Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Wilder Europe Belarus propaganda

One minor plus of my years as a cold warrior was that Soviet-bloc
propaganda, though usually mad and horrible, was also
thought-provoking and even useful. Partly, it gave clues about their
thinking: "Why does the Kremlin think this is our weak spot right now,
and why are they attacking it this way in particular?". But it also
helped me think about what aspects of our own system were easy to
defend, and what were vulnerable to criticism.

That stimulus has largely withered with communism, and I rather miss
it. There are still echoes of it in Russia, but the focus is narrow:
even the apologists who defend the Stalinist version of history do so
for reasons of neo-imperialism and nostalgia, rather than out of
conviction that Soviet ideology of the time—dictatorship of the
proletariat, dialetical materialism and so forth--was actually right.

But that gap is at least partially filled by Belarussian state
television programmes. They are direct heirs of now long-forgotten
Cold-War offerings such as East Germany's Schwarzes Kanal [Black
Channel], whose venomous denunciations of West Germany's decadent
warmongering were the highlight of my week when I was covering the
"German Democratic Republic" in the late 1980s.

This week, for example, a top Belarussian propagandist, Yawhen Novikaw
(that's the Belarussian spelling: in the Russian that he broadcasts in
he would be Yevgeny Novikov), turned his attention to the BBC and
press freedom in Britain.

"A large-scale political punishment of journalists is taking place
right under their very nose, in their own city of London, and all
British democrats have buried their heads in the sand: we do not see
or hear anything. If such a shame were happening in any other country,
they would come to that country like a clan of crows" he argued.

That's odd. On my many visits to Belarus, I never found any details of
British internal politics, let alone the problems of cost-control in
public-service broadcasters, greatly figuring in popular
consciousness. But Mr Novihaw's lengthy programme did its best to make
the subject of last week's BBC strike interesting and relevant. It was
not just that the BBC was the subject of a vindictive attack by the
"Blair dictatorship", but the "thousands" of human rights lobbies in
Britain were hypocritically silent about the BBC's plight.

Personally, I'm rather sympathetic to the BBC management's attempt,
albeit belated and very limited, to cut the grotesque overstaffing and
extravagance in the corporation. And Mr Novikaw's argument is
preposterous as his facts are wrong: the strike lasted for one day,
not five; even the BBC's most ardent defenders do not link the death
of the weapons scientist David Kelly (murdered by Blair's goons,
according to Mr Novikaw) to the current rows about job cuts.

But the interesting points are different ones. For a start, broadcasts
like these are signs that foreign human rights outfits have the
authorities in Minsk rattled. Belarussian television has been devoting
much time lately to attacking their funding of local opposition
activities. A few days earlier Mr Novikaw attacked "the information
war unleashed against Belarus by Western structures", saying that all
revolutions lead to "blood and devastation".

Secondly, it is precisely because Belarus is a place where
broadcasters are under government control, and where people disliked
by the authorities do end up dead, that commentators like Mr Novikaw
need to maintain that countries like Britain are no better. High
ethical standards and strong institutions create the "soft power" that
will eventually disprove Mr Novikaw and topple his masters. So let's
strengthen them.

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