The comic tale of an epic propaganda fail that confirmed Russian intervention in Belarus

A small matter of language gets a big laugh as protests continue

On August 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an interview — his first one in a very long time. On the subject of neighboring Belarus — still in the midst of massive protests after the disputed presidential election — he was quite blunt. “Mr. Lukashenko has asked me to create a reserve group of law enforcement personnel, and I have done this,” he said, matter-of-factly. “But we have also agreed that this group would not be used unless the situation becomes uncontrollable, when extremist elements using political slogans as a cover, overstep the mark and start plundering the country.”

I watched the segment over, and then again, to be sure I heard it correctly. But here was the Russian president, who typically thrives on plausible deniability, admitting to preparing yet another “intervention” in a neighboring country. The infamous “they are not there” (“Ихтамнет”) meme — a popular joke referring to Russia’s military presence in Ukraine — was morphing into “they will be there” in front of my eyes. Or was it “they are already there”?

As protests broke out all over Belarus after the rigged election – and even the internet disruptions failed to slow their spread — there was wide speculation that Russia would intervene to help embattled Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Nation-wide strikes were called in solidarity with the protests. Uncomfortable with how state-run media was covering the election and portraying the protesters, many famous hosts and presenters resigned in protest while other workers went on strike. The media employees soon learned that they had already been replaced by “professionals” from Russia. Reporters had been trying to verify these claims when President Lukashenko did it for them. Novaya Gazeta reported:

On August 21, [Lukashenko] arrived at “Agrokombinat Dzerzhinskiy” (an agro-industrial enterprise). He followed his usual pattern, put down his scripted speech, and aired his grievances. He lashed out at the TV workers who “rushed to the streets to riot.” He chided them, saying that everybody was replaceable and their jobs had already been filled. “You must realize that nobody will be waiting for you to come back. Competition on the market is tough. I've asked the Russians to give us 2 or 3 groups of journalists, just in case. These are six or nine individuals from the most advanced television company. Let our younger generation watch and learn from them.”

But good news, Lukashenko reassured everyone, Mexico would be paying for the wall!

The Russians are not going to see a penny from us. Listen to me, do you really believe that I won't find enough good friends in Russia who will write checks to these six or nine people?” Thus, he implied he had some “good friends in Russia” who were going to pay out of pocket and off the books. (However, this is how propaganda works.) The real question, though, is whom are they going to pay. 

For the past two days, journalists — in both Russia and Belarus — have been trying to find out whether a Russian TV crew arrived in Minsk and who was on the team. Nobody has been able to identify any one of them so far. However, the Russian presence is obvious. They come in all professions and qualifications — not only TV workers.

But it wasn’t long before the “TV workers” (aka special propaganda teams) revealed themselves in the most comical manner possible.

Suddenly, the name “Belorussiya” or “Belorussia” was being used on state media: Belorussia (Белоруссия) is what Russians call Belarus. No Belarusian, regardless of their political views, would use Belorussia — but there it was in the chyron on state TV. Whoops. 

To make matters worse — maybe without even realizing it — the new Russian helpers confused the Belarusian and Ukrainian alphabets (both of which are slightly different than the Russian one). Were they just lazily recycling an old playbook, Radio Svoboda wondered? Hard not to speculate. 

The narratives changed, too. Where the usual Belarusian propaganda had focused on “stability,” “welfare,” and “vast farm fields,” now came homophobic rhetoric tying EU integration to same-sex marriages — a Kremlin propaganda calling card, of sorts. This was doubly head-scratching since the Belarusian opposition and the street protests were not anti-Russian/pro-EU. They went to great lengths not to be geopolitical. Nonetheless state TV was now here to warn them that joining Europe would turn everyone gay (or whatever) — a direct-from-Moscow, one-size-fits-all emergency propaganda package for slavic-ish speakers.

This TV version of reality had clear limitations and was failing to convince the nation not to believe their own eyes and ears (just as Lukashenko himself had failed to convince them that he had won 80% of the vote). What better time for Lukashenko to embark on his post-election tour!

