The Kremlin’s Psychological Portrait! How Russian TV Covered the Events in Belarus in 2020 – The Results of a Study by HWAG

On December 9, the press center of Ukraine Crisis Media Center hosted a presentation of a report by UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group “Russian Disinformation About Belarus: Main Topics and Narratives of 2020”. The study summarized narratives about Belarus on Russian television with a focus on presidential elections and democratic processes. The project was implemented jointly with the Estonian Center for International Development.

In his introductory remarks, Raul Rebane, a communications expert at the Estonian Center for International Development, criticized the detachment with which Western countries often view events in Ukraine and Belarus. In particular, he called it Estonia’s problem that “we do not notice problems in other countries”.

Speaking about the monitoring of Russian television narratives about Belarus in 2020, Rebane stressed that this study is “a wonderful psychological portrait of Russia”.

“I have been observing Belarus for a long time, and I have been doing it especially carefully since last year. I remember in the 80’s there were commands on television, how and what to say. What is happening on Russian television now is reminiscent of a clear strategy. Such instructions can be seen for Belarus,” the expert summed up.

Rebane also said that some of the results of the study came as a surprise to him. In particular, he expected the “general line of the Kremlin” to fluctuate: for example, Lukashenko was criticized after the election at Solovyov’s, and within a week the same people were actively praising him. However, the general analysis of TV stories showed that the criticism was only occasional and sporadic, while the approval and support for Lukashenko, as opposed to the opposition, were systematic. Rebane drew an analogy with the figure of Stalin, who is being “whitewashed” in the same way as Lukashenko.

“I repeat: this is a psychological portrait of Russia. The results of this study must be disseminated internationally!” Rebane summed up.

Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, Head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at UCMC, presented key information from the study. According to her, from the coverage by propaganda, one can understand how difficult last year was for Belarus.

“The Russian Federation has been and remains the main vanguard of support for Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. At the same time, Russia is one of the world leaders in the production of disinformation. A shining example: when the Belarusian media outlets declared a strike in August 2020, they were very quickly replaced by 32 “specialists” from Russia Today,” Tsekhanovska recalled.

The expert pointed out that inside Belarus, Russian television and social networks remain perhaps the most influential source of information. Belarusian state media retransmit a large share of Russian content. “Why do we continue to talk about television in the days of Tik Tok? First of all, because it is important for the Russians themselves,” she explained.

The methodology of the research was to analyze two thousand news stories of three top Russian channels – Channel 1, Rossiya 1, and NTV. All stories were analyzed and coded manually.

As for the breakdown by topics concerning which Belarus was mentioned, protests against the falsification of the presidential election, which started in August 2020, were at the top. 33% of Russians mentioned them primarily in regular polls on the events of the previous week. Constant attention was paid to the relations between Belarus and Russia. The main narratives, although similar, were different content-wise: from the thesis of Russia and Belarus as partners, there was a gradual transition to the assertion that Russia and Belarus were “union states”.

The narrative about the protests was the same: rhetoric about the West’s attempts to seize Belarus. Tsekhanovska also said that Russian propaganda had defended the Lukashenko regime and the security forces from day one, despite the detention and beating of Russian channels’ reporters, which were justified or concealed.

“How effective have these efforts been? The answer, unfortunately, is affirmative. Polls show that Russians feel sympathy and trust towards Lukashenko. 57% believe that Lukashenko should be the president of Belarus, the majority believe that the election was fair,” Tsekhanovska said.

The expert concluded that countering disinformation, in order to be effective, must be as systematic as propaganda itself. The Ukrainian state should provide unconditional assistance in this area to asylum seekers from Belarus, especially journalists and oppositionists fleeing persecution of Lukashenko. “Belarusian journalists who oppose the authoritarian regime need our help. What kind of help is an open question,” the researcher emphasized. “Ukrainian media and civil society must take the government by the sleeve and draw its attention to problems. It should be emphasized that there is a demand to solve this problem!”

More details on the results of the study can be found via the link.

Maksym Butkevych, coordinator at No Borders Project, human rights activist, media expert, supported the demands on the Ukrainian authorities to more actively help immigrants from Belarus. His project actually focuses on working with asylum seekers and educational programs for them and for the Ukrainian public on media literacy and disinformation.

Butkevych admitted that he was surprised that the Russian media had supported Lukashenko since the first day of the protests – the human rights activist initially had a different hypothesis.

“It is clear which roots the famous events of 2021 originated with. Firstly, it is an imperial colonial discourse about an older brother who can scold but always comes to the rescue. Secondly, it is the heyday of propaganda on Belarusian TV. These people – I don’t even want to name them – model themselves according to the patterns of Kiselyov, Solovyov, Simonyan, and so on. Finally, it is the defeat of the independent Belarusian media –, other outlets, Telegram channels – they have been declared extremist,” Butkevych said.

The human rights activist noted with regret that in Poland, Lithuania and Georgia, more comfortable conditions have been created for Belarusians who are forced to arrange their lives outside their homeland.