Visa-Free Travel to Belarus and the Dawn of a New Era in the (Dis)Information Wars

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 2

(Source: profi forex)

Minsk has introduced visa-free regulations for entering Belarus for no more than five days, if arriving via Minsk National Airport, for citizens of 80 states. The decree applies to all of the European Union, the United States, Japan and many other countries (, January 11, 2017). No visa-free entrance to Belarus applies if one travels through Russia—in that case one would need both a Belarusian and a Russian visa. Already some Russian media outlets have slammed Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei for betraying Moscow (EaDaily, January 9), whereas the Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesperson retorted that these publications were “foolish” (Salidarnasts, January 11).

Tensions between Russia and Belarus are nothing new, but their severity these days is without precedent. A conflict over natural gas prices, which was repeatedly reported to be nearly resolved, is still there: Belarus has not yet repaid what Russia estimates to be a $400 million debt, accumulated since January 2016 (due to Belarus’s underpayment for gas). In retaliation, Russia decided to decrease deliveries of crude oil, while Belarus temporarily raised its transit fee for natural gas by 7.7 percent. Multiple Belarusian food processors are presently excluded from the Russian market due to allegedly exceeding the content of harmful substances (Novaya Gazeta, January 10). And even habitual optimists on Belarus-Russia relationships have turned into doomsayers when reflecting on what else is yet to come (ImhoClub, January 5).

In December, three Belarusian citizens, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin and Sergei Shiptenko were arrested for publishing—on Russian web sites Regnum, EurasiaDaily, and—articles allegedly denigrating Belarus (see EDM, December 12, 2016). Their case has eclipsed any other single news item emanating from the country. The prosecution has not yet formulated its case, but there has been no shortage of reactions. They fall within four types: 1) unqualified support for the arrest; 2) unqualified condemnation; 3) dismissal of the publications’ content while suggesting that Pavlovets, Alimkin and Shiptenko’s arrest exceeds the severity of their imputed misdeeds and therefore presents a precedent for future denials of any freedom of speech whatsoever; or (4) calculated action by professional provocateurs.

The first type of reaction, exemplified by Belarus Segodnya, the country’s major daily, is typical of Belarusian officials and Westernizing nationalists alike (Belarus Segodnya, December 11, 2016; Belorusskii Partizan, December 9, 2016). Unusual bedfellows, they stress that Pavlovets, Alimkin and Shiptenko’s imputed actions go beyond freedom of speech as they openly cast doubt on the existence of Belarusians as a national group.

Aside from Regnum’s own denunciation of the arrest (Regnum, December 9, 2016), the second kind of reaction was issued by the publicist Andrei Gerashchenko, who himself was previously accused of biases identical to those of the arrested authors (RitmEvrazii, December 12, 2016).

The third reaction was from more sophisticated personalities like Alexander Feduta, a philologist who, in 2010–2011, spent 100 days in jail for his alleged role in fomenting the post-election protests (Feduta, December 9, 2016), as well as Victor Martinovich, a writer (Budzma, December 13, 2016).

The fourth reaction is by sophisticated and well-informed pundits. Thus, Kirill Koktysh, a native of Minsk working for the Moscow Institute for Foreign Relations, the principal alma mater of Russian diplomats, suggests that the sham behind the entire endeavor is right from the playbook of the late Boris Berezovsky, Russia’s most famous provocateur. Because few Russians would pay attention to Regnum, the articles by the three above-cited imprisoned authors were primarily intended to spook Belarusians, as many of them would assume Regnum’s ideas reflect Kremlin policy. Once indignation in Belarus reached a certain level—which judging by the harsh opinion expressed by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself (, January 7, 2017) and by the Belarusian foreign ministry (, December 22, 2016), it already has—it could be used to spook influential Russians, thus sustaining income for a few writers and their supervisors (Koktysh, December 14, 2016).

To be sure, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately reacted not to the said publications but to the pronouncement by General Leonid Reshetnikov, the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, in which he claimed that the Belarusian language was created in 1926 by the Communist Party and that Belarus is an inalienable part of Russia (, December 22, 2016). This pronouncement, however, only developed the thread of thought established by the said freelancers.

Some of Regnum’s publications rather confirm the provocation hypothesis by stretching reality to the breaking point. Thus, according to an article in Regnum written by Anatoly Shlykov (most likely a pseudonym), it is the likes of Nikolay Statkevich who should be taken into custody in Belarus, not the valiant trio committed to a cordial alliance between Russia and Belarus. Statkevich, a 2010 presidential hopeful who stayed in prison for 5.5 years because he declined to ask Lukashenka for clemency, has recently again denounced the Lukashenka government as illegal and unprepared to defend Belarus in the face of potential Russian aggression. However, Statkevich was not arrested because he is, according to Shlykov, the only leader of the Belarusian opposition in whom the West is ready to invest not just millions but billions of dollars so as to create a parallel army in Belarus. Part of its members would be implanted in the regular army to neutralize it; the other part would be new recruits with rifles and laser tag guns (Regnum, December 13, 2016).

If levels of disinformation can be categorized based on who consumes it, just like the trophic levels of an organism depend on a position it occupies in the food chain, from the lowest (e. g., grass) to higher (e. g., a grasshopper) and to still higher levels (a rat and then a snake), then the story painted by Shlykov is probably intended for a grasshopper’s consumption at best. It is likely, however, that a decline in the quality of schooling observed in most post-Soviet countries has spawned quite a number of “grasshoppers” who would believe a Shlykov-like message before some of them generate a demand for more sophisticated deception like that spread by Reshetnikov.

While US intelligence agencies have recently emphasized refined Russian patterns for swaying public opinion (e.g., by RT), unduly little attention has been paid to the lowest level in the disinformation chain. That is where it all begins. The relationship between the world’s closest allies, Russia and Belarus, is a case in point: Russia’s Regnum is thus arguably the advance guard in the modern disinformation wars. After all, the greatest ideas are the simplest.