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Pro-Russian Telegram channel calls on Putin to protect Belarus from coronavirus
Simferopol, 2014 / Reuters
The anonymous pro-Russian Telegram channel BeloRusskiy Dialog (BeloRussian Dialogue) is confident there is a bleak future for Belarus. On 19 March, its authors published an open call to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, asking the Russian leaders to protect them from coronavirus. In other words, the authors are calling on Russians to come and restore order in Belarus.
"Taking into account that in this critical moment of its history, the Republic of Belarus has remained without adequate and responsible leadership, we are asking the Russian authorities to take urgent measures to guarantee the security of the Union State, its external borders, to protect the health of the population and ensure non-proliferation of the novel coronavirus infection on the whole territory of the Union State,” the channel’s authors wrote.
Coronavirus as a pretext
— Aleksandr Lukashenka 'has lost connection with reality';
— he is to blame for the closure of the Russia-Belarus border;
—Belarus leadership takes no joint efforts with Russia to counteract the coronavirus infection;
— Belarusian Foreign Ministry "has demonstratively refused" to evacuate Belarus nationals stranded abroad;
— the population of Belarus is confused and has resorted to panic buying foodstuff and medicines;
— Belarus’ healthcare system is not ready for the coronavirus epidemic. The stats are ‘doubtful’, ‘access of the population to medical tests is closed.’
This is the list of problems, which, in the view of BeloRussian Dialogue’s authors, can persuade Putin to protect Belarusians from themselves:
Some of these claims are not verifiable, some have nothing in common with reality. However, they may have a huge propaganda effect on someone not familiar with fact-checking - especially at the backdrop of other articles in the past several days claiming that Belarus is ignoring the coronavirus. It is common knowledge that lies repeated one thousand times can become the truth.
Things that are definitely not true
It was not Lukashenka’s fault that the Russia-Belarus border was closed. On the contrary, he publicly spoke against this Kremlin’s decision.
Belarusian diplomats do try to help stranded Belarusians get back home. They may not always do it with success: Belarusians stranded in Peru are definitely to stay there for a 14-day quarantine. But some of the problems for Belarusian citizens are created by Russians whom BeloRussian Dialogue is appealing to for help. Just recently, Russian airlines refused to take over 20 Belarusian tourists from Goa and Shri-Lanka onboard. The plane took off leaving the passengers behind at the airport from where they were later chased into the street. Now it has become the problem of Belarusian MFA.
Panic buying in Belarusian groceries can be probably seen from Russia only. Empty shelves are a rarity in hypermarkets. No shortages are seen in smaller shops.
Many people do have doubts about the statistics from the Belarusian Healthcare Ministry. But if the situation with coronavirus in Belarus were critical indeed, social media would have already been full of videos showing people collapsing in the street or testimonies of people whose relatives died of pneumonia in hospitals. Nothing like that can be observed. As far as the access to coronavirus tests is concerned, no country in the world can currently offer unlimited access to them. The tests are centralized. The only difference is that some countries carry hundreds of tests and some tens of thousands.
Why it is important to react to such messaging
Russian ideologues often use the pretext of protecting their citizens living abroad to justify their desire to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries. "Protection of the Russian-speaking population” was used as an argument in propaganda campaigns to justify the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Today, someone wants to play the Crimean scenario in Belarus disguised as a fight against coronavirus.
The authors of the BeloRussian Dialogue channel on Telegram call on Belarusians “to be vigilant, not to panic and express all-out support and assistance to each other." "It is in our power to preserve peace, protect the population and not let the fire start on the Belarusian land,” зthey wrote already instigating a little fire of their own.
Who is behind it?
In early March, Atlantic Council’s investigative unit DFRLab named BeloRussian Dialogue as one among eight pro-Russian Telegram channels disseminating disinformation. Those channels promote deeper integration between Belarus and Russia and criticize the authorities in Belarus.
In January 2016, Moscow hosted a conference on the future of Belarus and Russia, which had the same title: “BeloRussian Dialogue.” The conference’s logo matches the logo of the Telegram channel.
The conference took place at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. It was co-organized by Andrei Suzdaltsev, political scientist from the World Economics and World Politics Faculty at the Higher School of Economics and a long-time critic of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.