A vitriolic and very public war of words between Belarus and Russia has observers wondering whether the Kremlin is finally preparing to abandon its long time support for Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is usually remarked of in the East as "Russia's only ally" and in the West as "Europe's last dictator."
The Kremlin has been dissatisfied with Mr. Lukashenko, who talks like Moscow's best friend but actually goes his own way, for quite some time.
Last June, Russia jacked up energy prices paid by Belarus and allowed critical coverage of Belarus' authoritarian regime to appear on Russia's state-run TV for the first time. But some intemperate comments about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made by Lukashenko to a gathering of journalists in Minsk last week may have been the last straw.
Lukashenko, who is running for a fourth term in polls slated for Dec. 19, might have just intended a bit of Russia-bashing for domestic consumption by complaining of the "flow of unscrupulous lies, disinformation, and utter nonsense" about Belarus in the Russian media and suggesting that Kremlin leaders "don't know very much, or maybe they're just not interested."
Medvedev's furious reaction
But it drew a furious reaction (watch English video here) from Mr. Medvedev, who suggested on his weekly videoblog that the days of Russian subsidies to Belarus – estimated to be worth around $8 billion annually – may be over.
"[Lukashenko] seemed to have forgotten that Russia does not bargain away its principles," Medvedev said. "This sort of behavior is dishonest. It certainly does not befit a partner and we will take it into account when planning our future relations with Belarus."
Among other irritants, Medvedev pointed to Lukashenko's repeatedly broken promise to establish diplomatic relations with the tiny Russian-backed Georgian statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have so far been recognized only by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru.
Analysts say it's hard to guess whether the Kremlin is merely reacting to events, or if it may be unfolding a scheme to unseat Lukashenko – as it may have done with another unreliable ally in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year. But Belarussian opposition leaders say the public spat with the Kremlin has clearly weakened Lukashenko, and may have opened up more political freedom in a country that's been run like a personal fiefdom by Lukashenko since 1994.
Yaroslav Romanchuk, one of 16 opposition leaders aiming to run against Lukashenko, says they are not seeing the usual police crackdown on campaign workers.
"It's an unprecedented thing that we're being allowed to go out and meet voters, gather signatures and interact with people like this," says Mr. Romanchuk, who heads of the liberal United Civil Party. "We still don't get media access, and Lukashenko controls the means of vote-counting, but restrictions on campaigning seem to be lifted. There's much more freedom all of a sudden."
Romanchuk says authorities are afraid and uncertain, and that creates space for the opposition to act. "Government is feeling weak. They can't work in the old ways, and so they feel they have to allow people to let off steam," he says.
Lukashenko was fairly elected 16 years ago, but has held on to power ever since by a combination of generous social benefits – largely financed by Russia – near total media control, harsh suppression of opposition parties, and alleged massive vote-rigging.
In the 1990s he championed the idea of merging Belarus and Russia into a single state, but cooled on the idea after Vladimir Putin came to power in Moscow. Lukashenko threatened this week to withdraw from the largely ceremonial "Union," as well as the Russian-led regional military alliance and a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union that came into effect earlier this year.
Searching for other donors
In recent weeks, Lukashenko has courted China and Turkey in search of economic aid, and has talked of forging new relations with the United States, the European Union, and even the military alliance NATO. But many experts say that his regime looks increasingly cornered.
"The long term trend is that Belarus' chances to get preferential access to Russian markets and resources are decreasing. The days of 'oil and gas in return for kisses' are over," says Oleg Manayev, head of the independent Institute of Social, Economic and Political Studies in Minsk. "The Kremlin has begun demanding access to Belarus' internal market for Russian companies and other economic concessions. In all these years Belarussian leaders did nothing to diversify away from dependence on Russian energy resources, and now they're rushing about and shouting aimlessly."
Russian analysts say the Kremlin may not have a long-term game plan for Belarus, but is just at wits' end over how to deal with the erratic, motor-mouthed and, some say, increasingly unstable Lukashenko.
"The Kremlin's reaction to Lukashenko doesn't look completely rational or pragmatic," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But they want to send the message to Belarussians that Lukashenko is no longer regarded as a Russian friend. Russia has lost a lot through its relations with him, and it doesn't want to go on playing by those old rules, because it's finally sunk in that Lukashenko cheats."
Romanchuk says the Kremlin needn't fear an opposition figure such as himself coming to power in Minsk. His party advocates opening better relations with the European Union, while maintaining strong ties with Russia.
"Lukashenko turned out to be not a friend, but a foe of Russia," he says. "I think at this point, the Kremlin would be happy to leave Lukashenko behind and work with any responsible Belarussian opposition leader."