Topics of the Week
How will the Kremlin preserve its influence in Belarus? How big is the risk of Russian military intervention and how Russian outlets cover the situation?
U.S. elections: Facebook wants to help voters by providing a system for absentee voting while Kamala Harris gets targeted by disinformation campaigns.
Good Old Soviet Joke
An American, French, and Slovak motorist meet in Heaven. As usual, they immediately start talking about how they got here. The American reports:
– I was driving down the highway 170 km/h, my car skidded and that was it.
The Frenchman says:
– I was driving 120/h, but I turned around to look at a beautiful woman and I crashed into a pillar.
Then the Slovak goes:
– I bought a Škoda 1000 MB and starved to death.
Policy & Research News
Belarusian protests against the disputed re-election of Europe’s last dictator
On Sunday when the polls were closed and state polling announced Alexander’s Lukashenko victory who has ruled the country for the last three decades, crowds of people came out in the streets of Minsk and other cities against fraudulent election results.
The unrest is growing quickly in numbers, and last Sunday anti-government protests reached 200,000 participants. At present at least two people died, around 80 are missing while thousands have been injured and detained. The abundance of video and photo content which documents violent treatment to demonstrators is circulating daily on social media and chatting platforms. Numerous demonstrations in solidarity with Belarusians also took place in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Russia.
Inevitably, Russian hybrid involvement in Belarus is highly predicted and might be not limited to political interference. The risk of military support is mounting and should not be ruled out. It has been already announced that Belarus will run military exercises along its border with Poland and Lithuania. This was deployed next to the Polish border in Grodno. So far there is no ample evidence of expanding Russian military presence, yet the military exercises might involve Russian forces. Given the recent telephone conversation between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin’s confirmed commitment to deliver military support to fortify Lukashenko’s power and restore the security Russian force can come into play at any time. Although Moscow denied its intention to assist Belarus with military forces, the Critical Intelligence Team OSINT group spotted unmarked Russian National Guard trucks heading towards the Belarusian border. Even if there is no fully-fledged intervention, there are other multiple scenarios of how the Kremlin might try to preserve its influence in the country.
Lukashenko has accused NATO of building up its military presence across the Belarusian western border. NATO officials denied any increase of their forces and also highlighted that they ‘closely monitor’ the situation in the country.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders urge the Kremlin not to meddle in Belarus and start preparing the sanctions package against Belarus as well as arranging the emergency summit to discuss the current situation in Eastern Europe.
The UK government is considering new regulations for online political campaigns
The British government plans to tighten its rules for online campaigning to protect the elections from international interference and enhance the election transparency. The proposed amendments to the legislation will force political parties to display the financials behind the online ads.
Currently, the regulation of documenting the financial imprint is applied solely to printed materials, while online campaigns do not fall in this category. Meanwhile, approximately 43 percent of the funding for political advertising was allocated for the online one according to the Electoral Commission.
New rules will promote the transparency of online campaign content and require political parties and campaigners to display the origin of their online campaign content and its financial sponsors. This digital imprint will be required for display at all times, regardless of the country the content originated from. Content published on social media, streaming channels, podcasts, and other types of online platforms will be regulated. The labels on the online content should be visible and easily accessible for consumers.
The actual voting process is paper-based and therefore much secure, unlike the pre-election stage during which the outlandish malign powers try to sway voter’s choice and in such indirect way to impact the election outcomes.
In light of the recently released Russia report by the Intelligence and Security Committee which draws attention to the risk of foreign intrusion in the British democratic process and political organization, it is crucial to establish the legal framework which will minimize the risk of foreign interference efforts. Although the parliamentary report did not properly examine the scale of interference, the report indicates that Russia made an attempt to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and meddle the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Existing loopholes pose a substantial threat to the integrity of democracy in the UK, while the engagement with the online political debate is growing. This novel battleground definitely requires a new robust regulation and oversight to uphold democracy, trust in the election process, and empower voters so they could make a well-informed choice before they cast their vote.
