Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko Alexander Lukashenko is keen for closer ties with the EU to help him stay in power, much to Russia's annoyance. Photograph: Alexander Tolochko/AP
Alexander Lukashenko, the hardline president of Belarus, and Mikhail Saakashvili, the leader of Georgia, have forged an unlikely political alliance in a "media war" with the Kremlin.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager and often called Europe's last dictator, and Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School and self-styled champion of democracy, may seem like dubious bedfellows. But experts say their interests have merged in an escalating conflict between Russia and its former Soviet neighbours as the latter try to foster closer ties with the European Union.
Russia fired the first salvo earlier this month when the state-owned NTV station aired a two-part documentary called The God Daddy. The film, a play on Lukashenko's nickname and the Marlon Brando mafia movie, was a character assassination accusing the Belarussian leader of "disappearing" political opponents.
Incensed by the film, Lukashenko responded by allowing Russia's arch-enemy, Saakashvili, a fawning interview on Belarussian television, which the Georgian used to castigate Moscow over the 2008 war in South Ossetia.
Saakashvili's appearance was surprising, not least because he claims his country is a beacon of freedom, while Lukashenko has rigged polls crushed dissent and said in 1995 that "not everything was bad in Adolf Hitler's Germany."
"It may not be a long romance but for now these two leaders' interests have coincided," said Vladimir Zharikin, an analyst at the Institute of CIS Studies in Moscow.
"It's a case of my enemy's enemy is my friend."
The caustic Saakashvili interview angered Moscow, where the speaker of parliament, Boris Gryzlov, called its transmission an "unfriendly act". But state-controlled Belarussian media piled on the pressure, publishing a scathing report on the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, by opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
Hundreds of thousands of copies of Nemtsov's report, which accused Putin of presiding over soaring corruption in the last decade, were confiscated by the Federal Security Service when it was published in Russia last month. The Kremlin hit back today by inviting two prominent Belarussian opposition figures to meet senior officials in Moscow.
In the past, Lukashenko and Putin appeared to be bosom pals, greeting each other warmly at bilateral summits. But the relationship between Belarus and Russia, both Slavic countries with an intricately linked history, has crumbled in the last two years over economic disputes. Last month the two clashed over Minsk's debts for supplies of Siberian gas, and a year ago Moscow banned milk products from Belarus after Lukashenko protested at the gas price.
Arkady Moshes, an expert on Belarus at Chatham House, said the conflict grew out of Lukashenko's recent attempts at reorientation towards the west.
"Russia wants Belarus to go back to being the client state that it once was," he said. "But Lukashenko realises a significant part of the general population and the business elite in his country see Europe as the future while Russia means the old Soviet past. And he wants to respond to that in order to stay in power."
Last year, the EU launched its Eastern Partnership programme to bring six eastern European countries including Belarus and Georgia more tightly into its orbit, much to Russia's chagrin.
Lukashenko indicated in a recent interview that he had asked Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, whether the EU could replace Russia as his financial patron.
Earlier this month, Belarus joined Russia and Kazakhstan in a new customs union. But Zharikin said Lukashenko wanted to stall on progressing to a common economic space being promoted by Moscow that would require much deeper reforms. "These TV attacks against Russia are part of Lukashenko's battle to retain the status quo," he said.