Albert Santin. Image by AMPOSTA via YouTube.

Who are the Russian and Western experts who spout off about Lukashenka on Belarusian propaganda shows? From Nasha Niva.

More and more controversial experts eager to defend the Belarusian authorities have recently been appearing on Belarusian TV and pro-government news sites. With state propagandists failing to keep up, a landing party of foreign commentators with exclusively pro-Russian views is now part of the narrative. All of them have been regular guests of Russia’s propaganda TV shows for many years. Interestingly though, they are ready to praise Alyaksandr Lukashenka only when he agrees with the Kremlin and turns his back on the West. When he does the opposite, they begin to predict his end in The Hague [seat of the International Criminal Court].

Without Lukashenka, ‘Belarus Would Have Been Dead’

The list starts with Russian TV presenter Sergei Mikheyev, a frequent guest on [popular Russian journalist] Vladimir Solovyov’s TV show. The man expressly supports Russian imperial ambitions and believes that Belarus has no future without Russia. He also criticizes Western policies regarding post-Soviet countries and, as an unconditional supporter of the annexation of Crimea, was appointed head of an advisory board set up by the self-proclaimed authorities in Crimea. In 2014, Mikheyev was declared an undesirable person in the European Union in what he claimed was punishment for his stance on Ukraine.

When a Ryanair flight was diverted [to Minsk with EU citizens and pro-opposition Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich on board], Mikheyev welcomed the news with great enthusiasm. “Lukashenka rocks!” he said. “Alyaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka] has screwed the European Union and did so in a rough and very unambiguous way. I find this incident quite invigorating. The world needs a balance. Some people, especially pro-opposition youths in different countries, were harboring a strange illusion that they are a bunch of molecules on their social networks, that they are elusive and can flow from one region to another safely, fearing nothing. They were too puffed up in their insolence.

“But here’s the truth of life conveyed in an old Russian adage: might is right. Lukashenka’s opponents don’t have might. Lukashenka has demonstrated a simple thing: as long as the state reserves the right to legitimate violence, it is very difficult to confront it. No color [revolution] technologies or digital networks will help.”

Sergei Mikheyev. Image by Vesti News via YouTube.

The Ryanair flight diversion to Minsk triggered new EU sector-based sanctions against Belarus. In addition, the Belarusian national airline Belavia has been banned from flying to European countries, while European airlines now have to avoid Belarus. However, according to Mikheyev, Belarus should credit Lukashenka for its successes:

“Do you want to know what would have happened to Belarus but for Lukashenka? This is a country that doesn’t have any mineral deposits and where all companies were dead, surviving today to a large degree only thanks to government subsidies. It would have been a country with only one source of income: supplies of Russian natural gas to Poland along the famous pipeline in its territory… Belarus would have been one of the poorest post-Soviet countries. On the whole, no doubt, it would have been dead,” he said.

However, the expert’s views are in no way cut and dried. When Lukashenka allows himself to criticize Russia, as happened ahead of the [the 2020 presidential election] when he accused Russia of using its leverage to fuel discontent in Belarus and sending mercenaries to the Belarusian woods, Mikheyev’s rhetoric took a U-turn:

“People say that Alyaksandr Ryhoravich has been upset by Moscow’s decision not to give him as much money as he wanted. But excuse me, doesn’t it matter anymore that almost for the entire last 30 years, Belarus has existed as a state, as a political regime, and as an economic model only thanks to its good relations with Russia? Today Alyaksandr Ryhoravich has got a bee in his bonnet. Is it necessary to destroy everything? To put it mildly, this is unfair and indecent.”

Shortly after the elections, however, Lukashenka changed his mind and stopped criticizing Moscow. So now, Mikheyev is generous with his compliments, such as when he praised Lukashenka’s 22 June address on the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

“He was speaking from his heart, using ‘we’ when referring to important historical parallels. He was speaking on behalf of one shared country, one shared history,” Mikheyev said. “This was not just a speech of the president of the Republic of Belarus but a speech of a person who associates himself with the shared history of one large country which was insidiously attacked on 22 June. Any Russian citizen who loves his homeland and remembers history can subscribe to everything he said.”

