It Takes One to Know One

A media war of words breaks out between two supposed allies

RUSSIA and Belarus are unlikely champions of democracy and freedom of speech. But a postmodernist approach to politics can yield odd results in the post-Soviet world. In recent weeks these authoritarian regimes have denounced each other’s authoritarianism and deployed state-controlled media to attack each other’s lack of media freedom. Bizarrely, this war of words has been waged in the name of brotherly ties and economic union.

Hostilities broke out three weeks ago when Moscow and Minsk sparred over gas prices and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’s president, nearly reneged on a customs union between his country, Russia and Kazakhstan, which was finally signed on July 5th. A day earlier NTV, a television channel controlled by Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, aired “Godfather”, a documentary that portrayed Mr Lukashenka, long backed by Russia, as a brutal election-rigging, opposition-repressing tyrant.

Mr Lukashenka, who faces a presidential election in a few months, retaliated. On July 15th Belarusian state television broadcast a complimentary interview with Georgia’s president (and Russia’s arch-enemy), Mikheil Saakashvili, who noted that Russia’s criticism was rich coming from a country where opposition politicians are suppressed and journalists killed.

NTV responded with “Godfather-2”, which compared Mr Lukashenka to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a president of Kyrgyzstan overthrown with Russian connivance and sheltered by Mr Lukashenka. The implication was clear: Mr Lukashenka could suffer the same fate. Neither film was aired in Belarus, but a quarter of Belarusians found ways to watch them.

The Kremlin makes no secret that Mr Lukashenka has finally exhausted its patience. For years it subsidised his regime with cheap gas and duty-free crude oil, which Belarus refined and re-exported; it stood by him when he rigged elections and cracked down on protesters. But it feels it got little in return. Mr Lukashenka would not sell Belarusian refineries to Russian firms, he refused to recognise the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he sheltered Mr Bakiyev.

His obstinacy over the customs union was the last straw. Russia sees the union as a linchpin of its “zone of privileged interest”, its economic alternative to the European Union. Instead of helping Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, in his historic mission to reunite the parts shattered by the Soviet collapse (a quest compared by one Putin loyalist to the reunification of Germany), the maverick Belarusian president has become an obstacle.

To increase the pressure on him, Russia has now raised gas prices and slashed its supply of crude. If Mr Lukashenka’s entourage feel that Moscow has ditched their boss, they may abandon ship. Russia is also stirring up the Belarusian opposition. “For the first time in 16 years people in Belarus are looking to Russia with hope,” says Andrei Sannikov, an opposition leader.

This hope may be premature. Mr Lukashenka has often outmanoeuvred his Russian sponsors, who are wary of losing Belarus to the West. Russia’s offensive could be aimed at threatening Mr Lukashenka rather than deposing him. No opposition politician in Belarus would consider integration with Moscow as a serious alternative to the EU.

Calling Mr Lukashenka a paranoid dictator makes dealing with him difficult, but not impossible. As Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, argues: “There is no such thing as a point of no return in this battle, because both sides are represented not by noble knights, but cynical traders”.
The Economist