Russian television has been airing some unusual programmes over the past week. Two prime-time documentaries have revealed a shocking story of human rights abuses, rampant corruption, dictatorial politics and threats to opposition figures. But all of these allegations, not things that the Russian media often dwells on, are not focused on Russia itself, but instead on Belarus, Russia’s neighbour and until recently one of its major allies.
The first programme, entitled “The Belarusian Godfather”, was a stinging, personalised tirade against Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s controversial president who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Keen to win financial aid and political support from the EU, which for years has frozen him out due to the neo-Soviet dictatorship he runs, Lukashenko has been playing a dangerous game of late, sucking up to Europe and sticking a metaphorical two fingers up at Moscow.
He first angered the Kremlin by refusing to follow Russia’s lead and recognise Georgia’s breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Then more recently there have been difficult and ill-tempered negotiations over gas tariffs, which culminated in Lukashenko saying that he could trust President Dmitry Medvedev but not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Up for re-election early next year, it seems that Moscow has finally tired of its troublesome neighbour and has decided to turn up the heat on Lukashenko through the media.
“Everything in the film is true; we’ve known about all the allegations and facts in the film for a very long time,” says Yury Khashchevatsky, who directed a similarly critical film about Lukashenko in the 1990s that he says no Russian channels agreed to show. “The question is not about whether it’s true or not, the question is why is it being shown now?”
Many Belarusians get Russian television through satellite, and Lukashenko was clearly so furious about the programme that he countered with his own media gambit.
Last Thursday evening, Belarusian viewers were treated to a long interview with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, persona non grata in the Kremlin since the 2008 war.
When asked what he thought of the “Godfather” documentary, Saakashvili said it was “almost trying to accuse the Belarusian authorities of being cannibals”. He added that its airing was “very sad and has the smell of a propaganda war”, as if unaware that the interview he himself was giving was the next salvo in that war. He also thanked Belarus for not recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia and waxed lyrical about the friendship between the two countries. It didn’t take long for Russian television to respond with “Belarusian Godfather Part II” a day later, on Friday.
“Both Russia and Belarus are acting according to Soviet paradigms,” political analyst Boris Makarenko told Vedomosti newspaper. “If a critical programme is shown on a state channel, it means that this is the official position of the country, just said in an unofficial way. It’s the tradition of agitprop.”