The pro-democracy rallies were drawing thousands upon thousands of participants to the streets; one event in Minsk on August 16 was estimated to have about 200,000 people in attendance. Lukashenko thus also needed to have the largest and most enthusiastic crowds in history at his rallies. But, this didn’t go exactly as planned either. Novaya Gazeta continues: 

...Lukashenko's rallies — which people were forced to attend, otherwise “those who don't show up will be fired”— showcased some branded merchandise and the entire country burst into laughter. Sweatshirts and T-shirts showed red-and-green flags and #ябатька [Ya-bat'ka] hashtags. You can't help but laugh. But if you stop for a brief second to think about what kind of crazy it actually is, you will quickly realize that it is an authentic Russian product.

People in Belarus have never called Lukashenko “батька” [“bat'ka”]. For many long years, his nickname in Belarus was simply “Luka,” and in recent months, he has become “Sasha 3%.”

“Bat'ka” is his nickname exclusively in Russia. Tatyana Zamirovskaya, a Belarusian writer, says, “It must be some sort of transmetonymy — when a public figure is attributed with a metaphoric status in the minds of a group of people to whom the speaker himself doesn't belong. There might be some special term to explain it: when you call somebody with whom you are not very close, who is not your family member, by the nickname you think their family would use, although they actually don't...”

This is how the “Yabat'ka” hashtags came to life. Even a child understands that it was a Russian creation. 

While it is clear why misidentifying Lukashenko is funny, a brief language lesson is needed to understand why it is so funny. Bear with me — it’s worth it. 

Bat’ka is Lukashenko’s long-time nickname in Russia; it is meant to emphasize his dad-like, strict-but-just-and-always-well-meaning qualities and, at the same time, point to his past career as the head of a kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm). 

Yabat’ka (ябатька in Russian) literally translates as “I [am] Dad” — coined to be analogous with formulations like “Je suis Charlie” and meaning “I stand with X.” It was supposed to mean, “I’m with Lukashenko.” BUT. But. 

In standard Belarusian, Бацька [bats’ka] is “father,” so if this was meant to seem like a native, authentic, grassroots campaign, it should have been bats’ka instead of bat’ka. And in Russian, батя [batja] or the less common батька [bat’ka] is used colloquially to say “my old man,” or sometimes derogatorily to describe a simpleton — an ignorant older man, usually from the village.

When this becomes Yabat’ka, it sounds almost identically to ебатько [yebat’ko], a Russian swear word which mostly closely means f*cktard or f*ckwit. Whenever a Russian-speaking journalist has to pronounce yabatka, the hashtag assigned to Lukashenko by his ace Russian propagandists, they automatically apologize for their crude language. 

Instead of defiant calls of “I’m with Luka!” ringing out from the rallies, ill-thought-out Russian-made propaganda has made “F*CKWIT” the rallying cry of the pro-Lukashenko scene.  

Popular art quickly branded these rallies as yabatings, since the Russian word for rally is митинг (a transliteration of “meeting”). A meeting of f*ckwits.

Soon enough, distinctive RT (Russia Today) broadcast vans started showing up. When dozens of reporters were detained ahead of the pro-democracy march in Minsk on the night of August 27 — the day of Putin’s interview — the RT crew was notably spared. Later, they were seen filming the protests from uphill, behind the OMON (special police task force) cordon, which earned them their new nicknames — “OMON TV” or “OMON Today.”

It’s easy to laugh at the ham-fisted mistakes and obviousness of these efforts — but they are accompanied by scale and resources. There is a new raft of digital ads. RT is buying ads on YouTube. Telegram ads have been paid for via Qiwi Wallet (a Russian service provider not popular in Belarus). There was a sudden shift in internet traffic from Belarus, adding sites like “The Southern Federal - the Southern Federal District of Russia’s newspaper” to the top 20. 

Novaya Gazeta concludes:

It might explain why nobody has managed to identify those TV workers from Moscow so far. They might have never existed. Aleksandr Lukashenko might be using them as a boogeyman to discourage the protests. The evidence I provided — although circumstantial but nonetheless exemplary — is enough to state: Russian professionals with many different skills and qualifications are currently present in Belarus. And they do have one thing in common. They share one and the same nickname, which they made up themselves — the Yabat'kas. We could not ask for a better one. 

The f*ckwits have come to Belarus. The sloppy propaganda efforts have exposed the Russian help that has arrived to prop up Luka — but we shouldn’t laugh off what this will mean for Belarus when neither Lukashenko nor Putin are hiding the Kremlin’s intervention.