For Global Voices Online: Is it a deliberate provocation, a government-engineered attack on a foreign head of state, a gas-giant's attempt to rock Russian foreign policy - or simply an example of good and critical journalism? Questions abound in the Russian-language blogosphere following Russian TV-channel NTV's 4 July screening of "The Godfather" - a documentary about Aleksandr Lukashenko, omnipotent president of neighbouring Belarus.
For long, Russia and Belarus have stood out as brothers in arms in the dysfunctional family of post-soviet states. Strings of harmony have even sounded a 1999 ouverture to formal unification of the two states. But as with any family, outward accord often hides domestic discord, and disturbances have been both frequent and harsh. However, up until now Moscow and Minsk have made efforts to keep up appearances. It is against this background that Sunday's screening of NTV's Lukashenko-critical documentary - beside overall sentiments of indignation - has sparked speculations that "The Godfather" of Belarus may have refused too many offers from the Russian Dons.
Then, what about the documentary in itself? As LJ user zmagarka notes [RUS], the Lukashenko documentary has little new to offer about government involvement in political repression, murders, and disappearances in Belarus over the last 16 years:
NTV for this documentary about the biggest Belarusian psychopath. For us, this was absolutely nothing new, not least because the greater part of the video was clippings from old films [---]. The theme of the "vanished" (disappeared political opponents) should never be forgotten and there is no forgiving the murderers, not even hoping so in their sweetest dreams. Still, over the last 10 years, matters have grown so much worse. About this there is hardly a word.Gazprom
Returning to the major theme of discussion, it is no secret that relations between Moscow and Minsk have been tense in recent years, and it is likewise well-known that Russia's former President and now Premier, Vladimir Putin, has had to make little effort to restrain his enthusiasm, on both a political and personal level, in dealing with Aleksandr Lukashenko, President of Belarus. Consequently, many see the documentary as a political commission to NTV, although opinions differ on whether Russian state gas company, Gazprom, is behind it all or if sanction has come from the very top of Russian politics. That NTV is controlled by Gazprom, which until recently was engaged in a prolonged gas war with Belarus, may not be sufficient reason to simply point the finger at this company. As LJ user sergeland points out, also state owned Russia Today sounds critique towards Lukashenko:
At the same time, the multilingual international channel Russia Today ran a similar story about the last dictator of Europe. Formally, NTV is an independent TV-network, although it belongs to Gazprom, and Gazprom belongs to the state. However, Russia Today is a wholly state-owned company. Therefore, it is wrong to think that this action is merely a limited revenge against Lukashenko for the loss of the recent gas war. Without sanction from the very top, nothing would have happened.
Some Russian bloggers also believe that this is not simply a temporary squabble, but that the documentary marks a change in Russian dealings with Lukashenko, and even call for a straightout annexation of Belarus, arguing that Moscow anyway constantly has to pay Minsk's bill. Thus, LJ user elf_ociten, in a piece called "NTV tears the mask off the godfather" [RUS], writes:
At long last, the elite of the Russian Federation has made it clear that it is not heading down the same road as the bloody and thieving last dictator of Europe. It is time to disassociate ourselves from an independent Belarus and stop the farce of a union state, and thank God, Moscow has also put the question squarely to the Belarusian élite: Either Belarus becomes a North-Western territory (as an option) - without Lukashenko - as part of the Russian Federation, and with possible separation of ethnically Polish territories, or let's dump it together with Lukashenko and his free lunches to all four sides. As the saying goes, the cards have been called, and it's time to pay up.
However, such ideas are dismissed with ridicule in Minsk, and Belarusian bloggers are not late to underscore that also Russia is dependent on Belarus. As LJ user pan_andriy [RUS] is quick to point out:
On Belarusian forums, you can come across blunt suggestions to cut off transit of food to Russia. After all, Moscow sits with 90% imports of chow, of which a lot is rolled through Belarus. Within two days there would be full chaos in Moscow (remember the madhouse with salt because of rumours of a "war with Ukraine").
There are also voices in Belarus expecting its political leadership to pay back in kind, and according to LJ user Nagnibeda [RUS], there are even rumours that a documentary about Putin is in the making:
As a very initiated television source is saying, recruitment of staff has started for a film about Putin, in which the subject will be tougher than in the one reeled on NTV about Lukashenko. Putin will not merely be a murderer, but an outright serial killer of his own people.
Finally, as the saying goes: Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the beam that is in your own eye? Consequently, LJ user varfolomeev_v draws some parallels [RUS] between politics in Belarus and Russia:
I wonder whether the executors of this political contract noticed that, telling about the horrors of political life in Belarus, they made a film about contemporary Russia? Only the names are different, but everything else - crackdowns, arrests, murders, and so on - wholly characterises also our own regime.
At the end of the day, and despite a recent customs union, it is becoming increasingly evident that Russia and Belarus do not head in bed again, and still they seem destined to more horsing about, not least if hiring media gunmen. Perhaps, both Slavic brothers should thus heed the advice of another godfather: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."