Pandemic power games: Russia- and China-backed narratives on COVID-19 in Belarusian media space

During the COVID-19 crisis China and Russia have looked to twist media narratives on the pandemic and use them to their advantage. Belarus is no exception to this misinformation, although there are some peculiarities to the Belarus’ case. While in America and the EU China targets social platforms and media that will spread Beijing-friendly messages, Belarusian state media forms such narratives by itself. While Russian television channels use disinformation and criticize the way the Belarusian government deals with the COVID crisis, the network of pro-Russian media in Belarus narrates an opposite story, supporting the Belarusian authorities and simultaneously forming pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments. In addition, those pro-Russian networks form a favorable image for Beijing, portraying China as a responsible global leader dealing with the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis did not create a new reality for Belarusian foreign policy, yet the pandemic did underline the interests of Russia and China towards Belarus. Such interplays of political interests finds reflection in the media coverage of COVID in the Belarusian media space.

Russian media: mixed messages on Belarus and support for China

When things get tense between Moscow and Minsk, be it a disagreement on energy prices or the pace of integration talks, Russian media launch attacks on the Belarusian leadership. Thus, in 2010 in the midst of a conflict between Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his Russian counterpart, the Russian television channel, NTV launched an investigative documentary which claimed to expose crimes committed by Lukashenka and his team, including the disappearance of political opponents. Similarly, during the negotiations on deepening Russo-Belarusian integration in 2019, sources like the Telegram channel Nezygar spread disinformation messages about Lukashenka calling him “incompetent”, “uneducated”, and stating that his rating sufficiently dropped during the integration talks. In the light of the upcoming presidential elections in August 2020, where Lukashenka, runs for a new term, Russia might use media campaigns to signal to the Belarusian leadership that the Kremlin has media leverage that could affect the campaign.

On COVID-related topics, the messages spread by Russia-backed media on Belarus vary. In May 2020, the Belarusian MFA withdrew accreditation of a Russian journalist who reported from the Belarusian town of Stolbtsy, claiming that the Ministry of Health is not to be trusted on COVID statistics. Following that news report, the Belarusian channel Belarus 1 debunked the fakes created by Russia’s Channel One on Belarus, simultaneously pointing out the flaws of the Russian healthcare system. Both channels then went back and forth in their argument, each arguing that the counterpart spread fakes.

Report on Russia’s Channel One implied that the recent burials at the Stolbtsy cemetery are related to COVID deaths. According to the Belarusian TV channel Belarus 1, several burials date back to 2019 and were caused by a car accident. Source: Naviny.by

At the same time, the network of pro-Russian media that operates across Belarus, such as Sputnik Belarus and smaller regional media, promote a different agenda. Thus, Sputnik Belarus writes about success stories of Russian medical aid to Europe, claiming that “Russian medical SWAT” shows to the international community how to solve complicated global problems. As for the regional pro-Russian media, they usually reprint news from larger news sources, and merely produce original content in their blog sections. Key narratives formed by the blog authors during the COVID pandemic are similar to pre-crisis times: praise for the Belarusian government and the stability of the Belarusian political system, praise for Russo-Belarusian political integration, and anti-Western sentiments.

An example of the praise to the Belarusian authorities could be an op-ed on Grodno.daily where the author claims that “Sweden repeated the Belarusian experience on not introducing quarantine”, creating an impression that Swedish authorities borrowed Belarusian best practices in dealing with COVID, which is hardly the case. Another article illustrates anti-Western sentiments: as the author criticizes the IMF as a flawed Western institution which interferes in the domestic affairs of developing countries like Belarus and suggests that in the period when Belarus seeks external lending fro economic recovery after COVID, it is better to turn to Russia as Russia does not pose conditions such as structural reforms. Another article claims that coronavirus was allegedly developed by NATO, also speculating that the Belarusian political opposition (those in opposition to President Lukashenka) plot with NATO and get $1 for anyone who who gets ill with coronavirus. One more example in the vein of anti-Western sentiments and support of a common history with Russian and Soviet heritage is the article where the author blames Europe for withdrawing the decision to provide Belarus with a $60 million aid package for dealing with COVID as the Belarusian authorities do not follow WHO recommendations on social distancing and quarantine. In the article, the author blames the EU for demanding the introduction of social distancing and rescheduling mass gatherings such as the military parade on 9th May, claiming that the West wants Belarusians to sell the memory of victory in World War II.

Last but not least, pro-Russian media construct a favorable image of China on the international arena, sometimes contrasting this with the image of the “flawed West”. Thus, columnists on sources like Sputnik Belarus produce pieces highlighting that China sets an example in COVID response for the rest of the world; some pieces narrate that China faces the challenge of dealing with COVID disinformation, and that when China fights COVID, many countries fight with China itself” or that “Pax American is ended and China is an alternative leader in the global order”.

Budding friendship: Minsk backs up Beijing

Among the Belarusian foreign policy priorities, China is a much-desired partner. For the past few years Belarus consistently has looked to establish closer political ties with China. For the authoritarian Belarusian leadership, China is somewhat ideologically close and ties with China help to rebalance Belarus’ dependence on Russia, opening opportunities of access to the Chinese markets for Belarusian exports, access to lending from the China Development Bank, and military cooperation, such as the joint venture on production of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) “Polonez” launched in 2015. On June 15, 2020, President Lukashenka congratulated Xi Jinping on his birthday, saying that China is an “iron friend” of Belarus, praising China’s global leadership, particularly in tackling the COVID crisis.

While in Europe and the U.S. China uses paid ads and targets social media to spread favorable narratives, there is little need to do so in Belarus. Rather, state media in Belarus broadcasts a good image of China and regularly quotes statements by China’s embassy in Belarus. Journalists who work for state media create news articles stressing the scope of China’s humanitarian aid globally and China’s aid to Belarus in particular, quoting the Chinese ambassador to Belarus who states that Sino-Belarusian relations are an example for others. Blog pieces in these media outlets further stress that “China stretched the hand of help to the world with COVID, while a number of political forces with covert motives talk unfavorably about China”. Twitter accounts of the main state media outlets, like the news agency BelTa and the newspaper SB.by, post about the friendship of Belarus and China. In the same vein, the television Channel Belarus 1 broadcasts that China’s criteria in dealing with COVID is higher than those of the WHO.

Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic became yet another battlefield for competing political interests. In the case of Belarus, the discourses of state media are strikingly different towards their Chinese and Russian counterparts. This is illustrated by the government recognizing the scope of propaganda and disinformation threats that could be used by an external actor.

Author: Katsiaryna Shmatsina (@kshmatsina) is a Belarusian political analyst focusing on the Belarus’ foreign policy, regional security, and the impact of great power relations on smaller actors. Katsiarynas portfolio includes a non-residential fellowship at the German Marshall Fund (2020) and Think Visegrad Fellowship (2019). Previously, she worked for the American Bar Association where she managed the democratic-governance and rule-of-law projects. She holds a Masters in international relations from Syracuse University, New York and a law degree from Belarusian State University.

Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.

A strong collaborative network that connects professionals of the digital age from a variety of backgrounds.