Russian-Belarusian propaganda war and Vilnius

  • 2010-08-04
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - From July 25-Aug. 1, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, Economy Minister Dainius Kreivys, Social Care Minister Donatas Jankauskas and several of their friends (some of them are MPs of the ruling Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats) went on a 700 kilometer-long bicycle trip to Belarus. The official reasoning of the trip was to visit the Lithuanian Grand Duchy’s castles and meet ethnic Lithuanians living in Belarus. However, during the bike trip, Kubilius also met with Belarusian Prime Minister Sergey Sidorsky. The trip took place when Moscow and Minsk state-run and strictly state-censored TV channels are fighting an unprecedented Russian-Belarusian propaganda war.

Moscow’s NTV (one of the three main pan-Russian TV channels) broadcasts its freshly-made documentaries about the bloody dictatorship of Belarusian President Alexander Lukaskenko. The issue of Belarusian political dissidents who simply vanished and statements of Lukashenko’s former political prisoner Alexander Kozulin are among the themes of the NTV documentaries, named Godfather and Godfather-2. Godfather-3, is expected to be shown around Aug. 15.

Belarusian TV news responded with a report that the majority of appeals in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg are from Russia. It also showed interviews with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Latvian President Valdis Zatlers. The first one is persona non grata in Russia while the second one is also not an idol in the Kremlin. In the past Belarusian TV was more used to showing interviews with ambassadors of China and similar countries. The main Belarusian state newspaper printed an analysis of Vladimir Putin’s corrupt regime, written by pro-Western Russian opposition activists Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov (both of these liberal activists are happy that the Russian-Belarusian media conflict gives some publicity to the opposition, but both also stated that they continue to regard Putin and Lukashenko as disgusting authoritarian leaders).

The Moscow-Minsk conflict is caused by a dispute over the Russian gas supply price as well as the price of its transportation via Belarus to the West. One more important issue: the Russian Kremlin-related businesses want to take over the Belarusian state-run enterprises which are in the hands of Lukashenko’s state. There is no personal chemistry between Putin and Lukashenko – it’s a public secret that they have very different personality types. Personal relations mean a lot in countries ruled by one person. Putin remains the most powerful person in Russia and he already started his PR campaign for taking the Russian presidency again in two years (he stepped down after two terms in the presidency only due to the fear of degrading Russia to the status of the dictatorship of Belarus in international opinion). Lukashenko, already 16 years in the post of president, will stage the next Belarusian presidential elections next year. Putin would be happy to kick the Belarusian godfather out of his throne.

“The paradox of the situation is the fact that Lukashenko is the only real warrantor of Belarusian independence,” wrote political analyst Marius Laurinavicius in the daily Lietuvos Rytas, complaining that Vilnius has no strategy regarding Belarus and its conflict with Moscow.

However, it is probably best to continue staying neutral in the fight of two foreign authoritarian leaders. The current Moscow TV criticism towards Lukashenko will not overthrow him. In case the Kremlin will say straightforward that Lukashenko is Russia’s enemy No. 1, then, of course, Lukashenko will lose some 30 percent of his pro-Russian-oriented electorate, though he will probably gain some 10 percent support from the Belarusian nationalists (such is the percentage of Belarusians who are using the Belarusian language – the language is a sign of opposition in Russian-language dominated Belarus). It is quite possible that Moscow and Minsk will make some deal and the speeches about eternal Russian-Belarusian friendship will again be the only thing presented to TV audiences of both countries.

Such was the landscape of the Moscow-Minsk battlefield when Kubilius dismounted from his bike to meet Sidorsky in the town of Nesvizh on July 27. They spoke about a liquefied gas terminal for Belarus near Lithuania’s shores and oil (probably Venezuelan oil) transit to Belarus via Klaipeda port. On July 21, the Lithuanian government decided to construct a liquid natural gas terminal in Klaipeda. The state-owned oil terminal company Klaipedos Nafta will prepare the terminal’s project.

The capacity of the terminal will be up to three million cubic meters per year – it equals the total need of Lithuania for gas per year and, therefore, will be an alternative for Russian gas supplies to Lithuania. On June 28, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Lithuanian Prime Minister Kubilius in Minsk discussed the issue of construction of liquid gas terminals near the shores of Lithuania. Lukashenko is looking for some alternative to Russian gas supplies for his country as well. Such an alternative would strengthen Belarus’ independence from Russia. According to the Lithuanian government’s decision of July 21, the terminal servicing Belarusian needs will be considered separately from the terminal project for Lithuania. The terminal for Belarus should have three times larger capacity because Belarus needs three times more gas than Lithuania.

During the meeting of June 28, Kubilius invited Lukashenko to join the Lithuanian trip on bikes, visiting the castles of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in Belarus. Lukashenko decided not to join, but he emphasized the importance of both nations’ “former living in a common state,” Unlike his first years in office (when Lukashenko dreamed about the post of presidency of a unified Russian-Belarusian state), now Lukashenko pays a lot of attention to the heritage of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, which can be useful ideologically in his possible fights against Russia.

Kubilius also traveled through the site of the construction of the first ever Belarusian nuclear plant, which is situated near the border with Lithuania at a distance of only 55 kilometers from Vilnius. Kubilius’ opinion of such construction is negative. “I said that many times to Belarusian Prime Minister Sergey Sidorsky and President Alexander Lukashenko. On the one hand, the Belarusians say that they are developing the project, on the other hand, they somewhat invite us to join,” Kubilius told radio Ziniu Radijas while on the bike ride. He added that Belarusian leaders even speak about their nuclear power station as a possible Belarusian-Lithuanian or Belarusian-EU project.

Until now, the most likely scenario for the Belarusian nuclear plant project seemed to be a Belarusian-Russian project. However, Russia, now in exchange for possible Russian credit for the plant’s construction, demands a 50 percent share of the profits from the electricity sales made by the future Belarusian plant, and this probably does not make Minsk very happy.