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Disinformation about Belarus spreads in the Balkans via online portals and social media

Protesters in Minsk on August 14, 2020. Photo by Melirius via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This story is based on reporting by Global Voices’ content partner Meta.mk News Agency, a project of the Metamorphosis Foundation

The recent political turmoil in Belarus has been accompanied by an increased amount of disinformation about the country, disseminated through the channels which have already been active in spreading propaganda narratives characteristic of pro-Kremlin troll armies.

Spreading fear about Russian military intervention

Meta.mk reported that just prior to the unprecedented August 16 pro-democracy protest, social networks and chat services were flooded with videos of military transports, with claims that Russian troops had either entered or were “about to enter” Belarus—which fact-checkers from Belarus quickly debunked as disinformation.

Franak Viačorka, an analyst from Minsk, and a non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and a Vice President of DigiKomNet, an international association of professionals from the digital sphere, disputed these claims.

Viačorka's findings were confirmed by his Russian colleagues, i.e. the Conflict Intelligence Team. They analyzed a video alleged to show Russians on the move and found that it was, in fact, of Belarusian paratroopers operating under an order from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

This disinformation was fueled by the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin had offered military aid to Lukashenka, to help quell the demonstrations against election fraud. Russia claimed that the protests were a result of external pressure against Belarus. It failed to reach its goal as the fear of a Russian invasion didn't suppress the protest in Minsk, said to be the biggest in the history of the country.

Praising Lukashenka as a benevolent leader of economic ‘paradise’

Meta.mk also reported about another kind of disinformation spread by Serbian online media like Glas-javnostiNacionalist and Nacional online, under titles such as “Facts about Belarus you didn't know …” and then widely spread via social media and phone apps like Viber.

These portrayals of Belarus as an economic “paradise,” ruled by Lukashenka (also written as Lukashenko) since 1994, were debunked by the Serbian fact-checking service fakenews.rs.

Creating an image of Belarus as a country of order, peace and prosperity, without citing any sources to support their claims, was similar to past narratives about Libyan people's prosperity under ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi, spread in the past by Russia-supported troll armies.

Some of the claims were almost poetic, such as that the streets of Minsk are so well maintained that “one can walk on them wearing only white socks which would remain perfectly clean,” or outrageously optimistic, like the claim that life expectancy in the country was 104.5 years.

Fakenews.rs countered with a table of easily obtainable facts about Belarus from credible sources. For instance, the official data indicates that life expectancy in Belarus was 74.5 years in 2018, similar to the rest of Eastern Europe.

A major debunked claim was that in Belarus gasoline is cheaper than water, or that a liter of gasoline costs only 0.14 US dollars. Fakenews.rs found out that the price for one liter of gasoline is 1.78 Belarus rubles, or around 0.72 US dollars. On the contrary, bottled water prices are around one Belarus ruble per bottle, or half the price of gasoline.

Serbian nationalist media falsely claimed that the Belarus state provides newlywed couples with a subsidy of 64,000 US dollars to buy an apartment at an average price of 5.000 Belarus rubles (an equivalent of about 1,915 US dollars). In fact, there's no evidence that couples receive that kind of money as a wedding present from the state at all, and actual real-estate prices in Belarus are far higher than about 2,000 US dollars for an apartment. At best, that's the price for a few square meters on the outskirts of the capital Minsk, or a few more in smaller cities like Homiel.

Without any evidence, Serbian media also claimed that each Belarusian citizen receives an annual state subsidy of 1.000 US dollars.

The list of supposed benefits from Belarus provided by the Lukashenka regime included falsely presenting Belarus GDP per capita as $14,192 while World Bank data shows it was $6,173 in 2019, and misrepresenting salaries of nurses and teachers as several times higher than the 390 or 460 US dollars they receive per month.

Another point of disinformation was about the ease of starting a business in Belarus, claiming that start-up companies receive state grants of 20,000 US dollars. In contrast, the Ministry of  Labor and Social Policy of Belarus states that such subsidies range between 2,800 and 3,800 US dollars, and are only available to several hundred applicants per year.

A major assertion was that education abroad, medicines and electrical energy in Belarus are free of charge, thanks to state subsidies. These claims are untrue. Some students may get scholarships to study abroad, but not all of them; only select kinds of medicines are not paid directly by patients in some pharmacies; and Belarus citizens pay for their electrical energy out of pocket.

In contrast with the demographic decline in the Balkans, there were claims that the population of Belarus tripled during Lukashenka's tenure. However, data by the National Statistics Committee of Belarus showed that in 1994, when he came to power, Belarus had around 10.25 million inhabitants, while preliminary data for 2020 indicates that the current number of inhabitants is around 9.4 million.

Blaming the WHO and World Bank as meddlers from the West

Another kind of disinformation linked the political turmoil in Belarus with some sort of conspiracy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Macedonian fact-checking service Vistinomer (Truthmeter) detected that such claims are spreading via social networks in North Macedonia.

For example, an article in the form of Facebook post, supplemented with a photo of Lukashenka in military uniform, spread unsubstantiated claims that the drive to oust him was instigated by the World Health Organization (WHO) because he had refused their “bribes” ranging from 82 to 110 million euros (an equivalent of 97 and 130 million US dollars), to conduct an “Italian Corona scenario,” without any explanation what that scenario would have entailed.

In the same post, Lukashenka was presented as a leader of integrity for allegedly refusing a “non-repayable investment grant of “500 million US dollars from the World Bank” in return for joining the global campaign about the nonexistent dangers of COVID-19 and unnecessary social distancing.

The WHO was presented as an organization that spreads diseases, not one that tries to prevent or fight disease. Belarus has been a WHO member since its independence from the USSR in the early 1990s, and in fact, in July 2020 Belarus and the WHO concluded a biennial collaborative agreement, and WHO provided humanitarian aid to Minsk at the end of that month.

Belarus has also cooperated with the World Bank for decades. Contrary to claims of refusing aid from this institution, Belarus in fact demanded a higher share of the money slated for fighting COVID-19 consequences—a loan of $900 million US dollars, instead of $500 million dollars offered by the bank. These funds remain unavailable to the country because President Lukashenka was unwilling to accept additional terms to get foreign loans.

Find out more about the turmoil in Belarus here

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