President Lukashenko, having lost ground in Moscow, has now turned to the Kremlin's foes and is enjoying warm relations with his former critic Georgian leader Saakashvili. What could be behind this sudden mutual love?
As a gesture of goodwill to Tbilisi or as a way to irritate Moscow, on Thursday evening the Belarusian state TV channel showed "Timely Interview" with Minsk's new friend Mikhail Saakashvili. The main focus, quite predictably, was on relations between Russia and Georgia. Saakashvili accused its neighbor of "imperial ambitions" and claimed they cannot understand what Russia wants.
Many see the move as Aleksandr Lukashenko's retaliation against a scandalous documentary - "God Father (Bat'ka)" - shown on Russia's NTV channel on July 4. The film portrayed the Belarusian president as a fierce dictator, oppressing and disposing of his opponents. Shortly after that, RT aired its report on "Europe's last dictator."
Georgian leader pursues favorite subject
In an interview with the Belarusian channel, a declaration of Georgia's "huge liking to Belarusian people" was followed by Saakashvili's traditional attacks against Russia who is "only able to talk to neighbors using pressure and blackmailing."
"It is difficult to understand what they want," he said. Georgia, according to Saakashvili, was willing to give way to Russia, but "they [Russia] demanded more and more."
"We have refused to make a choice between bad and the worst," he added. The current Moscow policy leads to a dead end and "that will result in irreversible processes." As it appeared, Saakashvili wishes only the best to Russia which is "improving relations, modernization, modern Russia but not some kind of feudal medieval times Russia."
He confessed to liking Russian culture and said he makes his son learn the Russian language. Notably, during the interview both the Georgian leader and the Belarusian Channel One correspondent were speaking in Russian.
Saakashvili slams Russian TV reports on Belarus
The Belarusian journalist also asked Saakashvili what he thinks of informational pressure.
"I recently watched on the internet - by accident - we do have Russian channels on cable TV but they are not very popular: I watched what they [the NTV channel] made on Belarus," the Georgian president said.
"When accusations are laid: they are almost accusing the Belarusian leadership of cannibalism. And that comes from the country where journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed: Or where lately the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova," he said. It all tastes of a "propaganda war," Saakashvili concluded.
In fact, over a half the 13-minute long interview was devoted to Russia's relations with Georgia.
Moscow defines Minsk's move as unfriendly
Belarus's latest move was not welcomed in Moscow. The Russian State Duma Speaker, Boris Gryzlov has slammed the Minsk's step as unfriendly.
"I believe that the fact that he [Saakashvili] was allowed to speak on Belarusian TV is an unfriendly step in relation to Russia," he said on Friday, writes RIA Novosti.
He noted that an improvement of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi will only be possible when another president comes to power in Georgia.
Meanwhile, on Friday evening a second part of the documentary on Lukashenko - "God Father-2"- will be aired on Russian TV channel NTV.
From friends to foes, from foes to friends
The relations between Russia and Belarus have cooled over the past years. The recent row over gas prices and Lukashenko's many public outbursts towards Moscow did not help to restore the bygone friendship either.
Thanks to his flip and flop foreign policy as well as authoritarian style of rule within the country, Lukashenko is taken with caution in the West. His Venezuelan comrade Hugo Chavez is not only too far away geographically, but also is unlikely to support Minsk's rhetoric against Moscow since the Bolivarian Republic maintains good and quite beneficial relations with Russia. So where to look for allies?
There could be no better pick on former USSR soil than Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili who was declared persona non grata in Russia following the August 2008 war in the Caucasus.
Just several years ago the relations between the two former Soviet republics could hardly be seen as warm and friendly.
"Belarus does not equate Georgian people to the Georgian leadership, which continues to maintain their unfriendly policy toward Belarus," Lukashenko said back in March 2006, cited Regnum news agency. "[Saakashvili] will escape to America, he will not stay in Georgia because he does not need this country," stated the Belarusian leader.
"The regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko rules by fear, yet fears its own people," Mikhail Saakashvili wrote in an article published by the Washington Post in May 2005. In March 2006 he slammed the "dictatorial regime" in Belarus. In June last year, Russian KP daily recalls Saakashvili referred to his then foe as a "former chairman of the kolkhoz."
Four years on, the two seem to have made a U-turn in their policies. In July 2010, the two leaders meet in Crimea at the celebrations of Viktor Yanukovich's 60th birthday.
Saakashvili and Lukashenko "expressed satisfaction that dialogue between the two countries is deepening and this process is taking place not only between the top leaders, but also between civil society groups, especially between the youth and business people," Civil.ge cited the Georgian President's administration as saying.
What used to be called a "dictatorial regime" has suddenly turned into "a very attractive climate" and now the former critic of Minsk does not mind giving an interview to the state channel of the country. As they say, love and hate are just one step apart. But is it really that simple when it comes to politics?
Possible negative consequences
"This interview should not be surprising in light of the relations of Lukashenko and the Kremlin," political commentator Raman Yakauleusky said in an interview with the United Democratic Forces of Belarus (UDF) news portal. However, it will have negative consequences for Lukashenko he said.
The expert said that warming in the relations between the Belarusian and Georgian leaders could also be linked to the hope that Tbilisi would promote dialogue between Minsk and Washington. However, he believes such expectations are wrong.
"When Barack Obama became the US President, the attitude of the US administration to the President of Georgia changed substantially. I cannot say that it deteriorated, but the extent of support is not the same," he said.
The latest shift in Belarusian-Georgian relations is yet another political intrigue by Aleksandr Lukashenko, said Yury Beteyev, the deputy head of the South Osetian information agency, OSInform.
"The meeting between Lukashenko and Saakashvili is a very interesting fact. It is yet another example of inconsistent behavior of the Belarusian leadership in foreign policy," he said as quoted on the agency's website. "Whether to recognize Abkhazia and South Osetia or not [as independent states] - is Aleksandr Lukashenko's right. We can live without it, after all."
But shaking hands with the Georgian president, he went on, with "the man who ordered the killing of Russian peacekeepers and citizens, who are representatives of the same Slavic culture as the Belarusians - that suggests unpleasant conclusions".
"These actions suggest that they [the Belarusian leadership] are lobbying interests of third countries and are only driven by their personal ambitions," Beteyev said.
He also noted that Belarus is "playing with fire" since the major export destination of Belarusian products is Russia and losing such a market would be critical for Minsk.
Natalia Makarova, RT