After Alexander Lukashenka has secretly inaugurated himself for one more term in September, the protests in Belarus have erupted with a new force. Even though right after the election Russian media was quite critical towards Belarusian regime, after Lukashenka called and met with Vladimir Putin several times, the tone has become way calmer. According to Debunk EU, compared to August, throughout September and October Russian media was eager to attack the West for interfering in Belarusian affairs and influencing the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Debunk EU analyses of the most popular Russian media outlets have shown that the Kremlin was not unambiguous in its attitude towards Lukashenka’s regime. In the end of August and right after the election, the biggest news portals wrote quite openly about the events in Belarus and brutal force that was used against protesters, who are seeking fair elections. However, after the first talks between Lukashenka and Putin in mid-August, the communication became less critical. The change was also verified by an employee of one of Russia's largest news agencies, who told Meduza.io that it was only after a week of protests that Russian portals received a request from the Kremlin officials not to cover Lukashenko as negatively as before.
In order to analyse communication trends in Russian media and the changing perception of the situation by the Kremlin, Debunk EU analysts have looked into 2396 articles on this topic, published in the Russian media throughout September 1st – October 31st.
Declining interest has reduced the amount of negative content about Lukashenka
Having analysed the news traffic in the biggest Russian media outlets, Debunk EU experts have noticed that after the first call between Lukashenka and Putin (August 15th) , the negative sentiment towards the regime decreased from 56.8% to 46,7%. In turn, the positive messaging has increased from 36,4% to 48,1%.
After the summit in Sochi, the tone on events in Belarus balance tilted to the positive side even more. From September 14th till October 31st, the number of positive messages increased from 48,1% to 51,9%, and with the negative messages there was a drop from 46,7% to 39,4%.
The analysis has shown that after the first talks between Lukashenka and Putin, the message about Western interference in Belarusian domestic affairs was on the rise. There were a couple of new messages as well, such as NATO forces gathered next to Belarusian border, protests being a threat not only to Belarus, but Russia as well, and Russia being ready to help if there are any threats to Belarusian security.
The Union State
It was noticed that in August, just after the first call, there was also an increased number of messages about Russian and Belarusian relations, and the Union State formed by those two countries. Additionally, the majority of such messages were positive. Communication about the future of the Union State and emerging external threats continued into September and October.
In the beginning of September this message was amplified by comments made by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, who talked about the future of the two states and ways of solving the ongoing crisis. On September 8th this message was reinforced again by Lukashenka‘s interview in RT. However, the highest point has coincided with the Sochi meeting.
While analysing the news flow in September-October and comparing it to the data from August, Debunk EU analysts have noticed that anti-opposition narratives were the most prominent. Certain messages were being spread more actively, such as “Tsikhanouskaya is a Western candidate” (39M contact reach). Throughout the analysed period new messages have also emerged, for example, “Lukashenka is ready for a dialogue with the opposition” (23M), “protesters and opposition are anti-Russian” (17M), and “Viktar Babaryka is the real opposition” (11M).
Throughout September-October there was a noticeable escalation of disagreements amongst Belarusian opposition. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was presented as a sell-out who seeks money and approval from the West and escalates the protests on the streets. On the contrary, Lukashenka was presented as a leader who is determined to engage in dialogue with the opposition on constitutional reform and is negotiating with the peaceful and rational opposition (with particular emphasis on Babaryka).
It was noticed that Lukashenka himself did not voice his willingness to talk with the opposition unless he was pressed by the Kremlin. It was only after the first call with Putin in mid-August when he mentioned the possibility of a constitutional reform as a way of solving the crisis. What is interesting is that this reform was one of the main promises of Mr. Babaryka, who was a long-time head of Belgazprombank and tried to run for President, but was barred from participating in the election and currently is in prison.
The analysis has shown that on September 1st the topic of constitutional reform was intensified once again by the media. It was coincidental with two unrelated messages, the first one being a video made by Babaryka a couple of months ago, where he announced about creating a separate political party with the main goal of preparing the constitutional reform.
Political experts deemed this move to be splitting the opposition. However, Babaryka’s decision was praised in the Russian media as the only way to strengthen the opposition in its discussions with Lukashenka and showcase that there is an alternative to Tsikhanouskaya supporters on the streets. Coincidently, on the same day Mr. Lavrov doubled down on the Kremlin’s position about constitutional reform as the only way to solve the crisis in Belarus.
Notably, just after a couple of days in an exhaustive interview for RT Lukashenka dismissed the possibility of a dialogue with the opposition by calling it anti-Russian. He justified this statement by quoting a national security program allegedly signed by Tsikhanouskaya, which was published and later removed from her website. This story was debunked by Tsikhanouskaya herself, and by independent fact-checkers.
The topic of opposition being anti-Russian was amplified once again after Lukashenka’s meeting with Putin in Sochi. After the summit Lukashenka started talking not only about the constitutional reform, but also about being ready to discuss the situation with the opposition. Later, on October 10th, Lukashenka has met with the detained opposition figures, most notably – Viktar Babaryka.
In the Russian media it was interpreted as a win for peaceful position of Babaryka against the protesting supporters of Tsikhanouskaya. After a couple of days, an attorney of one of the oppositionists who participated in the meeting told radio Ekho Moskvy that his client, Vital Shkliarou, testified that Siarhei Tsikhanouski (the husband of Thikhanouskaya) was also present at the meeting. However, Belarussian state media has tried to conceal this fact by cutting the video footage and not mentioning about this fact in their news coverage.
Compared to the data from August, in September-October the anti-West narrative was still prevalent in Russian media. However, it was much more clearly linked to the aforementioned anti-opposition narrative. Notably, after the first Lukashenko-Putin call in mid-August, a new message about NATO appeared and was repeated once again after the meeting in Sochi: it covered joint Belarusian-Russian military drills against the growing NATO threat.
After the first Lukashenka’s call to Putin, the message about the West interfering with Belarussian affairs has reached the biggest audience (292M).
In comparison, after the summit in Sochi, there was not only increased activity of messaging about Western interference (364M); more similar statements have reached a wide audience as well, such as “there is a colour revolution planned in Belarus” (187M), “the West is financing the protests” (80M), etc.
According to Debunk EU analysts, despite the growing flow of negative messages against Belarusian protesters, the number of critical coverage about Lukashenka also remains high. Such trends can be explained by Kremlin’s reluctance to actively support Lukashenka and engage the entirety of Russian media apparatus the same way it was done during the Maidan protests in Ukraine. The lack of official support is determined by the fact that many people in Russia are in favour of Belarusian protesters. Additionally, support for Lukashenka damages Kremlin’s image in the eyes of Belarusian society. Currently, both potential ways to end the crisis in Belarus might bring serious repercussions. On the one hand, support for unpopular Lukashenka harms the long-term image of the Kremlin in Belarus. On the other hand, the Kremlin cannot allow their closest ally to be overthrown by street protests, because the same scenario, like a chain reaction, could bring damage to Putin’s regime.