“My acquaintances from Bauska relaxed (in Belarus),” says an elderly-sounding woman in Russian with a Latvian accent, “they were going and calling me to go. They said that there are wonderful sanatoriums, good health care. I don’t know, I don’t believe, but they very much encouraged me to go there.” This was said on an open microphone call during a daily analytical show “Padrobnosti” on Latvian Radio 4, a Russian-language public broadcasting radio in Latvia on May 3, 2023. The hosts asked people to comment if they are following recommendations by Latvian officials not to go to Belarus. The warning is not without reason. A year ago in June 2022, a Latvian citizen was reportedly detained in Belarus after police searched his phone and found text messages that were critical about Alexander Lukashenko, the self-proclaimed president of Belarus. Latvian officials could not do much, as when consular workers requested to meet the detainee, he had already been put in a psychiatric clinic and denied any visitors. Zanda Kalnina-Lukashevica, the Parliamentarian Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, told the story during a show on Latvian TV24.
The aforementioned situation illustrates how media reports about the Lukashenko regime’s cruelty not only to its own compatriots, but also to foreigners mean little if Latvians and Lithuanians can save on healthcare and fuel. Yes, a stay in Belarusian sanatoriums can be three times cheaper than in Latvia.
The situation in Lithuania is quite similar. About a month after Belarus introduced a visa-free regime for Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, in April, 2022, a Facebook group “Baltarusija (bevizis režimas)” was created in Lithuania. Over a year it garnered 9,612 members who publish two posts a day in average. Discussions are about practical matters – tips on where to get healthcare, gardening supplies, regular tourism, and many posts about how to choose the border crossing post with the least queues. Indeed, both Lithuanian and Latvian media reported about the number of people going to Belarus multiplying three and six times respectively since introduction of the visa-free regime.
At the same time number of politically detained in Belarus has reached 1,493 people in May 2023, while in Russia it was just 558 people by April 5, 2023. Lukashenko’s regime has been torturing peaceful protesters in 2020, detaining journalists for doing their job, hijacking a plane with opposition activists in 2021, putting an ill person in jail for reacting to a satirical cartoon of Lukashenko on social media and letting this person die in 2023, as well as reportedly beating up Lukashenko’s political rival in jail and hiding information about his current health status and current location since April 25, 2023. According to “Reporters without Borders”, Belarus was “Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Yes, in many respects Lukashenko sat an example for Putin on how to oppress civic liberties to prevent societal uprisings in the 21st century.
“It’s very bad, if true,” an ethnic Belarusian, now a Latvian citizen, told me in 2020 after I shared some verified stories about protesters being tortured in Belarusian prisons. And here lies the problem of the contemporary “information society.” We choose what to believe. If the truth is uncomfortable for us, we find a way to ditch it. It is called “Cognitive dissonance”, a psychology theory describing “mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.” To solve this conflict, people usually “reject, explain away, or avoid the new information.” According to “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” physiological needs come before safety, sense of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Choosing not to shop in Belarus would mean that people, at the very least, do not feel secure going to Belarus, but they do.
The current information environment in the Baltic States and Poland is full of reports about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and oppression of civic liberties in Russia. Historically, Russia occupied the Baltic States, not Belarus. Though Lukashenko is actively supporting Putin’s regime, it feels as if Belarus is a secondary actor in the war against Ukraine, thus, it could be perceived as less dangerous (?). It is indeed doubtful that Belarus will invade the Baltic States by itself, but it is very likely that it could help Russia to do so. One of the elements for successful conquest of a country is having the general population “on your side.” The Baltic States have developed psychological resilience towards Russian propaganda narratives, but how about the hybrid influence campaigns by Belarus?