Making Friends With Europe ‘Could Bring Him to The Hague’

A similar “loyalty” to Lukashenka’s regime is demonstrated by another Russian propagandist, journalist Armen Gasparyan, who is also the author of quite popular pro-Russian histories. He is on the list of undesirable persons in Moldova over his statements about the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Gasparyan is a keen Lukashenka supporter. For instance, he has described Lukashenka’s visit to the KGB jail [where he met with jailed opposition activists amid unprecedented street protests in Belarus following the presidential elections] as “a broad gesture” and “a dialogue with the opposition.”

“He says, fine, if all of you need changes, let’s do it, let’s have a constitutional reform, put constitutional amendments to a vote and then hold new elections. But the opposition would just not reply anything to that. Although, if you think about it, it was exactly the discontent with the current electoral system that was called the fundamental driving force behind the opposition protests. Lukashenka goes and meets with opposition representatives in the KGB pretrial detention center. One would think that this is what you’ve been talking about. This is the beginning of your constructive dialogue and discussion about constitutional amendments. However, voices are again heard from Poland and Lithuania, saying that you shouldn’t discuss anything with him, the protests should continue,” Gasparyan said.

The opposition activists who met with Lukashenka in the KGB jail were all being held on politically motivated charges. As some of them commented later, they didn’t know until the last minute where they were being taken to, there was no option not to take part, and they were not given time to prepare. According to them, their attempts at constructive dialogue also failed, with Lukashenka repeating over and over again the mantra that he had won the elections, the protests were insignificant in scale, and he was not going to agree to any concessions. Most of those opposition activists are still behind bars. [Former presidential hopeful] Viktar Babaryka, to give one instance, is now serving a 14-year prison sentence.

Armen Gasparyan. Photo by Mark Nakoykher via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s go back to Gasparyan. A month later, after Lukashenka had started talking about the possibility of restoring ties with the West, he reacted in totally different language.

“Lukashenka got carried too far away with his games,” Gasparyan said. “He doesn’t fully understand the complexity of the situation in which he has found himself. And the problem is not even about the EU sanctions or the fact the EU would not give money to the country but only to those damned civic activists. The problem is that it has been clearly demonstrated to Lukashenka [by the West] that he will never be part of their company, he will always be a total outsider. […]

Lukashenka is totally outside this configuration. I would advise him to stop making people laugh with such statements and stick to what he does well, i.e., building the [Belarusian-Russian] Union State. European integration would not bring him any good but it can bring him to The Hague.”

Obviously, Belarusian propaganda shows give the floor to such experts only in the right context, when they are ready to support Lukashenka. No Belarusian TV airtime is given to their criticism. It is reserved for other media.

‘I Can’t Figure out How Aware He Is About What’s Going On’

Another expert Lukashenka supporter is Russian neo-Stalinist Sergei Kurginyan, a fixture on Russian TV for years. Over the past 30 years, he has not given up hope that the Soviet Union will be restored. As for Belarus, he remarked, “I have been saying the same thing over and over again about Belarus for many years. Lukashenka has built what he calls a beautiful Belarus, and this is true. He has done a lot for the country. He has indeed created a nice social state and furnished it stylishly. Those who are speaking against him are a special cohort. They don’t understand what they can lose.”

Yet, shortly after the 2020 elections, Kurginyan said, “The main question is whether the leader is sensible. People in power can lose the ability to fight for power, but they should fight for power every second as long as they have it. All this time I’ve been watching Lukashenka and I can’t figure out how aware he is about what’s going on.”

Any time Lukashenka highlights the importance of Belarus’s sovereignty, Kurginyan’s sympathies are gone. He believes that if Lukashenka continues to stick to the sovereignty idea, “Poland alone will destroy his paradise in the field.” However, Belarusian TV would not air such comments.

This rhetoric implies that the degree of loyalty Russian experts display depends directly on how much Lukashenka lives up to Russia’s expectations. When he fails, the carrot is immediately replaced with a stick.

‘I Have Never Been an Expert’

There is a separate group comprising so-called Western experts who, upon closer examination, turn out to be former Soviet citizens. Among them is Israeli analyst and former diplomat Yakov Kedmi, who in the 1990s led an Israeli government office that assisted the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, until he was accused of corruption and dismissed.

