PRAGUE, March 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Pavel Yakubovich, the editor in chief of "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," said he had only seen some portions of the fake version of his paper.
But in layout and writing style, he said, it bore a striking resemblance to the real thing.
The stunt, he suggested to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, could have cost as much as $120,000, and was clearly the work of professional journalists.
"The worst thing is that the articles about Alyaksandr Lukashenka are run with the bylines of real 'Sovetskaya Belorussiya' employees," Yakubovich said. "Of course, we don't employ [profound literary talents like 19th-century Russian novelist Ivan] Turgenev. Still, all our stylistic particularities were definitely taken into account. This, frankly speaking, is the saddest thing. Struggle is struggle, but why does someone have to compromise journalists in such a way?"
Yakubovich was not completely dismissive of the mystery journalists' efforts. Some of the fake issue was rather funny, he said.
As an example, he cited one article that suggested that monarchy was the most suitable form of government for Belarus -- and that Lukashenka, by extension, should be recognized as tsar.
Who Done It?
Hardly the most scathing satire, but nonetheless most people appear to believe the fake "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" was devised by the political opposition to chip away at Lukashenka's standing before the March 19 presidential vote.
A reported 65,000 copies of the fake paper were seized March 14 near Belarus's border with Russia, fresh from a printing house in the Russian city of Smolensk.
A presidential spokesperson said the catch was the result of a joint operation by Russia's Federal Security Service and Belarus's Committee for State Security, or KGB.
Alyaksey Mikhalevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, was found escorting the shipment of mock newspapers into Belarus.
He later told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that his party had nothing to do with the actual printing of the paper. He redirected blame at yet another opposition group -- the unregistered activist group Enough (Khopits)
"I don't deny that I was involved in transporting this newspaper," Mikhalevich said. "I know that these newspapers were made by activists from the civic group Enough."
The allegation could not be independently confirmed.
A Old, Dirty Tactic
If it is true, however, it wouldn't be the first time underground groups have used newspaper satire to advance their political agendas.
An Italian anarchist group in the mid-1980s was credited with producing a series of satirical versions of communist dailies, ranging from Poland's "Trybuna Ludu" to East Germany's "Neues Deutschland" and "Krasnaya zvezda" in the Soviet Union.
The style and physical appearance of the papers were reportedly nearly exact replicas, prompting speculation they had been funded by wealthy businessmen or intelligence agencies.
More recently, a Romanian satirical newspaper, "Academia Catavencu," published two parody issues of the country's Communist Party newspaper. The mock-up had reprints of actual articles written by important current-day politicians during the communist era.
The issues, which were printed during Romania's 2004 presidential and parliamentary-election campaign, were allegedly funded by the then governing Social Democrats.
The mock "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" came out as the main opposition newspaper, "Narodnaya volya," saw its publishing contract summarily canceled by a Russian printing house in Smolensk. Two other Belarusian papers -- "BDG; Delovaya gazeta" and "Tovarishch" had their contracts suspended as well.
"Narodnaya volya" quickly moved to a second Smolensk printer -- the same firm, in fact, that printed the "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" mock-up. Like the satire, the "Narodnaya volya" print run was seized by police as soon as it crossed the border.
No Journalists, No Monitors
Belarusian authorities have also taken steps to bar journalists from neighboring Poland and Ukraine from entering the country.
In a press conference following Minsk's refusal to give visas to EU observers, Bogdan Klich, a Polish European Parliament deputy, on March 15 described the continuing crackdown.
"The administration of President Lukashenka is trying to isolate the country on the eve of the elections, trying to reduce to the lowest possible level the witnesses from the Western world," Klich said. "I mean not only politicians, but also journalists. We collected information about those who were stopped at the border or who were refused to receive visas to enter the territory of that country."
The Vienna-based International Press Institute also said on March 15 it was concerned by what it described as increased pressure on Belarus's independent media. It cited the contract closures in Smolensk, as well as a recent announcement by Lukashenka that a fourth paper, "Zhoda," was to be closed and its managers put in prison for allegedly inciting religious hatred by reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Zhoda" was founded by the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, Hramada, which is headed by Alyaksandr Kazulin, a candidate in the presidential race.
The authorities, meanwhile, are pursuing their own press campaigns. The real "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" went from its usual print run of 502,000 copies to a staggering 830,000 copies on Constitution Day -- just four days before the election.
Officials may even be using the nonstate media to achieve their ends. The Belapan independent news agency reported on March 15 that it received an anonymous e-mail warning that Lukashenka had ordered a formidable law-enforcement presence in Minsk on election day to respond to potential public protests and violence.
The message said there would be a total of 10,000 troops, equipped with man-hunting dogs, rubber bullets, and grenades that reportedly release a paralytic gas that causes spontaneous defecation.
The agency didn't go as far as to suggest the mystery message was being used as a deliberate scare tactic. But it did mention that it received a similar e-mail once before -- just ahead of the presidential vote in 2001.
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator ALEX LUPIS, who had just returned from a trip to Belarus, told an RFE/RL briefing on 15 February that he found conditions that make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the campaign leading to the country's 19 March presidential election.
Lupis said the Belarusian government is "criminalizing" independent journalism, and forcing journalists to leave the country, change professions or join the state-controlled media. There is a "Cold War atmosphere" in Belarus, Lupis said, adding that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka makes up the rules of the game. The Internet, he said, is the "last free outlet" where independent journalists can publish, but Russia and Belarus are updating their media laws in order to restrict Internet usage. Numerous journalists with whom Lupis spoke said that they miss the support they used to receive from nongovernmental organizations such as IREX and Internews, which were once active in Belarus.
Lupis believes that the government in Belarus bans independent journalism because it fundamentally "mistrusts its own people."
See these RFE/RL stories on the media in Belarus:
Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote
Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.