Facebook announces the launch of the Voting Information Center
Facebook has announced the launch of the Voting Information Center, a new online resource for American voters that hopes to facilitate absentee voting and curb misinformation ahead of this year’s presidential election. According to Facebook, the Voting Information Center will serve as a “one-stop-shop” where Americans can register to vote, check voting information, and volunteer as poll workers. Facebook has stated that they will promote vetted information on the election process with the help of the Bipartisan Policy Center to counter misinformation.
Facebook’s push to provide accessible voting information comes amid attacks on the American postal service by President Trump, the U.S.’s sustained struggle with COVID-19, and the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation ahead of the presidential election. The tool will be launched on both Facebook and Instagram and aims to “help 4 million voters register this year.” Although Mark Zuckerberg has touted the platform as a source of “authoritative information,” the CEO simultaneously “doubled down” on the company’s decision not to fact-check politicians, for which it drew significant criticism in May.
The New York Times debunks myths about Kamala Harris
Soon after Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s announcement that California Senator Kamala Harris had been chosen as his vice president, disinformation and misinformation about Harris surged online. Mentions of Harris have jumped from two dozen per hour to over 3,200 per hour in the last few days, according to media insights company Zignal Labs.
Several false stories have been spread widely among conspiracy theorists, such as adherents of QAnon and fans of Alex Jones’ Infowars. Popular stories debunked by the New York Times posited that Harris was involved in the child-trafficking conspiracy known as PizzaGate, that the Senator is “not Black,” and that she is the aunt of actor Jussie Smollett and knew in advance that Smollett was plotting to stage a racially-motivated attack against himself early last year. Many supporters of President Trump have also questioned Harris’ eligibility to run as Vice President on the basis that her parents were immigrants and have questioned whether Harris was born in the U.S., although it is well documented that she was born in Oakland, California.
Many of these accusations, specifically those that accuse Harris of being involved in pizzagate or of not being Black or American, mirror accusations levied by conservatives against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the democratic candidates of the last two presidential elections.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Protests in Belarus continue as the European leaders initiate joint action
This Sunday, August 16, close to 200 000 people joined a peaceful protest in Minsk, continuing the demands for re-elections and resignation of Alexander Lukashenko. On the same day, a significantly smaller pro-government rally (approximately 10 times smaller, as illustrated, but according to sources citing the Belarussian ministry of interior attended by nearly 65 000 people) took place in the center. Although, according to an independent news outlet KYKY.org, the people joining pro-governmental rally were “gathered” to the capital by buses from different regions.
Mr. Lukashenko attended the event in person, and in his speech asserted that the country’s independence will “perish” in the case of re-elections, and even if he would be dead, he would not let anyone to “give away” the country he has built over the years of his presidency. In his words, the protests are spurred by “NATO leadership”, with military forces “15 minutes away from [Belarussian] borders”, a claim that was already denied by the officials.
Several enterprises and the national channel Belarus 1 have also joined the protests. However, the interim president stated that striking factories “make little difference”. In fact, at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant protest, according to Vesti.ru, the interim president has suggested to “recount” the votes. When the protesters refused, claiming that the president of the country should resign, Mr. Lukashenko commented that the only way for the elections to take place again would only be by amendments to the constitution.
The member states of the European Union are preparing sanctions against the officials responsible for violence in the suppression of the first protests. Nevertheless, RIA News regarded the “individual character” of sanctions strange and suspicious, explaining that such measures will not decrease the popular support of the interim government, since they should not affect the citizens themselves. Thus, the conclusion that the Western Bloc does not seek or support the resignation of Alexander Lukashenko.
On the other hand, another news outlet, Vesti.ru, affirmed that the EU Parliament does not recognize the results of the Belorussian elections, making Mr. Lukashenko a “persona non-grata” in the member-states. The same outlet claims that “leading Western intelligence agencies” are becoming concerned with the situation in Belarus, following a common goal to “topple Lukashenko and clean up the current political elite”, while Svetlana Tsikhanovskaia is mere “plasticine” in the hands of Lithuania, citing editor-in-chief of the magazine “National Defense” Igor Korotchenko.
Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.