Belarusian "godfather" falls out with his masters

On the eve of a Customs Union agreement between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russian state television began an information war against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. By the ferocity of this campaign, it seems Russian leaders have finally lost patience with their one-time ally.
Dmitry Travin
12 July 2010

On 4 July Russian TV aired a documentary about Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko. It was a programme that soon sent shockwaves around media and political circles. The programme itself was nothing special and the facts it revealed were hardly unfamiliar to people who follow politics. Its resonance had everything to do with timing and context, preceding as it did an agreement on Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which was due to be signed in Astana, Kazakhstan the very next day.

The documentary’s title — “Krestny Batka” (“The Nation’s Godfather”) — dropped some obvious hints. Few educated readers could have failed to make the connection between “Batka” (“father of the nation”, a title Lukashenko openly enjoys) and Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece. The documentary itself matched the opening hints, presenting the leader of Belarus (considered by many Russians to be a brotherly nation) as a tyrant and criminal. He was, according to the programme, someone who not only crushes democratic opposition, but also liquidates political rivals with the assistance of professional killers from the secret services. Anyone who watched “Krestny Batka” could only have reached one conclusion: Lukashenko’s uninterrupted position as president since 1994 was the result of a blatant and systematic infringement of democratic norms


NTV's Lukashenko documentary (trailer in Russian)

Viewers of another revelatory film about Lukashenko, shown the same evening on the English-language channel “Russia Today” (a propaganda weapon of the Kremlin) were no doubt expected to come to a similar conclusion.

By interesting contrast, the next day Russian Channel One broadcast another documentary, this time about Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbaev. Nazarbaev has been president for even longer than Lukashenko, and is just as relaxed about adjusting democratic norms in order to stay in power. Yet this programme chose to show Nazarbaev in an exclusively positive light: as a wise person, a worthy ruler and wonderful family man.

There can be no coincidence to the fact that these three films were shown at the same time, just before the summit in Astana. If we were to borrow a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, it would seem that through its actions, the Kremlin was sending Lukashenko a “black spot”: a symbol depicting his impending death. While in our case, we can only be talking in the metaphorical sense, it would certainly appear that the Kremlin has to all extents signed off on the Belarussian president as a politician they can do business with.

To understand why, we must first look at the background to the Customs Union.

Customs Union or Customs Anschluss?

Russia has, since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, undertaken various efforts aimed at restoring cooperation between post-Soviet nations. Initially, the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) was created for this purpose. Many actually believed that this Commonwealth would go some way to replacing the USSR. In fact, it was a complete sham. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) did not join the CIS at all, preferring to move towards joining the European Union. Some member countries had openly hostile relations with each other, for example Armenia and Azerbaijan, later Russia and Georgia (which left the CIS following the August 2008 War).

Another attempt to restore cooperation in the post-Soviet area lay in the formation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus. No unified state was actually ever created, but for a long time Lukashenko used declarations about the intention to create one as a way of gaining economic favours from Moscow.

Unlike the CIS and the Union State, the Customs Union appears a real and potentially quite useful innovation. Removing customs barriers between the three nations could help foster competition and a regional market economy. The signing of the agreement in Astana is perhaps the first real success story of economic integration for some two decades. That does not mean we should overestimate its significance. While political leaders and the official media often talk a great deal about it, society and the independent press do not share their enthusiasm.

There are at least two reasons for this.

The first is the unequal economic weight of the members of the union. Russia’s GDP, for example, is more than 12 times higher than that of Kazakhstan (and more than 25 times higher than that of Belarus). Even by population, Russia is almost 10 times larger than Kazakhstan and more than 15 times larger than Belarus. So, for all the theoretical significance of the Customs Union, in practical terms little will change (at least not for Russia). What will happen is not so much unification of three markets, rather that the Russian market will simply become somewhat stronger.

Certainly, there is very little to compare the formation of Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan with the development of the European Economic Community, which was the foundation of the present European Union. It would seem to have more in common with the Customs Union of the 1830s, formed by Prussia in German lands. Here, one large nation signed a number of small nations into its economic orbit. In Germany at the time, there was talk of a customs “Anschluss” (annexation).  We could with some reason use same term today to describe the relations between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus (the analogy is also useful for newspaper editors since, in Russian, the word for union – “soyuz”­ – and “Anschluss” rhyme).

