Belarusian Victory Day Parade in Midst of Pandemic: A Propaganda Coup Against Moscow
In the evening of May 6, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) deprived Alexei Kruchinin, a journalist from Russian TV’s First Channel, of accreditation, effectively sending him and his camera crew packing (Tut.by, May 6). The reasoning behind this move was a four-minute-long TV news segment about the COVID-19 situation in Belarus, which had aired on First Channel earlier that same morning (First Channel, May 6). In a mournful tone full of professed concern about ordinary Belarusians, the journalist described a spike in COVID-19 infections, which he attributed to the subbotnik (day of unpaid labor on Saturday) on April 25 and to the attendance of Orthodox Easter services on April 19. The Russian TV report, in turn, attributed those public events to the complacency of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who had encouraged Belarusians to attend. The camera crew visited the town of Stolbtsy, 75 kilometers west of Minsk, showing multiple fresh graves at a local cemetery, and it listened to purportedly spontaneous complaints from locals, some of whom alleged that recent deaths from COVID-19 had been ascribed to other causes.
Not only was the reaction of the MFA swift, Belarus’s own major TV channel claimed to have found seven falsehoods in the aforementioned four minute segment (YouTube, May 6). Also, Belarus’s main government newspaper published a scathing article, “Corpse-Eating on the First TV Channel,” in which it called the author of the telecast an “info-killer” and a vulture. The article credited the First Channel journalist’s zeal and instructive tone to the fact that, in Russia itself, the epidemiological situation is no better (even with a quarantine) than in Belarus (without one)—something the leadership in Moscow almost certainly feels uneasy about (Sb.by, May 6).
Dmitry Mezentsev, Russia’s ambassador to Minsk, issued a restrained response. On the one hand, he suggested that he cannot agree with characterizing “a particular telecast as a factor negatively affecting […] our relations. Because any journalist, any […] media outlet itself defines the set of materials to present to the audience” On the other hand, he stressed that, “in this difficult time, the media should promote solidarity, deflect despondency, as well as maintain optimism and the belief that the trouble will be overcome as soon as possible” (BelrosTV, May 7). It is extremely difficult to argue that the May 6 First Channel news story met any of those criteria.
To be sure, distinguishing between righteous indignation and camouflaged hubris or envy is difficult, and this certainly applies to current Russian-Belarusian tensions. This was most recently visible in the military parade that took place in Minsk on May 9, celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. In his speech at the event, Lukashenka observed that “in this distraught and disoriented world, there will be people condemning us for the place and time of this revered event. Take your time to draw conclusions, and think hard before condemning us, Belarusians, the heirs of the Victory. We simply could not do otherwise; we had no choice [but to do the parade]… Because the eyes of Soviet soldiers, who died for our freedom, stare at us, and so do the eyes of partisans and underground members tortured in the dungeons of the Gestapo, as well as the eyes of old people, women and children of Khatyn. They really wanted to live, but they died so we would live” (Tut.by, YouTube, May 9). The May 9 Victory Day parade involved thousands of military and civilian spectators, including quite a few members of the group most vulnerable to COVID-19, the elderly.
Over several weeks, while analyzing Lukashenka’s motives for not canceling the parade, the opposition exclusively emphasized what it called his obstinance, lunacy and utmost immorality. The Belarusian investigative journalist Ihar Tyshkevich (now living and working in Ukraine) was the first to break from this theme. Tyshkevich argued that one of Lukashenka’s motives was, in fact, to fight Russian propaganda on its own turf and by its own means (YouTube, May 6). Russia considers itself to be the major heir to Soviet military glory and places its crucial role in defeating Nazism at the center of Russia’s contemporary self-image and of soft power projected abroad. Now, as Lukashenka put it in his speech, “the military parade in Minsk is the only one in the post-Soviet space, and it will honor all Soviet soldiers who liberated the world from Nazism.” The Russian service of Euronews, covered the Victory Day parade in Minsk, and its footage notably features multiple laudatory responses of people from all over the former Soviet Union, including Russia itself (Euronews.ru, May 9). In contrast to Belarusian TV channels, Euronews is watched widely across the whole region, thus giving credence to Tyshkevich’s interpretation. That is, by conducting the parade, Minsk earned significant moral capital within the former Soviet space and possibly made itself just a bit safer in the face of Russia’s putative aggression. Admittedly, the impressions of the parade are mixed inside Belarus itself and largely negative in the West.
But the danger to Belarus’s sovereignty notably does not emanate from the West, so the overall effect of the parade may prove important in preserving Lukashenka’s own hold on power and, consequently, Belarus’s statehood. The presidential elections are now scheduled for August 6. All of a sudden, on May 8, Valery Tsepkalo, a member of Lukashenka’s victorious 1994 election campaign, Belarus’s former ambassador to the United States (1997–2002), and the founder of the High-Tech Center in Minsk, declared his desire to enter the presidential race. His announcement includes a harshly critical account of Belarus’s entire system of governance (Tut.by, May 8). It is unclear who stands behind Tsepkalo, but his public image, especially in the eyes of Belarus’s urban educated class, by far eclipses that of any member of the anti-Lukashenka opposition. Thus, intrigue is being inserted into what would otherwise be a fairly boring exercise of endorsing the status quo.