Perhaps no world leader in history has used television so massively to build his power at home and project his country’s influence abroad than Russian President Vladimir Putin. And perhaps no population—with the exception of the Russians themselves—has been more frequently accused of buying into this televised Kremlin propaganda than Belarusians. But two new reports, one a survey of popular reactions in Belarus to Russian television and the second an academic investigation into attitudes toward Russia more generally, suggest that TV coming out of Moscow has not changed Belarusians’ minds as much as some hope or others fear. Instead, the attitudes Belarusian society displays are those one would expect had there been no Russian television in the country at all, with older people more nostalgic about the Soviet past and younger ones looking westward not eastward as far as their country’s future is concerned.
Minsk’s Tut.by news agency, which produces materials in both Belarusian and Russian, surveyed a number of Belarusians of various ages to find out what they think about Russian TV beamed into their country and how much they are influenced by those broadcasts (YouTube, January 16; Sharknews.ru, January 25). What Tut.by predictably found is that Russian television is not changing minds in Belarus with regard to Russia; rather, it may simply be reinforcing views Belarusians already have about Russia, the media and their own country.
Older Belarusians surveyed said that they trust what journalists from the Russian Federation say; but they add that they do not watch only Russian TV. Instead, they view channels “regardless of what country they are coming from.” Young Belarusians, in contrast, do not like the negative content of Russian television and increasingly turn away from television altogether.
One Belarusian pensioner said that he watches Russian television regularly and “trusts it even more than its domestic counterpart.” But another pensioner said that, while he watches Russian channels, he is critical of all the information presented there. This suggests that, even among the elderly, Russian TV is not winning the day. As far as younger Belarusians are concerned, the situation is even less favorable to Moscow. Many of those Tut.by interviewed said they disliked Russian television because it was so heavily propagandistic and featured far too many anti-Ukrainian stories And they added that now, as opposed to a generation ago, young people simply do not watch television: they use the Internet and especially social media.
Meanwhile, one slightly older interview subject said that there was no need to ban Russian television in Belarus. Having a choice of what channels to watch is always good; and if there is nothing worth watching, he said, one can simply “turn off the box” and listen to music—a move he and presumably others in Belarus are now choosing to do.
A less anecdotal and far more damning set of conclusions from Moscow’s point of view is offered by a number of sociological studies conducted at the end of last year by the Russian Center for the Study of Prospects of Integration, the Belarus State Economic University (BSEU) and the Belaya Rus public organization. Collectively, these academic investigations looked into the impact of media on Belarusian attitudes toward the Russia-Belarus Union State. One of the authors, Irina Lashuk, from the BSEU, said that despite what many think, Russian media outlets, just like their Belarusian counterparts, have been “devoting little attention” to the issues of the existing Union State and its possible further integration. As a result, she told the Eurasia.expert portal, instead of becoming advocates of that prospect, Belarusians “are poorly informed” about the entire question (Eurasia.expert, February 4).
The polls show, Lashuk explained, that “about half” of the Belarusian population “does not even know about the existence of the Union State or about what it involves. And a certain additional number have heard something about it but do not have complete and reliable knowledge.” This, she concluded, “is a problem.” The lack of knowledge or even attention is especially widespread among young people, either because they are less interested in such issues or because they do not watch television at all.
If this situation is to be changed, the pro-Moscow Belarusian sociologist suggested, three things are necessary. First, Moscow must recognize that TV alone is not the answer. It is not changing the hearts and minds of Belarusians in the ways that many assume. People-to-people efforts are required. Second, Russian television must focus not just on economic issues but rather on cultural and social issues, if it is to have an impact. It is unlikely to win over the Belarusians and especially the rising generation simply by attacking Ukraine or talking about industrial or agricultural production. And third—and this is the most disturbing conclusion for the Kremlin but perhaps the most encouraging for Belarusians and others—there has not yet been put in place “an effective, long-term and stable foundation for the realization of the Union State project.”
None of this means that Russian TV does not affect some Belarusians. Clearly, it does. But it suggests that television content coming out of Russia has not indoctrinated that country to the point many have assumed. Those Belarusians who support union with Russia today are the same people who were for it in the past; and those Belarusians who presently oppose such an integrated binational state also resisted it earlier. Yet, it must be pointed out that these two groups are quite different in size, and their overall proportion is shifting: the former are passing from the scene while the latter are ever more numerous. In short, there is good evidence that Moscow is losing the media battle in Belarus, not winning it.