Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made it clear to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: Minsk must take steps towards deeper integration between the two countries. Polls have shown that, following the rise of Russian media presence in Belarus, pro-Russian sentiment increased within the society. What, exactly, is the situation in Belarus? What role could Belarusian civil society, the EU, and the U.S. play in the new paradigm?
These questions were addressed by Franak Viačorka, a longtime Belarusian activist and Russian disinformation expert, at an event at The Institute of World Politics on February 25th.
Mr. Viačorka first identified Russian President Vladimir Putin's goals for the integration of Belarus. He made it clear that a takeover is intended, but not necessarily in a violent way. Rather, Russia is employing a strategy of disinformation and propaganda by becoming increasingly more present in media, political, social, and cultural spheres. Russia's approach is multifaceted: divide, degrade, and delegitimize.
Recently, Belarusian President Lukashenko met with President Putin in Sochi, Russia, to discuss key bilateral issues, including integration. This meeting served as a decisive opportunity for Putin. By holding Belarusian oil dependency over their head, Russia pushed for the activation of the integration process. Additionally, Russian media accused President Lukashenko of working with the West and being a betrayer. This reflected his unwillingness to prevent Russia from expanding its presence. The subsequent discussion within the media resulted in an even more divided public.
Mr. Viačorka then identified the means by which Russia employs its soft power. First and foremost, it works to ensure the dominance of Russian information and cultural space in Belarus. This is achieved by strengthening the role of Russian language and Russian Orthodoxy in the lives of Belarusians. Promotion of Orthodox churches diminishes the influence of Western Catholicism in the country. This approach neutralizes pro-Western attitudes and weakens Belarusian statehood.
The preferred conduit of Russian disinformation is media, says Mr. Viačorka. Through news, books, and various other publications, Russia propagates deep fakes, polarizes the discussion, and disseminates mass ad placement. Russian-controlled channels and search engines inflate Belarusian results with Russian traffic. Mr. Viačorka also claimed that Russia wants to implement an isolated online network, similar to China, in order to remain removed from online Western influence, socially and politically. This means that access will be difficult to circumvent.
Mr. Viačorka proposed a holistic solution that addresses the problem of Russian influence at its roots. He noted that he does not believe in "fact checking" as a solution. Rather, he proposed developing a robust online infrastructure to prevent the dissemination of Russian propaganda ahead of time. Specifically, he hopes to build media infrastructure within distribution networks and traditional media. His second approach to a solution is research. Through the monitoring of pro-Russian resources and content analysis, this disinformation can be tracked and prevented. Lastly, by implementing cross-sector collaboration, they can engage influencers, media, and nonprofits, and generate discussions which will, hopefully, result in positive change.
Mr. Viačorka is the Vice President of the Digital Communication Network, a consultant for U.S. Agency for Global Media, and the Creative Director of RFE/RL Belarus Service. Before that, he served as a leader of the youth wing of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF). Additionally, after suffering through torture while serving under forced conscription in the Belarusian army, Mr. Viačorka's personal story became the plot for the award-winning, Polish-French film Viva Belarus. He recently published research on the Kremlin-backed media, the Russian Orthodox church, and think-tanks as the Kremlin's "soft-power."