It’s not often that Brussels and Moscow see eye to eye on the politics of the former Soviet Union. But both want Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko gone, preferably after elections slated for early 2011. The EU has long criticized Lukashenko for abusing opposition activists and censoring local media. Now he’s alienated his onetime great protector, Russia, as well. His unpaid gas bills to the tune of $200 million led Gazprom to briefly cut off supplies last month. He called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “the main enemy of the Russian people,” and refused to recognize Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in defiance of Kremlin pressure. He also offered asylum to former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom Russia helped oust earlier this year.
Now “the Kremlin’s patience with Lukashenko has finally run out,” says Belarus opposition leader Alexander Kazulin. “Russia had invested $50 billion in Lukashenko’s regime, but he still does not behave like a loyalist.” Russian television recently aired a documentary on Lukashenko, accusing him of using death squads and of praising Hitler. More revelations could follow—and because Russian TV reaches many Belarussian homes, they could be deeply damaging to Lukashenko’s popularity.
The EU is making its own play for the hearts and minds of Belarussians, recently easing travel restrictions on Belarus’s officials and stepping up efforts to increase trade and cooperation. The stage is set for a major East-West battle over Belarus’s future—with hatred of Lukashenko as the common denominator.