Who says the magazine industry is dead?

A Glossy Sheen Over Belarus’s Autocracy

Claiming Belarus just wants to be a “friend,” a new magazine whitewashes the country’s decades-long dictatorship.

The US-Belarus Observer, a new bi-monthly magazine, describes itself as “the first magazine of its kind in history.” With its inaugural issue running some 50 pages, the Florida-based publication contains numerous articles on the domestic politics and investment opportunities in Belarus, a country routinely placed near the bottom of both political freedom and corruption rankings.

The publication, available online, now boasts three issues, one of which included an interview with President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The editor’s note in the inaugural issue described Belarus as a “consistently peaceful nation, [which] extends its hand of friendship to all countries, a hand that has always been extended to America.”

“We think that it’s in the best interests of the US to have a genuinely loyal friend in the center of Europe,” Executive Editor Veronica Grigaltchik told me. “If you look at a map of the world, you can see that many countries who have said that they’re friends or allies have also participated in betrayal.” But as it pertains to Belarus, Grigaltchik added, “for many people, it’s like meeting a future friend for the first time.” As a further press release read, “Belarus can certainly be one of America’s most trusted friends.” (The magazine, as it is, does not discuss Belarus’s role as one of only a half-dozen countries to support Russia’s moves in Crimea and China’s moves in the South China Sea, both of which starkly contradict US policy.)

The magazine’s website notes that readers “already include Senators and Congressmen,” and includes comments from anonymous readers praising “every single page of the magazine.”

According to Grigaltchik, editors sent the initial issue, released earlier this year, to numerous politicians and Slavic-studies university departments across the US. The magazine’s website, which provides PDFs of the magazine’s three issues, notes that readers “already include Senators and Congressmen,” and includes comments from anonymous readers praising “every single page of the magazine.”

Indeed, there’s as much praise for the magazine on the publication’s website as there is praise for Lukashenko’s government within the magazine itself. One article in the first issue features findings on the 2015 election in Belarus from a handful of European observers who, according to the write-up, found that “the selection took place both calmly and transparently.” According to one monitor, the University of Vienna’s Christian Haerpfer, observers “did not hear any complaints. We saw no concerned faces. We saw happy people, many with kids, smiling, and taking photos.” Another, Switzerland’s Hans-Peter Meier-Dallach, said that “the professionalism of the election and exit poll conduction were the best in my experience.”

Neither Haerpfer nor Meier-Dallach noted that the election propelled Lukashenko into his third decade as the head of Belarus, nor that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” For good measure, a United Nations special rapporteur noted that the “election process was orchestrated, and the result was pre-ordained. It could not be otherwise, given [Belarus’s] 20 years of continuous suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, which are the preconditions for any credible competition.”

Nonetheless, the US-Belarus Observer article managed to claim that most citizens of Belarus believe Lukashenko “guards the country from corruption and crime[.]” According to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, however, Belarus ranks 107th out of 167 countries in corruption perceptions.

Unsurprisingly, numerous questions exist about both the magazine’s financing and its ties to the Belarusian government. For instance, according to his Facebook, publisher Mikhail Morgulis serves as the “Honorary Consul of the Republic of Belarus in Florida.” (On his page, Morgulis pitches the magazine to readers who “desire to experience a whole new world.”) Morgulis’s profile notes that he has served as honorary consul since December, when he was appointed to the position by Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As it is, Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, wrote the opening article in the US-Belarus Observer — without disclosing his relationship to Morgulis. For good measure, Morgulis writes in the inaugural issue that the “Belarusian government is doing everything possible to make the lives of regular people easier.”

The magazine’s unveiling comes on the heels of numerous post-Soviet dictatorships — including Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan — spending exorbitant sums on improving their images among Western audiences. Grigaltchik, however, noted that funding for the magazine’s launch came from “business companies in Belarus” as well as “some anonymous private individuals in the United States who wanted to also have Belarus come to the forefront.” The phone number for the magazine’s lone advertiser in the inaugural issue, however, was answered by a representative of the “Honorary Consul.”

Interestingly, the magazine also appears to share significant overlap with the United Holiness Church, a church in North Port, Florida. The publication and the church share the same P.O. Box, while the church’s listed pastor, Mark Bazalev, shares the same name as the US-Belarus Observer’s “chief consultant.” According to the church directory, a “Mikhail Margulis” also acts as the church’s “Senior Elder and Spiritual Advisor.”

However, repeated attempts to contact Morgulis, both by phone and online message, were unsuccessful. The church’s listed phone number was disconnected, and multiple emails went unanswered. And when asked to be put in contact with Morgulis, Grigaltchik responded, “I am afraid I can’t help with his contact information.”