A second reason not to overestimate the significance of the Customs Union is in many ways the opposite point to the one we have made. The political leaders and national elites of Kazakhstan and Belarus are prepared to receive economic advantages from the unification, but they object with all their might to subordinating their countries to Russia. The political stand-off between the Kremlin and Lukashenko has, in particular, become extremely serious of late.  This forms the background to “Krestny Batka”.

The disobedient Batka

In the most part, conflicts between the Kremlin and Russia stem from the fact Russia has essentially for some time been subsidizing the Belarussian economy; and has also for some time expected certain favours in exchange for this. What exactly these favours are is difficult to say. Political bargaining between Russia and Belarus has never been carried out in the open. But we can suppose “Belarussian services” to the Kremlin might fall into one of two categories:

The first category is political services. On the one hand, Belarus is not an overly influential political force, and cannot therefore offer Russia significant support on important issues. On the other hand, Lukashenko himself claimed he had, for example, been asked to officially recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations. There are reasons to believe him. Russia was clearly embarrassed over the (lack of) international recognition of these two republics, supported at the time only by Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru (which only underlined the isolation of Moscow in world opinion). Lukashenko did not oblige the Kremlin on this occasion

Of course, we cannot be sure if Moscow really asked Lukashenko to recognise Abhazia and South Ossetia. It is also possible that Belarussian president made it all up in order to demonstrate to the West his tenacity in a supposed battle with Russia’s imperial ambitions. But we may confidently assume that, in principle, Moscow would much prefer to subsidise a country that is ready to toe the line when it comes to delicate issues of this kind.

The second category of services is economic in nature. The Russian state and dependent companies would clearly benefit greatly from privileged access to privatization tenders. Of particular interest are Belarus’ Europe-destined gas and oil pipelines, as well as Soviet-era oil-processing factories. Lukashenko has not, however, been prepared to grant Russia the conditions it seeks. Russia would particularly like to increase its influence over the Belarusian gas transit company Beltransgaz, for example (Gazprom already owns 50%).

Lukashenko is also constantly engaged in political manoeuvres. He sometimes pretends to make compromises to the Kremlin, but in reality limits himself to minimal, extracted concessions. The Belarussian president does not want to share his power with the rulers from Moscow.

It seems that, at last, the Kremlin has grown tired of such manoeuvres.

A month ago, Gazprom dramatically reduced the supply of gas to Belarus, demanding that Lukashenko pay off debts it claimed were owed. Now, with the help of a television film, a blow has been dealt not to Belarus as a whole, but to the president of this country, and very personally. Judging by the power of this blow, one could surmise that Moscow wants to bring Lukashenko to his knees. Perhaps, even, it is trying to remove him from his presidential post (the next presidential elections are due to be held in Belarus next year).

How firm is Lukashenko’s position, then?

On the one hand, Lukashenko is undoubtedly trapped in a corner. He still has no money to pay for fuel, as the Belarussian economy is in a poor state. Moscow may also turn off the gas again right before elections, and thus undermine “Batka’s” popularity. Since the “last dictator in Europe” has such a bad reputation in the West, there is little likelihood he will receive financial support from the EU.

On the other hand, the mechanisms for removing Lukashenko are not immediately clear. When the Kremlin quarreled with former president Viktor Yushchenko, for example, it simply began bankrolling the political opposition in the person of Viktor Yanukovich. In Belarus, owing to Lukashenko’s authoritarian methods of rule, there is simply no opposition outlet able to command the support of a significant section of the population.

Moreover, while it might well be possible to remove Lukashenko — he has, after all, quarreled with the entire world with the exception Hugh Chavez — creating a stable democratic regime in Belarus will surely prove more difficult. Belarus is no Kyrgyzstan, but recent events there have aptly demonstrated how the departure of an authoritarian leader combined with the absence of strong government can create serious problems.

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