Site map
0The virtual community for English-speaking expats and Russians
  Main page   Make it home   Expat card   Our partners   About the site   FAQ
Please log in:
To register  Forgotten your password?   
  Survival Guide   Calendars
  Phone Directory   Dining Out
  Employment   Going Out
  Real Estate   Children
   September 23
News Links
Business Calendar
Phone Directory
 Latest Articles
 Archived Articles
Analysis & Opinion
30.07.10 Moscow’s Media War With Lukashenko
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributers: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger

Earlier this month Russia’s Gazprom-owned NTV aired a two-part documentary called “The Godfather” in which it compared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to Hitler and Stalin, and accused him of authoritarianism and ordering the murders of his political opponents – an unprecedented move by Russian state-controlled media. With Belarusian presidential elections looming this winter, what is the Kremlin’s real strategy on Belarus? Will Moscow pressure Lukashenko into not standing, or offer him a peaceful “transition” afterward? Could Russia join the EU and the United States in not recognizing the result if the elections are rigged? Or would that be too outlandish an option for President Dmitry Medvedev to consider?

In response to the NTV documentary, on July 15 Belarus' state-owned television aired an interview with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in which he strongly criticized the Kremlin. On July 20, the official government newspaper in Belarus, “Respublika,” began publishing extracts from “Putin. Ten Years. The Results,” a pamphlet by Russian opposition figures Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov.

Moscow is encountering strong resistance from Minsk in its campaign to advance political and economic integration in the post-Soviet space. Lukashenko refused - until the last moment - to sign the customs union agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan on the grounds that Belarus should not have to pay duties on Russian energy exports and should have a favorable price for natural gas - all key Russian subsidies for his bankrupt regime.

Lukashenko views Russia’s integrationist efforts and the ensuing end of economic subsidies to Belarus as a direct threat to his authoritarian rule, precisely at the moment when he seeks his fourth presidential term in early 2011.
The fracas is also driven by personal animosity between Lukashenko and Russia’s “tandem” rulers - President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – and both sides have come close to mutual character assassination.

While Moscow’s wrath over Lukashenko’s resistance to joining the Customs Union is understandable, a strategy that seeks to personally humiliate him and weaken his regime is unlikely to work. Although the Kremlin has long stopped pretending that it views Lukashenko as much more than an international embarrassment and would quite clearly like to see him move on, it has done nothing to prepare the ground for a political transition in Minsk that Moscow could control.

The Kremlin is unlikely to move to oust him unless they could put a more pliant president in his place. There is no one among the leading opposition figures in Belarus that Moscow can endorse as its candidate.

They all want Belarus to join the EU, and to a man are organizationally feckless and largely unknown outside Minsk. With his popularity ratings around 50 percent and all opposition candidates polling under 10 percent, Lukashenko is likely to win reelection next year. With this in mind, Moscow appears to be trying to intimidate Lukashenko with media attacks to make him more deferential to the Kremlin’s wishes. This course has its limits, however, and is difficult to reverse without losing face and leaving one’s opponent free to throw the mud back.

What is the Kremlin’s real strategy on Belarus? Will Moscow keep piling economic pressure on Lukashenko in the run up to the presidential election in early 2011? Will Russia demand that Lukashenko not run for reelection? Or will it offer him a “Rahimov style” transition afterward? Would Russia be prepared not to recognize the results of the presidential vote in Belarus, in careful coordination with Washington and Brussels, were Lukashenko to resort to his tried and tested methods of vote rigging? Or would this be too outlandish an option for Medvedev to consider?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Alexander Lukashenko’s behavior has been erratic for many years. One must wonder how much of this instability is due to fluctuating pecuniary interests, mainly aimed at tapping the “Russian gold seam,” and how much of the unstable behavior is due to deeper, personal issues in Lukashenko’s mind.

It seems that Russian leaders (of all political persuasions) are reasonably taking a long-term look: people like Lukashenko eventually leave the political stage, but countries and nations remain. This is of course small consolation for the vexation of dealing with an erratic “partner.”

From a realistic perspective Belarus does not have significant leverage. The country has no unique or exclusive advantages either as a source of valuable products or critical-to-success geography. Its industrial base is aging, it is not unique as a route for transit of goods between Russia and her Western trading partners, and it depends on direct and indirect subsidies to make ends meet. In the present worldwide climate of scarce money, patrons with sufficient largesse are not so plentiful, and it is highly advisable not to abuse their kindness. This is the realistic dimension of Lukashenko’s condition. The fact that he (or his entourage) chooses to bite the hand that feeds him leads some observers to suppose a psychological aberration as the principal cause of his misbehavior.

