By Roland Oliphant
Embassy-Torching Hooligans Terrorize the Minsk Diplomatic Corps, but Russia-Belarus Relations Remain No More Ill Tempered Than Usual
Two petrol bombs were hurled into the compound of the Russian Embassy in Minsk on Monday night, destroying a parked car and sparking a panic among the mission's staff. While the Belarusian Interior Ministry has launched an investigation, Belarusian oppositionists and some close to the Russian government have suggested that it was President Alexander Lukashenko who "sent the boys round" to give the Russians a message. Lukashenko has suggested the exact opposite - that it is another dirty move in the Russian media campaign against him.
The mysterious petrol bombing of the Russian Embassy in Minsk has become the latest scandal in the ongoing war of words - and celluloid - between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his counterparts in Moscow.
On the night of August 30 someone hurled two "bottles filled with flammable liquid" over the wall of the Russian Embassy in Minsk. No one was hurt in the resulting blaze, but one of the Molotov cocktails landed on a diplomatic car, which was destroyed. Belarusian police quickly announced an investigation into "hooliganism," and the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed its confidence that the perpetrators would be caught. But with Russia and Belarus embroiled in an ongoing diplomatic crisis, it wasn't long before both sides were blaming each other for what happened.
In a statement released Tuesday the Russian Foreign Ministry said it viewed the attack as "an outrageous act, which makes visible the desire of certain forces to disrupt the normal work of the embassy and bring to bilateral relations elements of distrust and tension."
But after speculation hit the Russian press that it was a Belarusian provocation, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko hit back Wednesday calling it a Russian "attack," saying "they probably needed to do this so they could say 'look at how it is under the government of Lukashenko, who practically threw them himself,'" the Kommersant daily reported.
Russia and Belarus have quarreled over the past several months over trade relations, the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Minsk's refusal to recognize the independence of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But tensions burst into the open in July, when Russia's Gazprom-owned NTV television station aired a three-part documentary called The Godfather, which described Lukashenko as a dictator and detailed many of the human rights abuses he is regularly accused of in the West, including the disappearance and presumed murders of several opposition figures in 1999.
Belarus responded by airing a series of interviews with Russian hate figures, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who were given free rein to lay into the Kremlin's own democratic shortcomings.
The tone of the propaganda exchanged reached new highs this week as Radio Free Europe reported that Lukashenko would be the subject of a forthcoming pornographic film. "Batka's Fortune," which will follow the erotic exploits of a mustachioed collective farm boss, is by the same Russian director behind "Yulia," a notorious erotic film that starred lookalikes of Saakashvali and Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Svoboda reported. In an interview with the station the director denied he was acting on Kremlin orders, but did say he has taken NTV's "Godfather" trilogy as a sign it would be tolerated.
But is this extraordinary, ill-tempered climate enough to push the two sides to petty thuggery? It might seem difficult to believe, but as Andrei Sannikov, a leader of the opposition campaign "European Belarus" and former deputy foreign minister, pointed out, one cannot help but wonder why the culprits were not caught - or at least identified - quite promptly.
"Embassies are very closely guarded, and there is a video. The embassy has its own security service, and the Belarusian Interior Ministry also provides security. So not to at least identify who did this is almost impossible," he said. "Judging from that, I think its definitely some provocation on the side of the Belarusian authorities."
Asked what on earth they might hope to gain through such actions, Sannikov guessed that it was a response to the "information campaign" recently unleashed by the Russian media. "They might be trying to show that the people of Belarus are unhappy with this information," he hazarded.
In Moscow Alexei Chadaev, the head of United Russia's political department, echoed this view. "It would be ridiculous to assume that someone was planning this kind of action and no one knew anything about it," he told Kommersant in an apparent reference to the Belarusian security services.
To what purpose the rounds of hate? Lukashenko is certainly right to be worried about what the Russians broadcasts say, said Sannikov - the population is Russophone, has strong human links with its neighbor, and can definitely see what's broadcast and printed. But he reckons they're somewhat weary with the apparent confrontation. "There is a sense of trepidation about this. People don't want to upset the relationship with Russia because they rely on it," he said. "Though there does seem to be a realization that Lukashenko can't deal with Russia like he used to."
But if the Kremlin is trying to chip away at Lukashenko's support ahead of presidential elections, which are supposed to be called sometime before February 6, it's unlikely to succeed in the near future. The Belarusian opposition is hopelessly fragmented, and Lukashenko's Belarus has a poor record on electoral transparency that leaves even opposition candidates confident that Lukashenko will in all events arrange his own "victory." On Wednesday, Lukashenko said he would not be swayed. "They're trying to tilt the president. They'll have to find another method," Kommersant quoted him.