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Belarus/Russia: Dispute Over Journalists Highlights Differences

Moscow, 22 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - A group of detained Russian television journalists was released today in Belarus following strong intervention from the Kremlin yesterday. Moscow's demand was initially rejected by Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The status of several other Belarusian journalists of the Russian Public Television ORT remains unclear.

Three Russian journalists were freed from custody today in the Belarus town of Lida and are to be handed over to the Russian Embassy in Minsk. A fourth one was reported to have been expelled. Belarus Security Council spokesman Vasily Baranov said the men were freed as a "goodwill gesture."

Meanwhile in Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin today meets in the Kremlin with the five television journalists released after months of captivity in Chechnya.

Russia's top officials turned their attention to the fate of the reporters as the debate surrounding the detention and release of Russian journalists risks affecting implementation of important, separate agreements Russia has concluded with Belarus and Chechnya. These agreements highlight some of the most vulnerable moments of Moscow's relationships with Minsk and Grozny.

The release of Russian journalists in Chechnya cleared the way for a crucial confidence-building meeting Monday between Yeltsin and Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov. NTV reporter Yelena Masyuk and her two-man camera crew, kidnapped and held by armed gunmen for 101 days, were released Monday evening. Two journalists from the ORT television programme "Vzglyad" had been released a day earlier.

But the releases were immediately surrounded by public controversy as top NTV and ORT executives said their stations had paid huge ransoms in dollars for the liberation of the hostages. The issue of kidnappings in Chechnya had casted a shadow on negotiations between Moscow and Grozny since the start of the peace process last year. Russian media have often said Russian journalists' captivity in Chechnya was used by the Chechen leadership as a lever in negotiations with Moscow. Allegations of the payment of ransom for the release of journalists in the past had been officially denied.

Maskhadov repeatedly said Chechen law enforcement authorities were taking tough measures aimed at setting free the dozens of Russians and foreigners held captive in Chechnya. He said kidnappings were damaging him, in the first place, as they were aimed at giving the impression that he was not in control of Chechnya.

But NTV's President, Igor Malashenko, said claims that the journalists were set free as a result of the Chechen leadership's efforts were "a bluff," and he called Maskhadov Chechnya's "chief jailer." Malashenko and Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovsky said hostage-taking was a business masterminded by Maskhadov's deputy, Vakha Arsanov. Wednesday, Yeltsin blasted Malashenko for "insulting the Chechen leadership," and Berezovsky for "inciting the media" over Chechnya.

Yeltsin's move seemed to be motivated by the concern that the allegations would upset further negotiations set in motion by his talks with Maskhadov. Chechnya's leadership resolutely denied the allegations, and Maskhadov assured Yeltsin the negotiation process would not suffer.

Meanwhile Yeltsin's press-secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, yesterday made the first strong official remarks on the imprisonment of two ORT television crews in Belarus. But, his words not only failed to obtain the release of the journalists, but also cast a shadow over the future of the Russia-Belarus Union Treaty.

The ORT journalists held in Belarus had not been kidnapped, but were apprehended near the Belarus border with Lithuania and charged of violating border regulations. They were reported on assignment to investigate allegations of widespread smuggling.

The issue of border and custom regulations is one of the main stumbling-blocks in negotiations between Moscow and Minsk on the deepening of their integration. "Up to now, customs agreements with Belarus not only fell short of our expectations, but proved to be a major failure instead," Deputy Duma Chairman and former Russian government minister Aleksandr Shokhin said recently.

Under the customs agreement, the two countries constitute a single customs zone, and their policies on tariffs and imports are supposed to be identical. But in recent days, new controls on the border have been reported by the Russian media. A leading Russian economic journalist, Mikhail Berger, says that "Belarus did not bring import regulations in line with Russia's, so smugglers use its territory to traffic various goods, from cars to alcohol, into Russia."

Yastrzhembsky, without referring to the subject of the journalists' research at the border, yesterday demanded the immediate release of the Russian reporters. He said that, if Belarus authorities would not free them by the end of the day, "the Union of Russia and Belarus would have a gloomy future."

An upset Lukashenka hit back against what was "Russia's blackmail" and flatly rejected the release demand. He accused Russian media of waging "an information war against Belarus, putting unprecedented pressure" on the republic.

Lukashenka's press service said Belarusian authorities "consider it irresponsible to link the future of the Union between Belarus and Russia with the fate of people accused of crimes."

Until this week, Russian officials had taken a low-profile on the detentions of the ORT journalists in Belarus.

Moscow had also avoided direct accusations linking the Chechen leadership to kidnappings.

Now, despite the releases of television reporters, relations between Moscow and Minsk, and between Moscow and Grozny appear even less clear then before.