The full extent of Western meddling in Belarus prior to the country’s contested August 2020 election may never be known. Yet the outlines of a wide-ranging foreign effort to destabilize the government are becoming ever clearer.
As RT reported earlier this week, a pair of Russian pranksters posing as Belarusian opposition figures have duped high-ranking representatives of US regime-change arm the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) into exposing the extent of Washington’s clandestine involvement in the unrest that erupted across the country throughout 2020.
Among other bombshell disclosures, Nina Ognianova, who oversees the NED’s work with local groups in the country, suggested “a lot of the people” who were “trained” and “educated” via the organization’s various endeavors there were pivotal to “the events, or the build-up to the events, of last summer.”
Long-time NED chief Carl Gershman – who in September 2013, less than six months prior to the coup that shifted Kiev’s political orientation, dubbed Ukraine “the biggest prize” for Washington – added that his organization was working with controversial opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her team “very, very closely.” In all, the agency bankrolled at least 159 civil society initiatives in Belarus, costing $7,690,689, from 2016 to 2020 alone.
The team’s unguarded comments represent a rare public admission of the insidious, destabilizing role played by the NED – in 1991, its then-president acknowledged, “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” However, leaked UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) files indicate that the US is far from the only foreign power attempting to undermine the country’s government.
In 2017, then-Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a £100 million kitty, ostensibly for battling Kremlin disinformation. In practice, internal FCDO files leaked by hacktivist collective Anonymous made clear the effort was primarily concerned with “weakening the Russian state’s influence,” particularly in its “near abroad.” As a close neighbor and arguably most important ally of Moscow, Belarus was unsurprisingly very much in the FCDO’s crosshairs.
In January of that year, Whitehall commissioned an extensive analysis of Belarusian citizens’ perceptions, motivations, and habits, in order to “identify opportunities” to “appropriately communicate” with them. In particular, London was interested in “existing or potential grievances against their national government” that could be exploited, and “channels and messages” by which the UK government could “appropriately engage with different sub-groups.”
The analysis was conducted by shadowy FCDO contractor Albany Associates, which has, in recent years, also conducted numerous information warfare operations in the Baltic states, in order to “develop greater affinity” among the region’s Russian-speaking minority for the UK, European Union and NATO. While carrying out another Whitehall-funded project targeted at Moscow, the firm closely collaborated with NED-connected French NGO IREX Europe.
An accompanying bio notes IREX has been working in Belarus since 2006 “with print, online and radio outlets,” to “improve the quality of their coverage,” and “increase their understanding of the EU and EU member states.” As part of its youth audience offering in the country, the organization was said to have founded the Warsaw-based Euroradio, along with online outlet 34mag.
Footage produced by Euroradio of violent crackdowns on protesters in Minsk was regularly aired by the Western media, including the BBC, during the strife. The outlet even specifically amplified calls from the British state broadcaster for activists to submit pictures and videos for use in news coverage. Franak Viacorka – an Atlantic Council senior fellow, and now senior advisor to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – prominently hailed its “fearless” reporting of the upheaval.