The results of Belarusian presidential election have brought protests to an anticipated scale. The fight for the democratic future began not only on the streets, but also in the virtual space. Pro-Kremlin media is also heavily involved. Debunk EU analysts have noticed that the assessment of Alexander Lukashenko regime in Russian media started to change after Lukashenko called and talked to Vladimir Putin. This insight was made after analysing 1209 articles which appeared in the biggest Russian information channels throughout the month of August.
The protests in Belarus were actively discussed not only in Russian, but also in Western media. The aspiration of Belarusian people to overthrow Lukashenko, who was trying to keep his power using election fraud and brutal force, was even named as Belarusian revolution. This was the main message in the Western media about the events in Belarus.
Meanwhile, Russian media portrayed the protests differently. Although there are frequent discussions about Kremlin-ordered disinformation, disseminated through Russian media, Debunk EU research has shown that the messages about the protests, targeted to the Russian audience, differed a lot among each other.
According to the senior analyst at Debunk EU Algirdas Kazlauskas, there were three main meta-narratives concerning Belarusian protests in Russian media:
Condemning the regime for using violence against the protesters — very similar to the messages in Western media.
Criticism towards Belarusian leader for anti-Russian rhetoric, detained and/or beaten Russian citizens and his flirting with the West.
Criticism towards protesters. According to A. Kazlauskas, there were comparisons to the Maidan in Ukraine, accusations of inciting a civil war, and that everything is orchestrated by the West.
On the eve of the elections and the first week after, the Russian media turned more negative towards Lukashenko‘s regime. The main targets were Lukashenko himself, Belarusian police, Central Electoral Commission and state media of Belarus.
According to A. Kazlauskas, it is possible to argue that the Kremlin did not have a clearly formulated communication strategy, because it did not expect such a scale of the protests. Therefore, the media was allowed to communicate at their own discretion. This insight was supported by a source who works at one of Russia’s main news agencies. Meduza.io website was told that after roughly a week of protests, Putin’s administration finally approached the major news agencies and asked journalists to be more “balanced” in their reporting.
A change in the Russian media was noticed only after 15th of August, when Lukashenko has called Putin to discuss the situation.
According to A. Kazlauskas, it was right after this conversation when new messages started to appear in the Russian media:
“We have noticed that the message about interference of the West in domestic politics of Belarus has intensified. This particular message has reached over 290 million people. Moreover, narratives about NATO troops near the border of Belarus (67M contact reach) and that the protests pose a threat not only to Belarus, but to Russia as well (27M contact reach). There was a change of the overall sentiment as well — more content supporting Lukashenko appeared, and it has reached an even wider audience”,— says the expert.
According to A. Kazlauskas, the appearance of new narratives and positive content about the regime may signal that pressure from protesters undermined Lukashenko’s political and bargaining power. It is possible that during his conversation with Putin, Lukashenko could have accepted concessions and commitments benefiting the Russian side.
The story about the Wagner mercenaries, which was publicised at the end of July, is also worth mentioning. Before the talks between Lukashenko and Putin, messages about this event were mostly negative: that the detention is a campaign of public relations, highlighting the aggressiveness of this action, etc.
“After Lukashenko has called Putin it was announced that those Wagner mercenaries will be returned to Russia. Some mentions of a conspiracy theory that those fighters were sent by Ukraine, not Russia, appeared in pro-Kremlin media. However, the fact that the mercenaries were finally transferred to Russia (despite the Ukrainian requests to extradite them), gives some credibility to the theory that it might have been a joint PR action of Russia and Belarus in order to show Belarusian people that Lukashenko is a guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty and he is ready to defend his country not only from the Western but also from the Russian aggression”, — says A. Kazlauskas.
Despite the fact that the research has found some tendencies, that Lukashenko‘s call to Putin might have had some influence over the main messages in the Russian media, to confirm this statement there is a need for the further research. Therefore, according to A. Kazlauskas, the scope of the research needs to be expanded and further development of messages published in the pro-Kremlin media especially after the first live round of Lukashenko-Putin negotiations in Sochi it will provide a clearer picture.
For this research, the analysts sought to cover different Russian media outlets (internet media, news agencies, TV channels, press and regional media). They were selected mainly based on the size of the total reach according to SimilarWeb.com classification.