The Kremlin, it appears, has put Alyaksandr Lukashenka on notice.
On July 4, the Gazprom-owned television station NTV broadcast an unflattering documentary about the authoritarian Belarusian leader and erstwhile Moscow ally.
Titled "The Godfather," the film covered the suspicious deaths and disappearances of Bealrusian opposition figures in the late 1990s, suggesting that they were victims of a government-run death squad. It delved into Lukashenka's private life. It reminded viewers of the billions of dollars in support Russia has given to Belarus. And it showed Lukashenka praising Adolf Hitler.
Programs like this are not aired by accident in Russia. And coming on the heels of nasty disputes over gas prices and Belarus joining a customs union with Russia, the broadcast had all the hallmarks of a Kremlin-approved hit job.
Political commentator Sergei Buntman noted on Ekho Moskvy recently that journalists and Belarusian opposition leader have been saying similar things about Lukashenka for over a decade. "Could it be that the people who craft policy have truly seen the light and, against the backdrop of innovation and modernization, realized just what a dreadful dictator Lukashenka is?" Buntman asked rhetorically. "I doubt it."
Instead, what is driving the Kremlin's campaign is the fact that Lukashenka has long been wearing out his welcome in Moscow. He costs too much. He's too high-maintenance.
And as Buntman points out, he is no longer considered a reliable Kremlin ally:
Russian domestic and foreign policy...uses just the one criterion -- loyalty or disloyalty to the Russian Federation. Russian policy has assimilated one uncomplicated law of diplomacy: he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. If he stops being ours, then he takes a hit.
So what is Russia's end game? In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Leonid Zaika, director of the Minsk-based think tank Strategia, speculates that the latest scuffle between Minsk and Moscow is a prelude to Belarus's presidential election early next year:
Colonel Putin and his colleagues have put together a fine-tuned operation. First, they will discredit Lukashenka with the electorate. Second, they will deprive him and his entourage of money. Then there will be elections and the atmosphere will be changed. There are people among Lukashenka's circle who would like to have the top post. And the most important point will be whether to recognize the election results. If Washington, Brussels, and Moscow all don't recognize the election results, then the situation changes completely. They don't need to do anything else. They don't need any conspiracies. The Kremlin can act legitimately and lawfully.
If Zaika is right, such a scenario would certainly constitute one elegant coup. And depending on who replaced Lukashenka, it could even be welcomed in Brussels and Washington. Another element of the reset in Russia's relations with the West, where even an embarrassing spy scandal can't spoil all the good cheer.
I've always thought Russia would be happy to get rid of the troublesome Lukashenka, but always assumed the Kremlin wouldn't dare make a move unless they were certain they could control the transition and handpick his successor. And until they could, I always assumed they would be content to stick with the devil they know.
Buntman argues that the Kremlin's goals are much more modest at this point -- sending a stern message to Lukashenka that he needs to get in line quickly, or else:
It does work, after all! A bucket of plausible odor comes pouring out of the television screen, and then, the next day, lovely Alyaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka] signs a piece of paper on the customs union. The Belarusian president is being shown that he's in the same boat as Russia, and not just any boat, but a submarine, so he'd better not try to breach its hermetic seal.
A stern warning or a prelude to a coup? Whichever it turns out to be, this should be damn interesting to watch over the coming months.
-- Brian Whitmore