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Viacorka went on to note that, in a bid to address this “absence of leadership,” Tikhanovskaya had founded a Coordination Council to serve as the country’s effective government in waiting. He dubbed the endeavor “the main threat to Lukashenko” and “the first attempt to create a credible alternative,” but his description raises serious questions about whether it’s a legitimate attempt to provide a coherent, tangible face to the movement, or an opportunistic hostile takeover.
“The Coordination Council provides a degree of clarity for government officials and international observers looking to gain a better understanding of who represents the diverse opposition movement…The Council must occupy the political vacuum at the forefront of Belarus’s democratic uprising. Leaderless street protests have shaken the Lukashenka regime to its foundations, but they are not enough to bring about the kind of historic transition to democracy millions of Belarusians now expect…The Council features a number of members drawn from the professional classes…who are expected to play important roles in the attempt to move beyond today’s mass protests towards a national political transition,” Viacorka wrote.
One wonders whether the coordination council was an idea Viacorka himself presented to Tikhanovskaya in his capacity as her ‘international relations advisor’ – and if, in turn, his thinking was in any way influenced by the Atlantic Council.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s almost certain the Atlantic Council’s meddling in Belarusian politics has a clandestine element, given the organization’s key role in the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) initiative Open Information Partnership (OIP). Officially, under its auspices DFRLab, Bellingcat, Zinc Network and Media Diversity Institute “work together through peer-to-peer learning, training and working groups to pioneer methods to expose disinformation,” in collaboration with a sizable network of NGOs across Europe.
However, leaked documents make clear the endeavor is, in fact, a secret UK government information warfare outfit seeking to covertly further Whitehall’s global policy objectives, by, among other things, influencing “elections taking place in countries of particular interest to the FCO.” A file setting out the terms of the project indicates Belarus is one of a dozen “high impact, priority countries” for the OIP, strongly suggesting this year’s presidential vote was very much “of interest” to the project.
The same document indicates DFRLab, Bellingcat, Zinc Network and Media Diversity Institute had conducted a secret operation in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus in 2018, “delivering audience insights and recommendations to increase reach and resonance of selected independent media outlets.”
While innocent-enough sounding, examples offered of the organization’s work offered elsewhere in the file indicate OIP has engaged in numerous ‘astroturfing’ initiatives across Eastern Europe, helping organizations and individuals to produce flashy, FCO-funded propaganda masquerading as independent citizen journalism, which is then amplified globally via its NGO network and other channels.
For instance, in Ukraine the Open Information Partnership worked with a 12-strong group of online ‘influencers’ “to counter Kremlin-backed messaging through innovative editorial strategies, audience segmentation, and production models that reflected the complex and sensitive political environment,” in the process allowing them to “reach wider audiences with compelling content that received over four million views.”
In Russia and Central Asia, OIP established a covert network of ‘YouTubers,’ helping them create videos “promoting media integrity and democratic values.” Participants were also taught how to “make and receive international payments without being registered as external sources of funding” and “develop editorial strategies to deliver key messages,” while the consortium minimized their “risk of prosecution” and managed “project communications” to ensure the existence of the network, and indeed OIP’s role, were kept “confidential.”
Were similar efforts undertaken in Belarus at some point subsequently, and if so, how many of the citizen journalists on the ground covering the protests this year have received funding and training from OIP, and what role has the organization and its extensive pan-European NGO matrix played in promoting their “compelling content” the world over?
At the very least, another leaked FCO file indicates a number of organizations in the country had exploratory discussions with OIP, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and Euroradio – both were said to have “expressed an eagerness to be part of the network,” and to be operating in “the most vital space in the entire network.”
It may be significant that Franak Viacorka has been a prominent amplifier of Euroradio’s “fearless” coverage of the unrest that has engulfed the streets of Minsk for the past two months.
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