in 2016, Belarus has reached a turning point: some liberal reforms are unavoidable should the country wish to distance itself further from Russia to protect its sovereignty. There is a consensus within the most progressive segment of the state bureaucracy that change is needed. Yet nobody knows how to effect reforms without threatening the regime itself or offending Russia. The regime must therefore navigate carefully, finding legitimate justifications for taking even cautious steps. Western donors and supporters of democratization should be aware of this constraint.
Identifying the areas in which the authorities’ room for manoeuvre is the greatest in relation to Russia is an indispensable condition for tailoring donor assistance to the needs of civil society. Since building the latter’s resilience can only succeed if the regime does not obstruct the process, assistance is most likely to be effective if it focuses on apolitical projects and on CSOs towards which the regime is benevolent. In the current political climate, ‘soft Belarusianization’ appears to offer the best prospects for making the country more resilient in the face of Russian threats, while also encouraging the dialogue and cooperation between state and civil society that are prerequisites for eventual democratization post-Lukashenka.
The origins of soft Belarusianization can be traced back to the early 2010s, with the spontaneous emergence of a self-organizing movement that sought to accentuate a sense of ‘Belarusianness’ in the public space. Consciousness of national identity issues has picked up in response to Russian actions in Ukraine, and is articulated in the context of soft Belarusianization by affirmative action in relation to the rediscovery, advocacy and teaching of Belarusian culture and language. In 2014 the Mova nanova (‘Language anew’) initiative was launched to promote the use of Belarusian. The initiative enjoys growing popularity throughout the country. Volunteers have set up reading groups, free language classes, online translation forums and self-tests, free Belarusian-language discussion groups over coffee (Mova ci kawa) and free libraries (Mova-box) in cafés. Several private businesses, such as Velcom, sponsor these initiatives. Nowadays Mova nanova clubs and classes operate everywhere in Belarus, and some have started opening in neighbouring countries too. Belsat TV has started airing short films to familiarize viewers with the Belarusian vocabulary in various lexical fields.This also gives Belarusian-speaking professionals a chance to disseminate counter-narratives about the country’s history, traditions and indigenous (that is, non- Russian) culture.
In the current political climate, ‘soft Belarusianization’ appears to offer the best prospects for making the country more resilient in the face of Russian threats, while also encouraging the dialogue and cooperation between state and civil society that are prerequisites for eventual democratization post-Lukashenka.
People are starting to demand a linguistic Belarusianization of the public space – for example, by requesting that officials answer questions in the language in which they were asked. Belarusian folklore and national heritage are being promoted, the flagship symbol of this initiative consisting of the wearing of vyshyvanka (traditional embroidered white and red shirts). Associations also organize medieval balls and battle re-enactments (for example, of the Battle of Grunwald in 1410), aimed at encouraging rediscovery of the country’s roots as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as open-air folkloric song and dance festivals (for example, Spiewny Schod, which taps Baltic traditions).
Soft Belarusianization involves a range of civil society activists, business actors and online trend-setters who join forces to organize awareness-raising and marketing campaigns celebrating national culture. The campaigns have included ‘Budz’ma Belarusami!’, which has been running since the early 2010s, and more recently Symbal.by. Restaurants serving traditional Belarusian food, with Belarusian-speaking waiters wearing vyshyvanka shirts, have sprung up in Minsk and some provincial towns. This is a fashionable trend that people follow because it is seen (including by the regime) as apolitical. It is mostly an urban-based, ‘hipster’-type phenomenon, but it has an extraordinary appeal beyond Minsk; each regional capital has its own ‘hub’ where Belarusophiles and Belarusian speakers can get together and feel comfortable organizing cultural events – these include the Art Siadziba open space in Minsk, the Kolo syabrau/Centr Kola cultural hub in Mahilou, the Kryly khalopa alternative theatre and gallery in Brest, and the Anti-café in Babruysk.
The caveat to all this energy and activity is that civil society actors and activities connected with the soft Belarusianization phenomenon remain perpetually vulnerable to arbitrary repression by the regime. The government strictly limits fundamental rights of expression, association and peaceful assembly, harasses NGOs that it does not control, and fines or jails their leaders – often on fabricated charges such as tax evasion. This challenging context implies a need for donors to increase support for innovative social, cultural and media projects that stimulate professionalism, sustainability and resilience. For such efforts to bear fruit, donors will have to adapt their offering to the fast-evolving new realities of Belarusian public life: for example, CSOs are now more market-oriented than in the past, and work faster using social networks and innovative platforms (such as crowdfunding). Instead of supporting one-time events or training sessions, donors will likely find it more effective to focus on investment in long-term infrastructure and the development of contingency plans for enhancing civil society resilience; the latter is particularly important given the ever-present risk of another crackdown by the regime or of a Russia-led destabilization campaign.
Synchronizing assistance with existing grassroots initiatives, while encouraging platforms for discussion between CSOs and the regime, will be key to success. In this, Russian attempts at subversion can actually act as an incentive for coordination: even if there is not yet a culture of democratic dialogue in Belarus, state and non-state actors now understand that they can achieve more by uniting against the common Russian threat.
The instances of best practice outlined above could help Belarus to counter Russian encroachments on its sovereignty, by empowering civil society to resist harmful exogenous influences. Assistance projects that contribute to strengthening the self-identity of Belarusians, their national pride and media awareness have the potential to be instrumental in making grassroots civic initiatives more sustainable, given existing legal and other constraints. Building on the trends set in motion by soft Belarusianization – and on the opportunities it presents in light of the authorities’ current tolerance of it – represents the best strategy for increasing civil society resilience in the face of the Russian challenge.