Such erratic actions do not recommend president Lukashenko to any of the other few potential patrons. He does not have much to offer in exchange for support and forbearance of behavior that borders on the bizarre.

The exchange of media salvos between Russian and Belarusian broadcasters should also be considered in the context of summertime news doldrums. One cannot repeat ad infinitum the stories about “Russian spies” in America and the oil vent in the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, stories about marginal “leaders” like Saakashvili and Lukashenko may be a way to maintain audience ratings. One should not necessarily attribute excessive significance to these broadcasts.

Regarding Lukashenko’s political future, in the long term he does not have much to expect: his marginality has been irrevocably established. In the shorter term, he may survive additional electoral cycles, mainly because there are no credible and charismatic alternatives to his candidacy, and the expectations of the Belarusian electorate seem to be sufficiently low that even a low-level performing incumbent such as Lukashenko can obtain (or construct) the required plurality.

Will the Russian leadership tire of Lukashenko? It seems that the evidently pragmatic individuals in Russia’s executive ranks have learned to absorb and circumvent Lukashenko’s political gyrations. This need to absorb and circumvent is at present an acceptable price to pay for the Lukashenko “product” (whatever that is). Currently, it is not a question of being tired of Belarus’s leader, but of much broader policy horizons. However, Lukashenko should worry very much if a fresh, credible, charismatic, businesslike and pragmatic challenger appears on Belarus’s political stage. A workable alternative will receive a lot of pent-up political support and Belarus might finally see genuine movement into the 21st century.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA:

Approximately nine years ago, many, if not most, Belarusian citizens watched Russian television news on a regular basis. Consequently, it did not escape notice in Minsk, Brest, Vitebsk and elsewhere that during a month-long period prior to the September 2001 Belarusian presidential “election,” the tone of Russian television news coverage on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko turned generally negative.

In fact, NTV broadcast a videotape implicating Belarusian state-sponsored death squads in the “disappearance” of United Civil Party Leader and Deputy Chairman of the 13th Supreme Soviet Viktor Gonchar and former Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko, both potential challengers of Lukashenko, along with Gonchar’s colleague Anatoly Krasovsky and Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. It is doubtful that the Belarusian population did not take note of this.

Some speculated that the Kremlin’s patience with the mercurial Belarusian president had run its course and that it would support his challenger Vladimir Goncharik, the chairman of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions. It seemed that Goncharik, a Soviet-era functionary, was put forth by the anti-Lukashenko forces in the country precisely since he was someone that Putin and colleagues would find unthreatening, while at the same time end Belarus international isolation. Nevertheless, in an election judged by the OSCE to be neither fair nor free, Lukashenko crushed his two opponents.

As of late, Belarusian-Russian relations have not been smooth. As with Ukraine, Russia had a dispute with Belarus over financial arrangements in connection with Russian energy exports to Western Europe. While that controversy seems to have been resolved, considerable bad feelings remain. Lukashenko has shown his willingness to ruffle the Russian leadership’s feathers by meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and providing political asylum to former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Furthermore, in recent years, Lukashenko has also made a concerted effort to reorient Belarusian trade away from Russia and toward the European Union, which cannot be to Moscow’s liking - except for those Russians who own or control Belarusian enterprises that now have better access to the EU market.

It has no doubt occurred to the Russian leadership that there would be distinct benefits having a Belarusian equivalent of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich as president in its Western neighbor. While many Russian citizens have never really accepted the idea that Belarus was a separate country, Belarusians of all political stripes have no desire to be incorporated into the Russian Federation (de jure or de facto). Why be a region – or even split up into a handful of districts - when you can be a country?

No doubt both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin see significant benefits in Lukashenko’s removal from power. If they could play a constructive role in a non-violent “transition” process that put more “attractive” interim leaders in power until the holding of elections, and if the OSCE found those elections acceptable, it could lead the EU and the United States to view Russia in a more favorable light.

But it is not clear that Russia could make him an offer he could not refuse, even if it wanted to. Furthermore, it is not absolutely clear if the EU speaks with one voice about the desirability of Lukashenko remaining in power - it is easier to get economic concessions from a small country like Belarus, than it would be from Russia.

Thus, one should expect Lukashenko to wrap himself in the Belarusian flag and ensure his security apparatus can be relied upon. While not a place that most Western Europeans would want to go for a vacation, it is at least a buffer against Russian expansionism. With Russian influence in Ukraine growing, they would probably not relish a similar outcome in Belarus. The cost of Russia trying to impose its will on the Belarusian people is probably a decade overdue.
The source
Copyright © The Moscow Expat Site, 1999-2023Editor  Sales  Webmaster +7 (903) 722-38-02