US Helsinki Commission holds hearings on Russian influence in Belarus

On 20 November, the US Helsinki Commission conducted its first hearings on Belarus in the last eight years. Belarusian experts traveled to Washington DC to take part in the hearings called “NOT-SO-GOOD NEIGHBORS: Russian Influence in Belarus.” What were the main messages of the session?

The U.S. is ready to support Belarusian sovereignty

Visits of John Bolton and David Hale earlier this year highlighted the importance of Belarus’s independence for the U.S. While in Minsk, Bolton explicitly mentioned sovereignty several times. On the eve of the hearings at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), the press release of the Commission stated:

“As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations <….> Speakers will decode Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explore how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus”.

The hearings lasted for one and a half hours and were broadcast live. Alcee Hastings, a chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission moderated the session with experts on Belarus and Russia: Andrei Yeliseyeu, Head of Monitoring Unit, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS); Research Director, EAST Center; Sofya Orlosky, Senior Program Manager for Eurasia, Freedom House; Franak Viačorka, Research Media Analyst (Contractor), U.S. Agency for Global Media; Brian Whitmore, Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program, CEPA.

Kremlin influence through multiple channels

Kremlin sees Belarus “as an integral part of the so-called Russian world,” started his speech Andrei Yeliseyeu. According to Yeliseyeu, this leads to an increasing focus on Belarus in the Russian media space.

A dozen of new active outlets of disinformation, which are entirely devoted to events in Belarus, have appeared online. Their publications use aggressive chauvinistic rhetoric, sometimes openly questioning the existence of independence of the Belarusian ethnic group or language, discrediting and distorting the history of Belarus.

Not only the Russian media contribute to spreading the idea of the “Russian World” in Belarus. Yeliseyeu mentions Google and Apple as the companies ignoring the geo-targeting for Belarus, which leads to many Belarusians seeing predominantly the Russian media in their newsfeed.

Franak Viačorka highlighted the Russian orthodox church role and Russian language as instruments of Russian influence on Belarus. Russian disinformation, says Viačorka, targets younger generation born when Lukashenka became a president, and seniors, nostalgic of the USSR. Viačorka also problematized education that is being Russified in Belarus.

“Franak Vicorka: “Helsinki commission hearing on Russian influence in Belarus. I am showing the portraits of Tadevuš Kaściuška (Tadeusz Kosciuszko) and Kastuś Kalinouski as examples of the common historical heritage of Eastern Europe.”

“ <…> Kremlin has established many local news websites networks <…>, channels on social media. They are not pro-Putin explicitly, rather anti-Western, anti-Polish, anti-liberal, and of course, anti-Belarusian. <…> Many of those pages belong to neo-nazi, pan-Slavic, or ultra-orthodox organizations somewhat tied to the Russian Orthodox church and so-called kozaks”.

While lacking instruments for preventing Russian propaganda from spreading on the Belarusian territory, Belarusian authorities copy the ideas from Russia to restrict Belarusian independent media.

“The 2018 amendments to the law on mass media largely mimic those of the notorious lush Russian law on bloggers by expanding the government authority to censor the web curtailing anonymous internet use and finning freelance journalists”, said Orlosky.

What can the U.S. do for Belarus?

Orlosky pointed to the lack of transparency of the Belarus-Russia road maps on the Union State to be signed on 8 December. She believes that the autocratic government of Belarus prevents the country from strengthening and makes it an easy victim of the Russian pressure.

“If the US wants to help Belarus become more resilient, it should do it first of all by strongly encouraging genuine democratic reform. For example, condition any next steps in the US Belarus engagement on the comprehensive electoral reform and the removal of restrictions on the peaceful civic activity. The US could provide experts, technical assistance, and conditional funding to help advance change”.

Yeliseyeu called for the support of the civil society of Belarus and urged Google and Apple to see Belarus as a separate market. Viačorka called for the support of the Belarusian civil society and independent media, such as Radio Liberty, Belsat, Euroradio.

Whitmore believes that the US should support and invest in the IT-sector in Belarus as it has become one of the fields decreasing Belarusian economic dependence from Russia.

“We [the US – Belsat] can take steps to assure that Belarus becomes less dependent on Russia economically, such as helping it develop its fledging high-tech sector. This would have an added benefit of changing the political environment and changing the political economy in Belarus”.

The US educational programs and the support of the Belarusian civil society had decreased together with the worsening relations of the countries in 2008 when the US ambassador left Belarus. Sanctions that followed the violent crackdown on the peaceful protests of 2010 were lifted only in 2015 when Lukashenka released all political prisoners. In 2019, Belarus welcomed several US diplomats and lifted restrictions on the number of US embassy staff. Hearings of the US Helsinki Commission demonstrated an increasing interest of the US to Belarus and Russian influence as a threat to its sovereignty.

Alesia Rudnik