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Belarus: Another Attempt To Muzzle The Russian Media

Prague, 21 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus has agreed to release some of the detained journalists from the Russian ORT television station, apparently as a result of Moscow's intervention.

ORT is partly owned -- 51 percent -- by the Russian state.

Belarus has detained two separate crews of ORT journalists during the last three weeks: on July 29 two journalists were detained, and on August 15 four more were arrested. All of them were accused of illegally crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border, while doing reports on smugglers crossing there.

Today, a deputy head of the Belarusian Security Council Ivan Yurkin announced that four journalists -- three Russians and one Belarusian -- are to be set free later in the day. The fate of the remaining two is still unclear and they apparently remain in custody.

Yurkin's announcement followed a public warning by Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky that Russia's relations with Belarus could be adversely affected if the journalists are not released.

Yastrzhembsky told the Mayak radio station in Moscow today that Russia "categorically demands" that the journalists be freed. "In cases like this, where the honor and dignity and health of Russian citizens are at stake, the state's geopolitical interests should take second place," said Yastrzhembsky. These are lofty words, but the demands could be belated.

Russia has signed a Union Treaty with Belarus that guarantees freedom of the press. But this principle has never been respected under the rule of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the detention of the ORT staffers seems certain to confirm this reality once again.

Lukashenka has effectively muzzled the Belarusian media during recent years, imposing strict control over anything that is written or said. Now, it is the turn of the Russian journalists; Lukashenka has repeatedly accused them of bias and politically motivated criticism of his authoritarian methods.

Yesterday, following a series of Belarusian allegations of organized press campaigns against Lukashenka that included a televised "confession" of one of the ORT journalists that his station might have conspired to undermine the Belarusian president, Minsk moved to suspend all ORT activities in the country and said that similar steps could be taken against other Russian journalists.

These threats are not to be taken lightly. They are part and parcel of Lukashenka's continuing drive to control all forms of public communication, largely by silencing any critical voice and suppressing any opposing viewpoint. And this drive has been facilitated by Moscow's apparent tacit acquiescence.

Russia has been clearly reluctant to condemn Lukashenka's admittedly authoritarian methods, perhaps in view of widespread public support of the Belarus-Russia Slavic reunion that has been identified in the mind of many with unceasing unitary efforts of the Belarusian president.

Lukashenka himself has been criticized by Russian reformers and liberal intellectuals, who suspect him of seeking to influence Russian politics and government. But this has clearly been insufficient to change official policies.

Until now, the Russian Foreign Ministry has taken a very lenient line on the ORT detentions. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said yesterday that the journalists would be freed "in the next few days," but stopped short of any criticism of the Belarusian officialdom.

The Russian consulate in Minsk has supported Belarus' assertion that the arrests were legal, because the journalists apparently crossed the border without proper notification of the authorities. The Russian embassy there merely asked that the journalists be freed as "a goodwill gesture." And Anatoly Lisitsin, the governor of Russian Yaroslavl province officially visiting this week in Minsk, said at a press conference that the arrests were "a local affair which does not have any impact on the lives of real people."

Will Yastrzhembsky's remarks signal a turnaround? Could one expect a new Moscow policy, one more critical of Lukashenka's rule? Could this "local affair" create a policy problem for the Kremlin?

Or perhaps, the case will turn out to be just another blow for the press freedom that, effectively abused and downgraded, will effectively disappear from the Belarusian public life.

But, were this to be the case, it may have implications beyond the borders of the Belarusian state, ultimately affecting the operations of the Russian media themselves.

ORT said today in a statement that the station is determined to record "any infringement on international human rights." But it is clear that Lukashenka and his supporters are determined to achieve their goal of control as well.