Molotov cocktails in Minsk

by Roland Oliphant

Two petrol bombs were hurled into the Russian Embassy compound in Minsk last week, destroying a car and sparking general panic. While the Belarusian Interior Ministry is investigating, Belarusian oppositionists and some close to the Russian government have suggested that it was President Alexander Lukashenko who "sent the boys round" to give the Russians a message. Lukashenko has suggested the exact opposite - that it is another dirty move in the Russian media campaign against him.

The mysterious bombing is apparently the latest scandal in the ongoing war - until now of words and celluloid - between Lukashenko and the Kremlin.

Russia and Belarus have quarreled over trade relations, the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Minsk's refusal to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But tensions burst into the open in July, when Russia's Gazprom-owned NTV aired a three-part documentary called "The Godfather", which described Lukashenko as a dictator and detailed many of the human rights abuses he is regularly accused of in the West, Belarus responded by airing a series of interviews with Russian hate figures, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who were given free rein to lay into the Kremlin's own democratic shortcomings.

The tone of the propaganda exchanged reached new highs last week as a report surfaced that Lukashenko would be the subject of a forthcoming pornographic film, "Batka's Fortune," following the erotic exploits of a certain mustachioed collective farm boss.

But does such extraordinary ill-temperedness equal fire-bombs? Andrei Sannikov, a leader of the opposition campaign "European Belarus" and former deputy foreign minister, said that one has to wonder why the culprits were not caught - or at least identified - quite promptly: "Embassies are very closely guarded, and there is a video. The embassy has its own security service, and the Belarusian Interior Ministry also provides security. So not to at least identify who did this is almost impossible," he said. "Judging from that, I think its definitely some provocation on the side of the Belarusian authorities."

In Moscow Alexei Chadaev of United Russia echoed this view.

"It would be ridiculous to assume that someone was planning this kind of action and no one knew anything about it," he told Kommersant in an apparent reference to the Belarusian security services.

To what purpose the rounds of hate? Lukashenko is certainly right to worry about what Russians broadcasts say, said Sannikov, but the people are weary of the confrontation: "There is a sense of trepidation about this. People don't want to upset the relationship with Russia because they rely on it," he said.

But if the Kremlin is trying to chip away at Lukashenko's support ahead of the winter presidential elections, it's unlikely to succeed soon. The Belarusian opposition is hopelessly fragmented, and Lukashenko's Belarus has a record on electoral transparency that leaves even opposition candidates sure that "Batka" will arrange his own "victory."


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