By Tom Balmforth
The Kremlin Has an Array of Instruments to Prize Batka From His Throne, but Will It Go Further Than Smear Campaigns?
President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday fired the latest salvo in Russia's character assassination of President Alexander Lukashenko, with Belarus' presidential elections looming in under three months. Despite the swagger in his step after ousting Yuri Luzhkov from his Moscow fiefdom, Medvedev cut more the figure of a disappointed schoolmaster lecturing Lukashenko in Sunday's video address, filmed in a gloomy Kremlin office. Stopping the unruly "Batka" from settling in for a fourth term as president is a key priority for the Kremlin. But how far will Russia go to do it?
The Russian State Duma on Wednesday called on Minsk to halt its "anti-Russian rhetoric," reinforcing the message of president Medvedev, who on Sunday vilified Lukashenko for being "dishonorable" in not recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as he had promised to do. "President Lukashenko has gone far beyond not only diplomatic rules, but also basic human decorum," said Medvedev.
Across town yesterday, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin joined the fray, telling journalists that Belarus repeatedly tries to squeeze out financial concessions from Russia during negotiations on the long-touted but still-nebulous Union State between Moscow and Minsk. He blamed Lukashenko for the failure to agree on a single currency, RIA Novosti reported.
According to the Kremlin, Lukashenko's October 2 comments backtracked offensively on a pledge made in front of five other CIS leaders to recognize the two breakaway republics, recognized by Russia and five other countries in the world. Speaking to journalists on Saturday, Lukashenko asked: "Is it just Belarus alone that hasn't recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Practically no single state in the entire world has recognized their sovereignty. Even Venezuela, despite spoken statements about being prepared to do so, formally has not signed any documents."
Lukashenko is in danger of becoming an "Eastern Saakashvili," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, a Minsk-based economist-turned-oppositionist who is running for president. The Belarus-Russia tit-for-tat smear campaigns have intensified with the approach of the Belarusian presidential elections on December 19. This summer Russian television channel NTV ran a hatchet job documentary on Lukashenko entitled the "Godfather," and Belarusian television retaliated by granting air time to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The three-part "Godfather" series will soon be aired again on Russian television, and "Godfather 4," the latest installment, will be shown tomorrow evening at prime time. "The aim of the campaign against Lukashenko is simple - it is to completely discredit him as an economic and political partner," said Lev Margolin, the deputy chairman of the United Civil Party.
The fourth installment of the Godfather will reveal "how having a deputy's mandate has saved Lukashenko from jail," "how the suicide of journalist Oleg Bebenin was staged" and "how others have been killed," the NTV Web site says. Bebenin, who cofounded the Charter 97 opposition news service, set aside his career as a leading opposition journalist to become the presidential campaign manager for Andrei Sannikov, the leader of the opposition "European Belarus" social movement. In early September, less than a month before the campaign officially kicked off, 36-year-old Bebenin was found hanging in his dacha. He had committed suicide, police said.
It is clear that this year Lukashenko will have to get by without Russian support, but could this tip the balance against the former collective farm manager popularly known in the West as the "last dictator in Europe?" The Belarusian president's recent popularity ratings vary considerably. A state poll in September gave him a glowing 78.1 percent, while the non-state Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Lithuania, found that only 45.6 percent of Belarusians would vote for him again.
Minsk-based journalist Vladimir Chudentsov argued on his Echo of Moscow blog last week that Lukashenko is not the most popular candidate, despite his grip on power, and draws attention to a poll by the Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Research (NISEPI), according to which 62 percent of Belarusians want "change" - up by 14 percent in a year.
Evaluating the candidates by the number of activists in their campaign entourage, Chudentsov says that the chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party Sergei Gaidukevich is in the lead, with 10,483, followed by Lukashenko (8,403), Vladimir Neklyaev, the leader of the "Speak the Truth" movement (2,575), and Sannikov, with 1,831 supporters. The opposition is handicapped by being fractious.
So how far will the Kremlin go to oust the incumbent "Batka"? Medvedev - or whoever truly ordered the sacking of Moscow's long-serving mayor Luzhkov - does not have the same tools in his arsenal when it comes to Lukashenko, but the Kremlin still wields colossal soft power over Belarus. If Gazprom increases the price of gas for Belarus, or trade restrictions are imposed on Belarusian exports - roughly 40 percent of which go to Russia - or if Moscow tinkers with the volume of duty-free crude oil deliveries to Belarus, the ex-Soviet republic's cash-strapped economy will face severe strain.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller yesterday offered assurances that Belarus' gas price will not be increased in the near future, although Miller's statement seemed to contain a veiled threat. "The Belarusian side is paying for gas in strict accordance with the terms set for 2010," Miller said. "Now, this issue [revision of the gas contract] is not a topic for discussion," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
Moscow threatened to send an election monitoring delegation to Belarus in December, which could be used to discredit the legitimacy of elections in a country where Russian television is aired and watched. "The delegation is not yet drawn up in terms of numbers and specific personnel, but there has been a proposal that we have a delegation," Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying today. Further, Russia could step into line with the international monitoring effort. "If Russia joins the OSCE mission and does not recognize the results of the elections, Lukashenko will be in complete isolation and without Russia's economic support, and his regime will likely fall in the near future," said Romanchuk.
But Margolin said that Russia would go no further than information war to oust Lukashenko. "Russia doesn't have other options but information war, because any economic methods will have an impact not only on Lukashenko, but also on the Belarusian people - it will destroy Russia's image, which is not what Russia wants. It just wants to sort things out with Lukashenko," said Margolin. Nonetheless, this consideration has done little to prevent the dozens of Belarus-Russia trade spats over tractors, oil, and milk in the last few years.
But however much of a role economic pressure from Moscow comes to play in bullying the unruly Lukashenko, courting the opposition might well be a step too far for Moscow. "Russia has been dealing with Lukashenko for 16 years and never had any contact with the democratic opposition, so now Russia is using Belarusian opposition members to comment on the Belarusian-Russian conflict. But it does not support any of the candidates officially or with other resources," said Romanchuk.
If Lukashenko does make it through the December elections, any reconciliation with Russia is unlikely to materialize, and could mean that next year "Batka" will step down and transfer power to his prime minister, said Margolin. In a thin reconciliatory gesture Lukashenko today found time to formally congratulate the Russian premier on his birthday, despite past bust-ups with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.