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Of two minds Russia’s mass media and state officials can’t seem to decide where they stand on Alexander Lukashenko. That’s because the Kremlin doesn’t know, either.

Source: Meduza
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Generally speaking, the major media outlets in Russia (whether controlled directly or indirectly by the state) report important domestic and international political events as dictated by the Kremlin. This same code of conduct applies to public remarks by members of Russia’s Parliament. In recent reports by national news agencies, several high-profile Russian politicians have openly criticized Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and talked about the falsification of his re-election. It’s a mixed bag on television, where the national networks have reached no consensus on how to cover the events in Belarus: some channels call the protesters “bandits,” while others air footage of large crowds and broadcast comments from demonstrators. Sources tell Meduza that the Kremlin has yet to issue its usual instructions to elected officials and the mass media when it comes to talking about the situation in Belarus, and Russia’s leadership appears to be reluctant to support Lukashenko, for now.

“If somebody has an opinion, expressing it is allowed”

“I think Russia maintains a free hand and preserves its own integrity if we don’t rush to congratulate Lukashenko on this election,” First Deputy Chairman of the Committee for CIS Affairs Konstantin Zatulin told RBC, the day after the presidential election in Belarus.

In an interview with Gazeta.ru, the high-profile United Russia politician was even blunter: “The presidential campaign was full of complete falsification and disinformation. In a situation like that, talking about how many votes Lukashenko actually got is like reading tea leaves. It’s obviously not as many [as he’s saying]. There are reports that 40 percent of people voted early, which is just more fraud. The announced results do not inspire confidence.”

On his Telegram channel, Senator Alexey Pushkov — another politician ever loyal to the Kremlin — has talked about the possibility of “regime change” in Belarus: “Primitivism in support of the authorities, multiplied by the avoidance of sensitive issues of public concern, is a sure recipe for being defeated by the opposition in the information space and is a disservice to Lukashenko. You can’t do high-quality politics with low-quality information.”

A source close to the State Duma’s top brass told Meduza that Russian lawmakers have received no clear guidelines from either Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin or the party leaders when it comes to talking about Belarus. The Kremlin hasn’t shared a playbook or any talking points, either. “If somebody has an opinion, expressing it is allowed. Zatulin had a gut feeling and he went with it,” said Meduza’s source, describing the mood in the State Duma. In the Federation Council, he says, there’s a similar vibe. 

At their own discretion

Unlike media coverage during Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, Russia’s main news agencies have yet to adopt a single narrative about the events in Belarus. For example, RIA Novosti has reported in detail about opposition protests and strikes at Belarusian factories. When describing the size of a massive demonstration in Minsk on August 16, however, the agency’s correspondent wrote about tens of thousands of people, while independent estimates put the number closer to a quarter of a million. The same news agency also exaggerated the size of a rally in support of Alexander Lukashenko, reporting 70,000 people in attendance when it was likely no more than 30,000. 

But RIA Novosti’s tone has been inconsistent. On August 18, when reporting that Belarus’s ambassador in Spain called for a recount in the presidential election, the news agency included a gallery of evocative photos from protests together with comments about the police crackdown that began immediately after voting ended on August 9, featuring a vivid description of the “tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets” used against demonstrators. 

The state news agency TASS has covered the protests in even greater detail, reporting incidents like a rally outside a detention center in Minsk, where demonstrators sang happy birthday to jailed opposition blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky (Syarhey Tsikhanouski). TASS also informed readers about printing disruptions the Belarusian edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda suffered when the newspaper ran stories about last Sunday’s protests, and it’s reported on work stoppages and attacks by the Belarusian authorities against journalists covering the opposition demonstrations.

TASS crowns this image from a mass protest in Minsk on August 16 its “photo of the day”

There’s a similar flavor to the reporting on Belarus by the news agency Interfax, which is not state-run. Interfax has covered the strikes and cited independent estimates of how many people protested in Minsk on August 16.

A source who works at one of Russia’s main news agencies told Meduza that the Kremlin simply issued no directives regarding coverage of the events in Belarus after the presidential election. “[They haven’t told us] to support Lukashenko or beat up on the opposition and the protesters — nothing. Everything has been left to the agencies’ own discretion. That’s the level of free speech here,” says Meduza’s source, adding that the Putin administration finally did approach the major news agencies after roughly a week of demonstrations, when it asked journalists to be “balanced” in their reporting.

Two employees at RIA Novosti also told Meduza that editors have received no clear guidelines for reporting the situation in Belarus — no instructions for what events to ignore and what should be “highlighted.” One of these sources called the approach “objective in comparison to [our] coverage of events in Ukraine,” while the other said merely that the policy is “neutral.”

Dmitry Gornostaev, RIA Novosti’s central management director, told Meduza that “the laws of the news” guide the agency’s reporting on Belarus, which he insists takes no sides in the current political turmoil. Gornostaev also said RIA Novosti gets no instructions from the Kremlin or the Foreign Ministry about how to cover the protests. The agency, he says, “relies on the reports filed by our correspondents.” 

Alexey Meshkov, the chief editor of Interfax’s political information service, says “objectivity alone” guides his agency’s work in all reporting. “It seems to me that [the authorities] aren’t issuing any guidelines [about covering the events in Belarus] and everyone is reporting [the news] as it is,” Meshkov told Meduza.

TASS editor-in-chief Mikhail Petrov says his agency currently has several correspondents on the ground in Belarus. He, too, touts the outlet’s objectivity and maintains that neither the Kremlin nor the Foreign Ministry has meddled in reporting about Lukashenko or the protests. 

Unguided television

“I’ve spent many years tracking the layout, rhetoric, opinions, and soundbites Russian television uses to report events. This time, Russian TV networks clearly got no clear or uniform instructions about how they ought to cover and depict events in Belarus. Each major network served up its own level of misinformation and distortion, especially on the first day after the election,” argued television critic Arina Borodina in a radio broadcast on Ekho Moskvy. Rossiya-1’s reporting on the protests in Belarus was particularly “odious,” she said, but the networks Pervyi Kanal and NTV covered the strikes, demonstrators’ “solidarity chains,” and the release of injured protesters from detention centers. 

It’s true that Russian television networks have covered the Belarusian protests in very different ways. This was particularly evident on Sunday, August 16, when the opposition held the biggest demonstration in the nation’s history, hours after Lukashenko’s supporters staged a rally that was piddling by comparison. 

Pervyi Kanal’s news anchors emphasized that Belarusian election officials certified the president’s re-election and they called the pro-government demonstrators “representatives of Lukashenko’s core electorate: hard workers, farmworkers, and civic servants.” The network carried comments from some of these weekend warriors, like a teary-eyed young woman who said she’d simply die “if the fascists come to power.” Pervyi Kanal said nothing about the massive size of the opposition’s protest later that same day and showed footage of scattered demonstrations in Minsk instead of the ocean of human beings who assembled and marched through the capital. The station’s correspondent on the ground also mentioned “color revolutions” several times and the West’s support for the opposition.

Rossiya-1 went a step further, referring to protesters as “bandits” and likening the demonstrations across Belarus to Kyiv’s Euromaidan Revolution.

At NTV, on the other hand, news anchors said tens of thousands of people — maybe even 100,000 — attended the August 16 protest against Lukashenko in the biggest public assembly in modern Belarusian history. The network also aired footage from the demonstration and comments from protesters.

The next day, on August 17 — as Moscow Higher School of Economics Media Professor Anna Kachkayeva noted on her Facebook page — Pervyi Kanal’s “Vremya” evening news broadcast covered Lukashenko’s disastrous meeting with disgruntled workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and how they shouted at him, “Resign!” The network’s anchors also mentioned police brutality against protesters and strikes at Belarusian factories. The second half of the show, however, focused on possible Western interference in Belarus, Kachkayeva pointed out. 

Spokespeople for all three television networks declined to speak to Meduza about their editorial policies on news reports concerning events in Belarus.

An unreliable partner

A source close to the Putin administration explained to Meduza that the relatively free rein granted now to Russia’s state media on Belarus reporting is possible when there’s no consensus in the Kremlin about events or even the most “desirable scenario” worth promoting. “They’re just waiting to see if [Lukashenko] holds on,” said another source with ties to the Kremlin.

Despite public statements about the threat of external interference, officials in Moscow believe the Belarusian protests and the local authorities’ response are a purely domestic matter, multiple sources in the Russian government told Meduza, insisting that Vladimir Putin is disinclined to support Lukashenko. The last lingering trust died earlier this year during Lukashenko’s re-election campaign, which he built largely on anti-Kremlin rhetoric. The Putin administration “stopped seeing him as an even somewhat reliable partner,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza.

For all its indecision, the Kremlin is nevertheless wary of putting any positive spin on mass protests, says the same source. “They’re very afraid of solving problems in the streets and in public squares,” he says. “That’s why they try to keep favorable coverage of protests off the TV screen.”

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Story by Andrey Pertsev with additional reporting by Farida Rustamova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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