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Belarus/Russia: The End Of An Affair

Prague, 26 August 1996 (RFE/RL) - The Kremlin has finally put Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in his place. Or so it seems.

Yielding to Kremlin pressure, Lukashenka was compelled to release during recent days all four detained Russian journalists and one Belarusian reporter, all of whom work for Russia's ORT state television. Two other ORT journalists, both Belarusians, remain in custody but are likely to be let go as well.

The ORT journalists were arrested in two groups -- on July 29 and August 15 -- on charges of illegally crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. They said that they were doing reports on smuggling.

Lukashenka used the occasion to crack down on the media, particularly on Russian reporters critical of his authoritarian methods.

For weeks, the Russian political establishment kept relatively mute about the case. This might have only encouraged Lukashenka to bombast his critics in the Russian media and among the Moscow liberals, however.

He appears to have finally gone too far. Last week the Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky curtly warned in an interview with a Moscow radio station that unless the Russian journalists were immediately released Moscow's close ties with Minsk could be harmed.

Moscow's ties with Belarus are formally anchored in a so-called Union Treaty that envisages close economic, military and political cooperation between the two countries. These close ties are popular in both Belarus and Russia.

Lukashenka has worked hard to identify with the unitary trends. For a time, he seemed to succeed, prompting vocal chagrin of the Moscow liberal establishment, which feared that Russian politics could be affected by Lukashenka's unabashed authoritarianism. There is even reason to think that Lukashenka himself may have entertained in his dreams the prospect of ascending one day to positions of major power in a re-unified, Russo-Belarusian state.

This is not and has never been likely, however. While the permanent union with Belarus has always been seen in Moscow as important for political, historical and strategic reasons, Lukashenka and his methods appear to be tolerated by the Moscow officialdom only as long as politically expedient.

Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin provided this weekend a reminder of that attitude. "We shall do everything to strengthen our union," Chernomyrdin said in remarks made at the Moscow International Air Show and reported by the Russian media, but also added that Belarus' detention of the journalists was "unacceptable."

A day later, President Boris Yeltsin ordered his Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov to go to Belarus "to bring to an end this affair of journalists." Yeltsin also told his ministers that the two Belarusian journalists still in jail must be released by the first weekend of September at the latest.

And so the case is coming to a close. It has not seemed to turn well for the Belarusian president. A man who once threatened to close down the operations of his Russian media critics accomplished no more than a temporary suspension of the ORT office in Minsk.

A political leader who angrily demanded an apology from the Kremlin for "blackmailing" him and his government saw his outburst ignored by the Moscow officialdom. And he was compelled to let those journalists go, unpunished.

As if to add insult to injury, Moscow has not so much as bothered to address Lukashenka at the level he might have once expected as taken for granted. None of the top Russian leaders has directly entered into the discourse with the Belarusian president. His interlocutors were Moscow's ambassador to Minsk and a provincial Russian governor.

Russian demands were made indirectly, patently ignoring the Minsk authorities. Yastrzhembsky spoke on the radio to a Russian audience, Chernomyrdin talked at a public gathering in Moscow, and Yeltsin ordered his ministers to end "this Belarusian affair." It was as if the Belarusian president and the Minsk government were simply insignificant.

For Lukashenka, who once mused of playing a major role in Russian politics, this must have been a setback, to say the least. It merely reflects political realities, of course, but can also affect Belarusian politics in the weeks and months to come.