As Alexander Lukashenko seeks to find Western organisers of protests in Belarus, his rhetoric is also being picked up in Lithuania.
LRT FACTS investigates how messages favouring Belarusian regime are spreading in Lithuania.
While the votes were still being counted and the first protesters went out into the streets, Belarusian president started mentioning “Maidan crazies”.
He claimed that allegedly Polish people were in Belarus even before the election, while Ukrainians and Russians arrived shortly after. Lukashenko vowed to prevent Maidan, Ukraine's pro-European revolution in 2014, from happening in his country.
After the first wave of protests, the Belarusian president directed his gaze to NATO and a perceived military threat from Lithuania. “NATO army detachments crawl at our gate,” he said.
Read more: Belarus ‘escalates tensions’ by launching military drills near Lithuanian border, says minister
Maidan, January 13
Messages surrounding the perceived threat from NATO, likely translated from Russian state-owned rt.ru news channel, were shared by ekspertai.eu and bukimvieningti.lt websites popular in Lithuania. The latter quoted Lukashenko and claimed that it had a video proving his words, which the website never shared.
Bukimvieningi.lt also posted a video which said that Western Europe was telling Belarusians that they will never live as well as people in other countries. Such messages were allegedly aimed at instigating unrest.
“The situation in Belarus is similar to Ukraine’s Maidan and January 13,” when the Soviet forces killed 14 civilians in Vilnius, wrote the website claiming that the Lithuanian freedom fights were also influenced by foreign actors.
On social media, similar messages were shared in fringe groups including For Lithuania without Landsbergis supporters and his surrogates (Už Lietuvą be landsbergistų ir jų surogatų), For great Lithuania (Už didingą Lietuvą), and Lday (Ldiena).
There, the discussions were dominated by narratives about the ‘globalists’ trying to overthrow Lukashenko, while many commentators praised the Belarusian president for not treating the coronavirus pandemic as a threat.
The Kremlin-controlled media in Lithuania also wrote that the Baltic country was responsible for stirring unrest and trying to instigate a Maidan-like movement in Belarus.
The Russian state-owned website Sputnik.lt wrote that the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius was encouraging Belarusians to protest and “hoped for a bloody revolution”.
Baltnews.lt ran an article saying that “Lithuanian politicians are asleep and waiting for the Belarusian Maidan”. It said that the instigators of unrest wished for the borders to open and for Belarusians to become a “cheap workforce” in Europe.
Lithuanian politicians, including impeached president Rolandas Paksas, as well as Zbigniew Jedziński of Electoral Action for Poles in Lithuania, were quoted claiming that “not all Lithuanian politicians are in favour of meddling in Belarusian affairs”.
Read more: Outrage after Lithuanian MP says police in Belarus ‘defending the constitution’
Before the election in Belarus, disinformation also claimed that Lithuania supported Maidan in Ukraine and provided money and guns to the protesters via the Lithuanian embassy in Kyiv.
Lithuania and Poland – biggest enemies
Gintautas Mažeikis, philosopher and professor at Vytautas Magnus University, said that perception of an alleged threat from the West is not new in Belarus. But this year, the regime also started talking about the alleged danger from Russia.
“Foreign threats were mentioned in 2010, 2015, and even 2005 […]. This year, they didn’t see any real threat from the West, so they addressed Russia,” said Mažeikis.
According to him, Lukashenko perceived Russia as a threat because he would have lost all power if the Russian-Belarusian union state had been created.
The professor also explained why the Belarusian regime is accusing other states of meddling.
“In Belarus and Russia, Poland and Lithuania are perceived as countries that engage in active regional politics,” said Mažeikis. “Poland is said to conduct cyber-attacks [and] media activism is also concentrated in Poland.”
According to Mažeikis, many opposition outlets are based in Poland, including NEXTA, Charter97, Belsat, while Radio Free Europe is based in Prague, which explains Lukashenko’s claims about “calls from Poland and the Czech Republic" aimed at "controlling" the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko also accused “foreign actors”, most likely Russians, for disconnecting the internet in Belarus. IT specialists told LRT.lt that it was unlikely, as Belarus only uses national providers. Previously, experts told Radio Free Europe that Belarus has invested into an expensive internet filtering system, which means that foreign attacks could only affect single strategic objects and not the entire country.
Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s search for enemies and instigators of unrest is mainly directed against the West.
Today, Lukashenko’s rhetoric is in crisis, said the political analyst Mažeikis. There is no point in talking about enemies that destroy the state because the regime has been shaken fundamentally by the protests, he added. Lithuania, meanwhile, is perceived as a shelter for the opposition.
“Strikes have nothing to do with foreign countries. The propaganda is shooting into the empty sky,” said Mažeikis.
Accusations about instigating Maidan were also misguided. People have quickly realised that protesting in residential areas was more effective than in central squares as was the case in Ukraine.
Read more: Lukashenko vows to stop human chain 'from Vilnius to Kyiv'
Mažeikis noted that this strategy gave rise to the horrifying images from the protests that were shared on Western media and were unfavourable to the Belarusian regime.
“These images cannot be resisted even by the Russian propaganda,” said Mažeikis. He also predicted that Belarusian national media would have to cave in eventually, as its journalists were traumatised and realised that they have no future as sources of information in Belarus anymore.
Who supports Lukashenko in Lithuania?
Ainė Ramonaitė, political analyst and professor at Vilnius University, said that support for Lukashenko in Lithuania is related to the older people’s Soviet nostalgia and myths about a calm and stable life.
“They understand the Belarusian system better, especially, the greater state control […]. There are also other explanations, such as lower prices that make people think that life [in Belarus] is better. When they go there as tourists, they don’t see the reality but only the surface,” Ramonaitė said.
She noted that Lukashenko himself often talks about stability and order.
“Lukashenko stressed that ‘everything is calm and peaceful here’. Peace and calmness were his key points. Maybe the thinking of Lithuanians will also change as they watch the protests unfold,” the professor said.
Propaganda. Amid the protest in Belarus, messages supporting Lukashenko appeared in Lithuania’s information space. State-owned Russian media in Lithuania was also dominated by such narratives, which claimed that Lithuania, along with other European countries, were fostering bloodshed in Belarus and wished for another pro-European Maidan to take place. Although many Lithuanians have been receptive to pro-Lukashenko messages, analysts believe the sentiment will not last long, as the protest tactics differ from those of Ukraine’s Maidan, and accusations of foreign actors instigating unrest remain unfounded.