Humour à la Belarus – a fake state going viral in Lukashenko’s post-Soviet autocracy7 min read
If one would ask most westerners about the state of Belarusian-Russian relations, chances are high that people would reply, “Belarus…isn’t that Russia’s little Slavic brother?” And one could hardly blame them; Belarus’ path of self-isolation has made it incredibly hard to get to know it. While knowledge of the country is still riddled with deep-rooted Cold War stereotypes, Lukashenko’s Soviet wonderland has unintentionally given birth to an online sensation that has impacted Belarusian-Russian relations – the fake state of Viejšnoryja.
In order to understand why Viejšnoryja has become such a sensation on the Internet, a recap of Belarus and Russia’s foreign policy relationship is in order. Traditionally Belarusian foreign policy has been strongly oriented towards the Russian Federation and is rooted in a deep integration of security and military structures, which was signed off with the creation of the Customs Union in 1995. This committed Belarus to open borders, cross country migration, and joint military exercises such as the present-day Zapad Military Operations carried out in 1999, 2009, 2013 and 2017. However, Belarus and Russia’s facade of “Slavonic Brotherhood” has been complicated by economic standoffs regarding oil prices – a core component of its foreign policy formation – that reached a historic all-time low in 2014, with the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the consequential conflict flipping over the stability of the whole Eastern European region. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine also made Lukashenko more hesitant regarding the validity of Russia’s claims not to interfere with other countries’ sovereignty after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
A loyal follower?
This brings us the to the year 2017 and the 4th edition of the Zapad exercises, famously known as the Russian War Games, or as the Kremlin describes them, a reaction to the movement of NATO troops to its Eastern border. Overlooking the increased tensions between Minsk and Moscow, the Western mainstream media, as is usually the case, continued to describe Belarus as a loyal follower of whatever the Kremlin dictates. Such tensions have been sensed by analysts in the region since 2008, and they’ve slowly started boiling to the top. Belarus felt that it was not able to dictate the specifics of the Zapad exercises, even though it takes place on their soil. It started voicing concerns regarding their role and the strengths of its cooperation with Russia. However, both sides, the Belarusian elite as well as the Kremlin, were aware of the significance of demonstrating unity in light of NATO’s observance of Zapad. This aspect was crucial. What neither Russia nor Belarus elites anticipated was how ordinary Belarusians took the Zapad 2017 exercise scenario and ran with it. Mocking the Belarusian military, the concept of Viejšnoryja, a fictional enemy state threatening to destroy the stability of the region, soon expanded to become a fake-state with its own Wikipedia page. This was a fatal blow to the Belarusian military being taken seriously by its own citizens, leaving us to question: how did we end up here?
A country-wide meme
When the plans for the scenario games became official in 2017, the choice for the creation of a fictional enemy evolved into an interesting and complex geopolitical story. In the scenario created, the province of Viejšnoryja was taken over by extremists that occupied Western Belarus, aided by two other provinces, Viesbaryja and Lubienija, which are in neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia respectively. This scenario is particularly interesting as the exact geographical area now coined Viejšnoryja has historically been a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and is home to Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian ethnic minorities. Whether it was intended to troll the Baltic States or not, the creation of Viejšnoryja was certainly an effective way of poking fun at the Baltic States’ fears of a Russian invasion while simultaneously resembling a Baltic State itself. Even more interestingly, not only are the majority of residents in Viejšnoryja predominantly of Catholic faith and live within the Western territory of Belarus, but the outline correlates with the election map of the 1994 presidential candidate Zianon Pazniak, who campaigned with a strong pro-Belarusian nationalist program. Many Western Belarusians found this an oddly suspicious coincidence. It was only a matter of time until the topic got picked up by Belarusian internet users and media outlets released maps of the fictional state. Being interpreted as just another civilizational division line between the Russian Orthodox Eastern civilization and the West, ordinary Belarusian citizens took the scenario and ran with it, pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Not only did the military scenario become a country-wide meme, but it also sparked the creation of an official website, logo, national flag, and even national passports whose usage of symbols strongly resemble the Baltic and Polish heritage of the area. Viejšnoryja’s official twitter account enjoys a considerable following, and even Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgian President and Ukrainian politician, has been jokingly graced with a “Karta Viejšnoryja”.
The BelarusDigest’s analyst Mitskevich concluded that it was surprising the scenario did not cause more harm as Latvia and Lithuania could have reacted with official statements confronting Belarus for its insinuations. Belarusian authorities could count themselves lucky that the publication of the scenario only ended in massive online trolling with few international repercussions. Nonetheless, the events bring something more problematic to light: an overall dissatisfaction with the Belarusian political system.
The “Six Day War”
Even though the Belarusian opposition has been traditionally weak, the same cannot necessarily be said about the potential of the Belarusian youth poking fun at regime officials. Non-systemic opposition in Belarus has been growing substantially in recent years. Even though opposition groups are not recognized often as they do not necessarily congregate in formal parties or structures, they have started adopting Viejšnoryja as a symbol of open opposition. While it quickly was associated with everything Western, Viejšnoryja simultaneously juxtaposed everything Soviet and Russian within Belarus. The official VKontakte website of Viejšnoryja states very explicitly that the official languages of the Republic are Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian and hosts 1.488 666 citizens. The capital of Viejšnoryja is Grodno, a city with a predominant Polish minority and strong Belarusian nationalist sentiments that manifests Viejšnoryja’s open challenge to the Russian-Belarusian union. During and after the Zapad exercises, Viejšnoryja’s official website, VKontakte and Twitter commented on their “victories”, referring to accidents and vehicle damage during transport of equipment for the exercises. To anger Russia more, the days during the Zapad Games frequently are referred to as the “Six Days War”, an incident where journalists falsely came under fire by Russian helicopters. This has led to much amusement on the side of Viejšnoryja’s supporter base who interpreted it as Viejšnoryja fighting back.
This has warranted a reaction by Russian news sources, which have started adopting the term Viejšnoryjan for Belarusians with west-leaning convictions, ambitious of challenging Lukashenko’s state centred economy. One could argue that the fake state was a success that gained legitimacy through excessive applications for Viejšnoryjan citizenship. Since 2017, the number of Belarusians applying has not decreased, and there has even been a launch of elections taking place on Viejšnoryja’s official VKontakte site. The election was a symbolic one in a country with an openly authoritarian and closed government; more than 12.000 users voted for representation, which might have been seen as an open provocation to Belarus authorities. Overall, the election was fairly successful as many Viejšnoryjan citizens became their own candidates and many became creative in self-promotion, videos and slogans for campaigns. The continuous growth of Viejšnoryja’s state platform over a year later indicates how the fake state has had an impact on Belarusian society. Even though Zapad 2017 has ended, the legacy of its scenario embodied in the form of a fake-state that elects “members of the Viejšnoryjan Parliament” will continue in high level political trolling.
What does this leave us with? While Zapad 2017 seemed to have created its own monster, Viejšnoryja continues its path of open confrontation with Belarusian authorities in the cosy anonymity of the internet. And while Viejšnoryja is by no means supported by all Belarusians, the fake-state demonstrates how deep the rifts within society and especially between the younger and older generations of Belarusians are. It seems that the vital stability of the political system of Lukashenka has been challenged in a wave of online micro-aggressions by its own younger and highly educated population not shy in taking over VKontakte to bring its point across. In any case, Viejšnoryja is not going to die anytime soon; it should be an indicator to the West that even in “Europe’s last dictatorship” (or whatever platitude used to describe Belarus), humour can help to prevail in a political system that does not always make sense.