Once, as a guest on Vladimir Solovyov’s TV show, Kedmi described Stalin as “the last statesman who cared about the country.” In 1968, Kedmi sent a letter to the Soviet Supreme Council, in which he condemned anti-Semitism. Kedmi did not want to serve in the Soviet army, telling the Chekists that he was ready to serve only in his true homeland, Israel. In 1969, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

“I have never been an expert,” said Yakov Kedmi honestly. “I just have life experience that allows me to speak more or less professionally about many issues, including military matters.”

On Belarusian TV, Kedmi appears as an expert on sanctions. “The sanctions against Belarus come from weakness. They cannot do anything. Western sanctions have never led to a change of government or regime in any country, with examples ranging from the sanctions against the Soviet Union in 1922 to the latest sanctions against Iran. I don’t support Iran’s policies, but it can be said that the sanctions are useless,” he commented.

There are even more controversial persons, like Waldemar Gerdt, a former member of the German Bundestag who was a Komsomol secretary in Kazakhstan in the 1990s and later was allowed to migrate to Germany because of his German roots.

Gerdt is a member of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party whose members have expressed quite racist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi views. Party members have condemned Western sanctions against Russia and expressed support for Russia’s operations in Syria and Ukraine. Gerdt himself is trying to be Lukashenka’s advocate in the West.

“Frau von der Leyen openly declares that we’ve allocated 60 million to enable non-governmental commercial organizations to overthrow Lukashenka and at the same time says she is trying to get in touch with him, but he would not answer… Are you totally dumb? I said this right on the Bundestag floor. I told them: ‘Can you imagine if someone did the same to us?’ I don’t know their country, I wouldn’t touch Russia. It’s just nonsense that has become the routine rhetoric of our establishment. It’s a sign of degradation that has extended beyond the political system to the minds of people. If sanctions are the major political weapon, what kind of high diplomacy can we talk about? It ended 20 years ago.”

The Russian newspaper “Izvestia” ran Gerdt’s comments in an article published under the headline “The Bundestag describes the construction of a wall on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border as a show.” Taking a cue from Belarusian propagandists, the newspaper tried to pass off the opinion of one Bundestag member with Soviet origins as the opinion of all 736 parliamentarians. At the same time, it kept silent on Gerdt’s affiliation with a party that has close ties to the Kremlin and openly supports the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia.

A Fighter Against ‘Anti-White Racism’

But the most eccentric expert is Anatoly Livry, a political researcher and writer who also comes from the Soviet Union. He moved to France in the 1990s.

Livry is a Slavic Studies lecturer at the University of Nice and says he is fighting against “anti-white racism.” What is this? According to Livry, this is “hysterical feminism, infantile environmentalism, aversion to traditional religions and family values, but above all, a frenzied fury toward a mentally stable man.” What does this have to do with politics in Belarus?

“I can bring to the plate what analysts don’t even see,” Livry said on Belarusian TV.

“These are the same double standards that the West lives by. And the West is attacking Lukashenka regardless of what he is doing. Why is it happening? Because he is trying to preserve a traditional identity.”

The list of “European” experts can be rounded out with Albert Santin, the leader of a Communist party in Catalonia. Santin, 25, wears a mustache, displays a bust of Stalin and a portrait of Lukashenka in his office, and founded an association to support Belarus. It is not clear what the organization does or how precisely it supports Belarus.

Santin frequently visits Minsk. He can be seen in photos with local pro-Communist activists, police officers (supporting their tough response to the protests), and government officials. Late last year, he married a Belarusian woman. His mission on Belarusian TV is predictable: he praises the Belarusian government and criticizes the authorities in Spain. He says the Belarusians take good things for granted and are not even aware that they live better than people in Spain.

“In Spain, more than 50% of young people don’t work or study,” he said. “Forty percent of people are unemployed in Andalusia and in cities like Ceuta and Melilla. Fifty percent of the population live below the poverty line. When winter comes in Spain, many families don’t turn on the heating because they have no money.”

However, no one in Spain seems to be ready to swap life there for life in Belarus. Even Albert, who lives with his Belarusian wife in Spain.

This article from the independent Belarusian news site Nasha Niva has been translated in partnership with Free Press for Eastern Europe. Transitions has edited the text for context and concision.