In Information War, Documentary Is Latest Salvo
A new documentary film about the Belarussian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, portrays him as a bumbling tyrant enamored of Hitler and Stalin. He has political opponents killed, journalists silenced and elections rigged in the film, all while keeping his faltering country locked in a Soviet time warp.
For years, human rights groups and Western governments have been leveling similar accusations. But the latest salvo against Mr. Lukashenko comes from an unlikely source: Russia’s government-controlled television.
The documentary is part of an all-out propaganda war that has erupted between Russia and neighboring Belarus, two former Soviet republics that were once so close they had been on track to reunite. When the documentary, titled "Godfather," was aired this month on Russia’s NTV television, it seemed to signal that the marriage was officially off.
The mudslinging, which has played out in both countries’ government-controlled media in recent weeks, reflects the deepening tensions between them. The latest dispute broke out in June when they tussled over natural gas prices, and continued when Mr. Lukashenko nearly scuttled a planned customs union between his country, Russia and Kazakhstan that had been a pet project of Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s prime minister and pre-eminent leader.
For years the Kremlin has supported Mr. Lukashenko, praising elections that independent monitors called rigged, while also ignoring violent crackdowns on the opposition. Moscow bolstered Mr. Lukashenko’s government with cheap natural gas and discounted duties on oil, which Belarus refined and resold. Russian subsidies, the moderator in the recent documentary says, "are the main secret of the Belarussian economic miracle."
In return, the Kremlin seems to believe that it has received little but headaches. Amid the natural gas pricing dispute in June, Belarus retaliated by briefly cutting off flows into Western Europe.
Mr. Lukashenko has also been out of step with Russia’s policies in the former Soviet Union. He has given refuge to Kyrgyzstan’s former president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, who was ousted in April after bloody riots that Moscow seemed to encourage. He has also failed to follow the Kremlin’s lead in recognizing the independence of two separatist Georgian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"He received a huge amount of money, with which he was in part able to support the economy of Belarus, its economic growth and the well-being of his people, without giving anything in return," Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Russian opposition politician, said on Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio last month. "It seems the Russian leadership decided that that’s it."
Speaking to reporters recently, Mr. Putin played down the significance of the media campaign.
"I do not see any media war. Perhaps this is because I barely read any periodicals and have not been following the electronic media lately," Mr. Putin said. He was less ambivalent about Mr. Lukashenko, however: "When it comes to money or energy supplies, everyone wants to get something from Russia for free, so when they don’t they get annoyed."
The "Godfather" documentary voices criticisms typically found in Western human rights reports about Belarus (and Russia, for that matter). It covers the disappearances and killings of Mr. Lukashenko’s political opponents over the years and shows video of armored police officers beating antigovernment protesters. Images of Mr. Lukashenko dressed in military uniforms intersperse with footage of him inspecting collective farms.
"Little has changed since the U.S.S.R.," the narrator says at one point.
Only those with satellite dishes were able to view the program inside Belarus, though it can easily be accessed on YouTube. And in the Soviet tradition of samizdat, people have been recording the film themselves and passing along bootleg copies, said Andrei Sannikov, a Belarussian opposition leader.
Mr. Lukashenko, needless to say, was not pleased. He said that he was "offended" by the documentary.
"I know who gives these commands, who is governing these processes," he said in a statement on his Web site.
Shortly after, Belarus fired back, publishing excerpts in one of Belarus’s government newspapers from a highly critical report about Mr. Putin, written by Russian opposition figures. "Savagery has become the norm in Russian society," the newspaper wrote in an accompanying commentary.
Belarus’s government-controlled First Channel also aired an interview with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been vilified by Russia’s leaders — and who has been the target of unflattering Russian documentaries himself.
In the interview, Mr. Saakashvili called the Lukashenko documentary hypocritical, noting the prevalence of political killings in Russia. "This has the smell of a propaganda war," Mr. Saakashvili said.
Responding to the interview, Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s Parliament speaker, called Mr. Saakashvili an "outlaw" and suggested that there would be consequences for Belarus.
"Anyone who gives Saakashvili the opportunity to feel like a president, including in another country, is making a decision that could affect relations with Russia," he said.
Russia’s retreating support could certainly bode ill for Mr. Lukashenko in next year’s presidential election. Some Russian political analysts have begun to speculate that the media campaign could signal the start of an effort to unseat him.
In fact, several Belarussian opposition leaders traveled to Moscow last month, where they met informally with Russian officials, including Russia’s finance minister and members of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.
Russian soft-power in the form of media campaigns and economic pressure is credited with helping to unseat the Kyrgyz president, Mr. Bakiyev, in April. However, Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power for 16 years, appears to be on surer footing than his Kyrgyz colleague was.
Still, the possibility of gaining Kremlin support has already enchanted some opposition figures in Belarus.
"This is a unique situation when Europe and Russia can agree on the conduct of the Belarussian presidential campaign," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, an opposition leader, who said he planned to run for president. "This is the first time in history."