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Belarus's President Prepares The Next Act

And the show goes on.
And the show goes on.
Plot closure is a sign of the highest mastery in dramaturgy. And in this regard, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is a first-class talent. A genius, actually, if you consider as well that he writes and stars in all the plays himself, leaving his partners pathetic roles with insignificant lines like, "Dinner is served!"

Back at the beginning of the recent gas war, he embraced Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow and -- hardly giving Putin a chance to open his mouth -- launched into burning monologues. Among other things, he called Putin a "broken wolf" and demanded a late supper, pointedly declaring that he hadn't been fed by President Dmitry Medvedev. Putin limply promised to serve the Belarusian president.

But it appears they fed the master poorly that evening and, what's more, handed him a bill for $187 million. He returned to Minsk hungrier than ever. As the ensuing scandal unfolded, Lukashenka practically agreed to pay up, but only if he was immediately given $260 million. If the money didn't come, he vowed to leave all of Europe without energy.

It was a matter of disputed gas prices and of fees for transit, but that was really only of interest to a narrow circle of specialists. Average observers embraced the spectacle: the shouts of the hungry president, his ultimatums, his thunderous speeches, his struggle....

In the end, after all the U.S. dollars had circled their way from Minsk to Moscow and back, Lukashenka summarized the results. Ashamed of Big Brother's greed, he reported, the generous Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev immediately agreed to lend him $200 million to pay off Gazprom. And he cleverly indicated that it was nonetheless easier for him to reach agreements with Medvedev than with Putin, adding with visible satisfaction that he had no desire to pit one against the other. So he brought closure to the plot with Putin and Medvedev.

Back For An Encore

Now the billboards are announcing a new play that promises to be more dramatic than any production before it. I am referring to the master's solo appearances after the Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipelines -- which will connect Russia and Europe directly -- come online. The situation appears completely hopeless for Lukashenka, and it would seem that the time is near when Belarus -- to use his colorful phrase -- "will have to bend down low." That is, in the face of oil-and-gas blackmail, it will have to agree to recognize South Ossetia or even to become part of the Russian Federation.

The situation only seems hopeless to theatergoers who have not closely followed the theatrical career of this natural-born star. That is, those who haven't watched how he can shoot from all the guns hanging on the set and fall down dead, only to resurrect himself with mocking laughter and threaten to launch a partisan war against his neighbor. And to those who have forgotten that he has been treading these boards for 16 years now and there is no end in sight.

Of course, Lukashenka is rehearsing for his next show. He claims he has no desire to get into an economic war with Russia, but his friends in the Kremlin shouldn't be too surprised if he announces he has found alternative sources of gas and oil. Ukraine, for example, or Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez is desperate for high-precision Belarusian weaponry.

Or if he proposes to his bosom enemies, the Lithuanians, that they "jointly strengthen their independence and sovereignty" in the face of the ominous Big Brother through cooperation in the energy sector and if a somewhat surprised Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius sends his new ally in the proper direction -- toward the European Union's Eastern Partnership. Lukashenka would gladly grab onto this reed, in the hopes that the threat of "joining Europe" would be enough to beat back any Russian blackmail attempts involving energy prices.

And so it has already been a dozen times -- back in the early part of the decade, again in the middle, and now at the end. In reality, he's been writing one and the same play and for just a shade less than two decades he has been acting in it -- honing his mastery. But only the most finicky in the audience would say that this spectacle has dragged on too long.

Ilya Milshtein is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL