By David Marples, Freelance
Russia appears to have renounced its former ally, Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The latest feud between Russia and its neighbour Belarus has been described by a Belarusian analyst as a dialogue between gangsters, a ritual of mutual insults and jibes that are now both familiar and expected. But it has reached a new and unprecedented level of animosity.
The protagonists are familiar. In one corner are Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the guiding forces of the "petro-state" and oil and gas exports to the West, about 25 per cent of which are fed through a pipeline across Belarus into the European Union. In the other, is the man once described by a U.S. source as "the last dictator of Europe," Lukashenka, a burly figure with his balding pate and trademark moustache.
Last summer, without warning, Russia declared that Belarusian dairy products had not been cleared for export because of problems of hygiene. This prompted a so-called "dairy war" that lasted for a month.
Belarus in turn refused for several weeks to take up its assigned role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which under Putin's guidance has now taken on a military role. Besides Russia and Belarus, it has five other members: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Armenia. Lukashenka also opted not to serve his term as rotating chairman of the group in Moscow in June 2009, asking why his fellow Belarusians should go and fight in Kazakhstan.
In April 2010 Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was deposed and ethnic conflicts broke out in that republic. Within days Bakiyev turned up in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and appeared in public with Lukashenka, who declared himself shocked that a fellow president could be deposed and demanded that he be returned to office. Putin and Medvedev had supported the coup and were startled by this action of a CSTO ally.
A gas war between Russia and Belarus started in 2002 and has recurred periodically. On June 21, Russia's Gazprom announced it was cutting off 85 per cent of its gas supplies to Belarus because of more than $190 million worth of unpaid bills. Lukashenka promptly responded that Russia owed Belarus more than $220 million in unpaid transit fees. Both sides ultimately paid the bulk of these "dues" but Russia has suspended any new loans to its neighbour.
In mid-June, Lukashenka was in Moscow where he had meetings first with Medvedev and later with Putin. At the latter meeting, he told the Russian prime minister that he owed him dinner. Putin asked why Medvedev had not fed him, and Lukashenka responded that rather than dine, he had gone for a swim. However, Putin neglected to provide a morsel to the Belarusian president even though the meeting lasted into the early hours of the morning.
The latest spat is more serious. In late June, Lukashenka wrote a letter to 80 Russian businessmen, which was also published in Pravda, and which attacked Russian actions as undermining integration between the two states. Medvedev dismissed the letter as "spam." He was particularly irritated at Belarus' delay in approving the terms of the new Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan. Lukashenka had demanded (to no avail) the removal of customs fees for oil exported from Russia to Belarus, a source of great profit to the latter country in the past through reselling at higher prices.
On July 5, the three presidents: Medvedev, Lukashenka, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan met in Astana to ratify the new Union. A day earlier, however, the Moscow television station NTV, which is closely monitored by the Russian authorities, ran a documentary on the program "Emergency Situations" entitled Krestnyi Batka (The Godfather) about Lukashenka, which outraged Belarusian officials at Astana. The documentary was produced about a year ago in Belarus but banned by the government. A copy evidently was smuggled to Moscow.
The documentary looks back to the late 1990s when several leading politicians and journalists in Belarus were kidnapped off the streets, and attributed their assumed deaths to Lukashenka. Any public mention of these figures leads to arrest in Belarus, and hitherto Moscow has never addressed the issue. However, the program depicted the Belarusian president as a tyrant and murderer. It also criticized his family life, showing his alleged mistress and "love child" before denouncing his actions in the "gas war" and accusing him of lying. On the same day, the television network Russia Today -- it is widely accessible in Canada -- also ran a program attacking Lukashenka. Taken together the two programs, watched by millions in Russia but not shown in Belarus, could only mean one thing: Russia seeks the removal of Lukashenka and a change of regime in Minsk.
The elevation of tension comes at a time when a new presidential election campaign is underway in Belarus, with an election date anticipated in February 2011. With his control over the media and security forces, Lukashenka is secure in the knowledge that he will be re-elected. In the past every flawed election received the approval of Russia. This one promises to be different and the Russians are sizing up potential opponents for Lukashenka.
Thus the prospects for the Russia-Belarus Union State appear very dim indeed. The gangsters have replaced their ritualistic war of words with overt conflict. Lukashenka, who has been in office for 16 years, will need all his subterfuge and cunning to avert a personal catastrophe.
David Marples is a professor of history at the University of Alberta