Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has risked incurring the wrath of his one remaining ally, Russia, after agents from his security service "abducted" a pro-Kremlin journalist from Moscow and took him to Minsk to face charges over his work.
The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is aligned with President Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday that its reporter Gennady Mozheiko had surfaced in Belarusian custody after going missing this month.
Belarus was charging him with "inciting social hatred" and "insulting authorities", the newspaper said.
The charges relate to an article about an IT executive, reportedly a supporter of the Belarusian opposition, who shot and killed a KGB officer during a raid on his home.
Security agents have been raiding the homes of opposition-minded Belarusians as part of a brutal crackdown launched by Mr Lukashenko in the face of mass demonstrations last year.
Gennady Mozheiko surfaced in Belarusian custody after going missing in Russia this month
Credit: Social media
Mr Mozheiko in his story quoted a longtime friend of the executive, who described him as a "very good man".
After the publication of the article, the newspaper’s website was banned and blocked in Belarus, while authorities arrested people who had expressed sympathy for the shooter online.
Vladimir Sungorkin, Komsomolskaya Pravda’s editor-in-chief and a staunch Kremlin supporter, has dismissed the criminal case against his reporter as absurd. Komsomolskaya Pravda is Russia’s best-selling tabloid and was once described by Mr Putin as his favourite paper.
"I think this is a big strategic mistake," Mr Sungorkin said.
While the incident is unlikely to turn Moscow against Mr Lukashenko overnight, it adds to a growing unease in Russian power circles over the Kremlin’s support for a man who has become an international pariah.
Western governments have sanctioned the Lukashenko regime over violence against the opposition, the reported torture of protestors, and the forced landing of a Ryanair flight over Minsk this year so officials could arrest a critical journalist who was on board.
"Now, Lukashenko has harmed relations with one of Russia’s most conservative parts of the media landscape and their Kremlin supervisors," Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst, said in a piece for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"The Russian establishment consists of different groups of interests. No one can be sure when that number of groups in Putin’s inner circle hostile to Minsk is going to tip the balance, but the trend is there."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week condemned the reporter’s arrest as an attack on "media freedom", but later appeared to backtrack on his criticism.
Belarusian authorities have claimed Mr Mozheiko was "expelled" from Russia and that they arrested him after he crossed back into Belarus.
Mr Lukashenko has managed to hang on to power by a thread, largely thanks to Kremlin backing, despite massive opposition protests last year.