For the first time in many years, Lukashenka’s regime and its opponents were able to engage in a dialogue with each other and unite in a short-lived alliance against a common external threat.
The concept of information sovereignty takes on various, often opposite, interpretations in the context of a new hybrid confrontation exploited by Russia, China and smaller autocrats against the global democratic project.
As a rule, in the region of the former Soviet Union and within some countries of Central Europe, governments turn to the concept of information sovereignty to achieve control over the national media space. The goal is prosaic – the marginalisation of ‘objectionable’ media, political rivals and other convenient ‘enemies’ that can be identified and created in order to destroy political competition and the freedom of speech.
These days, the leadership of Belarus is also trying on the concept of information sovereignty, mainly in light of censorship and other methods of suppressing uncomfortable voices. The situation is becoming increasingly tense after the economic crisis has been multiplied by COVID19 spread. Coronavirus effects exacerbated problems in the economy, angered people and began to undermine the monolith of ‘power vertical’.
Why is information sovereignty needed?
The issue of information sovereignty has never been – and will not be – an exclusive matter of government and state authorities. Information sovereignty is impossible without private sovereignty, without the ‘self’ of citizens themselves and public participation in maintaining the stability of their own state. So, it always balances between national security and freedom.
An important aspect of informational sovereignty is that one of its dimensions, which is state sovereignty, always intersects with the individual sovereignty of citizens themselves.
This is also the foundation of state identity in the narrow sense of the term – meaning the identity of its national bureaucracy. But authoritarian leaders of state systems such as the one built-in Belarus forget about that.
Polish political scientist Wojciech Przybylski suggested in his recent publication that in view of Russia’s hybrid war, information sovereignty needs to be understood “as synonymous with a strong and independent media”.
However, in the context of Belarus, the phenomenon of information sovereignty should be considered in a slightly different light.
Firstly, due to the fact that independent socio-political press in this country is under severe state pressure. Secondly, because public journalists are driven into an extremely narrow space between the red-and-green flags of self-censorship.
Their paths will cross again
In December 2019, protests against the integration of Belarus and Russia took place in Minsk and other large cities of Belarus every week. Only a few political rallies in Minsk and the regions were enough for Lukashenka to voice Putin a message reinforced by powerful media picture: “Volodya, I would be happy to unite, but the people are against it.”
For the first time in many years, the interests of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his opponents inside Belarus coincided clearly. This allowed Lukashenka to take advantage of opposition rallies against integration with Russia – in his own favour.
For the sake of this, Lukashenka has played along with the protesters a little and added deliberately grotesque theatre to the process. Both lonely policemen with megaphones and plain-clothed secret service joggers in Minsk’s downtown October Square, who occasionally sprinted from the Palace of the Republic to the Palace of Trade Unions (to portray at least some action against unauthorised protests) were nothing but a show that was run for the sake of being publically noted.
In the end, the Telegram channel of the presidential administration, «Пул Первого» (“The First Man’s Pool”), thanked the protesters for supporting Lukashenka in his negotiations.
A new attempt to establish a dialogue took place in mid-April. The head of Minsk Dialogue initiative, Mr Yauheni Preiherman published an appeal to the national unity of the authorities and their opponents in the largest non-governmental online newspaper in Belarus.
Prior to that, Mr Preiherman had been promoting the topic of Belarus as a stability donor in Eastern Europe for many years and was often criticised by the political opposition for whitewashing the authorities in times following Russian military intervention into Ukraine and resulting instability of security architecture in Eastern Europe.
So, his publication looked, to put it mildly, atypical – both for the website and for Mr Preiherman himself. The publication was greeted unflatteringly by both social networks and local political scientists.
It is a good question – whether, during pandemic-time presidential elections (to be held until the end of summer 2020), Belarusian nomenclature will further seek for support – or at least a truce – from those whom they consider rivals. No one wants the events of 19 December 2010, to happen again (and an almost inevitable involvement of Russian authorities and special services).
At the same time, the type of COVID19 crisis management that Lukashenka chose for himself does not add popularity to the existing way of managing the country as a whole.
There will be no protests on the streets, but the search of new social contract has already become an inevitable reality for Belarus – against the backdrop of rapidly growing risks, public discontent, and fast-decreasing income of both state employees and private business.
The victory of ‘new’ philistine nationalism
Social transformations do not occur immediately after you replace a used Lada with a used Volkswagen Passat B3. With all necessary technological progress and access-to-consumption adjustments, Belarusians as a whole have not changed too much in their archetype over the past 25 years.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that by 2019, the ‘new’ Belarusian philistine nationalism (which had been forming since the early 1990s) has finally taken over the ‘old’ Soviet philistine nationalism within at least one – but key – topic.
Collective Belarus smoothly approached the end of a long-standing “civil war” over whether joining another state is even an option. The protests of December 2019 only confirmed this recently-established conviction.
Both the society and the “vertical” have realised that good relations with the people of Russia are necessary, but Belarusians and Russians will live in different states – regardless of oil and gas prices. It took several phases of Russian enforcement to “brotherly love” throughout 2019 for people to realise their preferences against unification with the Russian Federation.
Besides, the more efforts Russia makes to coerce Belarusians into cohabitation within a “single” state, the further ‘philistine’ Belarus (including its bureaucrats) drifts away from a real, not declarative, union with its Eastern neighbour. The confrontation between Lukashenka and Putin on oil and gas front seems to have finally buried the prospects of building the Union State “on love basis”.
On the 20th anniversary of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State the region witnesses in relations between the two countries a new normality – and the last resting place for numerous obligations undertaken in 1999 by the parties to the agreement.
From the standpoint of information sovereignty construction process, the events of December 2019 turned out to be decisive for Belarus. For the first time in many years, Lukashenka’s regime and its opponents were able to engage in a dialogue with each other and unite in a short-lived alliance against a common external threat
At the same time, non-governmental Telegram channels, mostly pro-Belarusian, though oppositional to Lukashenka, quickly gained dominance over the entire communication tool. For the first time in many years, citizens have gained an opportunity to make the authorities feel uncomfortable – if not impose firm pressure on them.
In the context of economic crisis, the publication of leaks of any nature turned out to be extremely sensitive not just for the abstract ‘authorities’, but personally for Lukashenka – be it any documents inconvenient for his administration, regional or ministerial orders, state-run informal coercion orders, or the scandalous non-political behaviour of police officials.
Belarusians under 30 are unlikely to remember when any head of the presidential administration ever reacted to crises by public apologies or admitting the authorities were wrong (like it was in the case involving the now-former head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Shunevich and the Romani community of Belarus).
At a time when the budget does not contain enough cash to appease every dissatisfied person, the authorities had no other choice but to offer the core electorate a promise of ‘justice’ instead of money. The main figure in the implementation of this new unspoken concept of “justice for everyone” (instead of the old “500 dollars for everyone” mantra) is the previous head of Lukashenka administration, Ms Natalia Kachanava.
A short-term truce between the authorities and the opposition ended with the onset of COVID-19 pandemic.
The crisis management model chosen by Lukashenka causes a storm of criticism both among his traditional opponents, but also within the system – primarily, within the government, but also among the ordinary employees of the Ministry of Health, yet not publicly outspoken.
It is most likely that there’s no possibility of seizing money with all the doctors and officials a few months before the election.
This is the first part of a two-part special on information sovereignty in Belarus. The second part is available here.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. A Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by.