Fake News and Speculation Assaults Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 119

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, August 2 (Source: Twitter)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka canceled his planned trip to the city of Gomel and did not appear on TV for three days prior to July 30. This sudden absence encouraged the Russian Telegram instant messenger chat channel “Nezygar” to falsely report that Lukashenka suffered an ischemic stroke (Tlgrm.ru/channels/@russica2, July 30). The rumor was immediately picked up by Ukrainian media, which dutifully added diabetes and blood pressure to Lukashenka’s “clinical record” (Znaj.ua, July 30). Although, the Belarusian president’s press secretary, Natalia Eismont, promptly called this information hogwash (Tut.by, July 30), and Lukashenka’s July 31 meeting with the chair of the Minsk regional administration was in fact televised, the tumult persisted. Some even suggested that the TV broadcast might have used the old newsreel footage. Finally, Lukashenka himself ridiculed the conspiratorial rumor when, on August 2, he met with a group of local officials amidst a wheat field outside the capital. “You will report to me in one year,” Lukashenka told one of those officials, “I assume you will still be alive then.” “Well, I plan to,” responded the perplexed administrator. “You never know,” added the president jokingly, “Yesterday, they buried me and they can bury you, too” (YouTube, August 2).

Belorusskie Novosti, a reputable independent media outlet, interviewed the anonymous authors of “Nezygar,” who claimed they had sources in the upper echelons of power in Belarus (Naviny, August 4). In turn, Eduard Palchis, an opposition-minded blogger who helped organize the celebration of the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (see EDM, April 2), reported that he had concocted deliberately false stories and easily had them published by Nezygar (Svaboda.org, July 31); consequently, he asserted, Russian media cannot be trusted. In response, Nezygar accused Palchis of being a KGB informant. A debate on the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty under the title “Is Belarus Ready for ‘Life After Lukashenka?’ ” revealed bewilderment. The only refreshing exception was an opinion by Alexei Yanukevich, the deputy chair of the oppositionist Belarusian Popular Front: “[O]ne has to abandon such clichés as ‘opposition’ and ‘regime,’ ” he argued. Instead, “the most sober-minded part of the opposition ought to find common language with the most clear-headed part of the people in power” (Svaboda.org, August 3).

Alexander Klaskovsky, a doyen of Belarusian independent journalism, believes that because the Belarusian political system is “rigidly tied to a single leader,” the country could “stagger and crumble” if that leader is suddenly gone, given the untold number of Russian agents and simply people with weak national identity in the corridors of power. The conclusion: “One should bring back [free] elections, create true, not sham institutions of power, develop the political elite, lessen dependency on Russia, and more decisively move closer to Europe” (Naviny, August 2). Later on, however, Klaskovsky paid tribute to yet another rumor, namely, that Lukashenka might have spread the fake news of his illness himself so that he would not have to travel to Sochi, Russia, where Vladimir Putin earlier invited him. Purportedly, the motivation to stay home was driven by the fact that Putin badly wants Belarus to accept controversial former security services agent Mikhail Babich as Russian ambassador to Minsk (see EDM, August 2), whereas Lukashenka reportedly does not (Naviny, August 4).

As for moving closer to Europe, not everything depends on Minsk. It has been five years since the start of the Belarus’s negotiations with the European Union on the simplification of the EU visa regime. Yet, the envisioned simplification, involving, among other things, a cheaper (worth $35, not $60 as today) Schengen visa that most post-Soviet countries have long been taking advantage of, has still not been settled. It follows, from a series of aggressive interviews by Tut.by of Andrea Wiktorin, the Head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, that Brussels demands more from Minsk than it did from Moscow, Baku or Yerevan. Wiktorin’s response—essentially, that visa negotiations with those other governments were conducted “at a very different time”—does not come across as particularly persuasive. Neither does her response to the question of why the EU still does not invite Belarusian parliamentarians to the Euronest, a body that brings together legislators from the European Partnership (EaP) countries and members of the European Parliament. That persistent exclusionary policy is particularly perplexing since the European Parliament had long ago resumed its bilateral face-to-face contacts with members of parliament in Minsk (Tut.by, July 31). Tut.by’s owner, Yury Zisser, expressed the view that “if the EU had desired to make Belarus more democratic—not in word or talk, but in practice—it would have long ago offered visa-free entrance for Belarusians so that they could see what democracy looks like” (Yury Zisser, August 1).

Yet another aspect of Belarusian-European relations was recently highlighted on July 28, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Union of Belarusian Poles (UBP). More specifically, the commemorations pertained to the arm of that union that has not been recognized by the Belarusian authorities (following the split within this organization dating back to 2005). The unrecognized arm of the UBP is far more active than the official one because the former enjoys support from the Polish government, whereas the latter does not. Three Polish officials participated in the Grodno-based celebration, including Senator Stanisław Karczewski, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Papież and the chief of the prime minister’s staff, Michał Dworczyk. The Belarusian authorities did not obstruct the event; but the fact that no suitably high-level member of the Belarusian government participated was taken by some Polish commentators (opposed to the current Polish government) as an ignominious failure of Warsaw’s diplomacy (Gazeta Prawna, July 31). The chairperson of the UPB, Andzelika Borys, strongly disagrees, however. She writes that the celebration represented huge progress compared with what the UPB experienced in the past (Facebook.com/witold.jarusz.16, July 31).

As usual, interpreting both fake and not-so-fake news and speculation in the media regarding Belarus requires that policymakers be equipped with sufficient contextual knowledge. Cui prodest (“who benefits?”) is thus still the major question to address. Without that, it is all too easy to become lost in the narrative.