Belarusian state propaganda cynically uses Syrian tragedy

May 15, 2017 11:44
Image: Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reports from Aleppo, Syria

The Belarusian state propaganda uses the tragedy of the civil war in Syria for its own needs. That said, the Belarusian authorities realistically assess Assad prospects to win the war. Although they formally support the government in Damascus, they do so in a very restrained manner: Syria, destroyed by the war, is not regarded as a promising partner in the Middle East.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has appeared on the Belarusian state television, which has become a notable event. However, the Belarusian propaganda has appealed to the Syrian events purely for domestic reasons.

Syria has practically ceased to exist as a single state. Assad retains control over part of Syria solely thanks to direct military intervention by Russia and Iran. Minsk is well aware of that. For many years, the Belarusian authorities have built partnerships with the Arabian monarchies and Turkey with varying degrees of success. The latter, provide financial, political and military support to anti-Assad rebels. Minsk is carrying out an extremely pragmatic, if not cynical, foreign policy. It has no practical reason to support Bashir al-Assad and jeopardize already established relations with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Bashir al-Assad’s interview with the Belarusian state television should be regarded as:

- intimidation of the Belarusian population with possible consequences of political destabilization. That said, Ukraine as a negative example is becoming less effective. The severity of the war in Syria provides the state propaganda with a lot more texture

- a demarche designed to demonstrate discontent with the Western policy towards Belarus

- a gesture of loyalty to Russia, which is increasingly drawn into the Syrian civil war, and expressing discontent with the fact that she does not receive political and moral support from her formal allies

The fact that Bashir al-Assad has appeared on the Belarusian state TV is not a sign that the Belarusian-Syrian relations have entered a new stage, let alone that Minsk has engaged in the Syrian conflict. The Belarusian authorities in a conventional manner attempt to use the crisis in other states to address their domestic political and propaganda issues.

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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.