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Belarus: Fate Of Detained Russian Journalist Linked To Energy Talks

Moscow, 2 October 1997(RFE/RL) - Details of the talks that top Russian officials had with Belarusian officials this week remain very sketchy, following an unexpected meeting of the two countries' Prime Ministers, Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Ling. The meeting was held in Moscow Tuesday evening.

Chernomyrdin and Ling made no comments after their talks, and the Russian government's press service issued a statement saying only that the meeting focused on unspecified economic and social issues. However, Ling's secretary Dmitri Malinovsky told Reuter news agency later that "there was absolutely no politics" at the talks, and that talks were confined to economic issues.

Interfax news agency reported that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, who held talks with Belarusian officials including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka Monday and Tuesday, also attended the Tuesday evening Moscow meeting.

Russia and Belarus signed a controversial Union Treaty In April, but integration has been complicated by Belarus' reluctance to embrace free-market reforms, and by widespread Russian criticism of Lukashenka's hardline stance. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin has threatened to reconsider the Union agreement if Belarus does not release a Belarusian correspondent for Russia's ORT television, Pavel Sheremet.

Three ORT journalists, including Sheremet, were arrested in July for illegally crossing the Belarus border with Lithuania, while reporting on the lack of control along the frontier.

Lukashenka said yesterday that Sheremet will be released in the next two or three days, when the court case starts. Serov had told reporters that Lukashenka had promised him "to comply immediately with the agreement which Sheremet reached in talks with Yeltsin last month."

However, in a new development, Interfax reported that Sheremet does not have a lawyer. The agency said that lawyer Garri Pogonyailo, who represented Sheremet during the investigation, "resigned on his own initiative" from the Belarusian lawyers union. And the license of Sheremet's second lawyer, Mikhail Volchek, has been suspended, following an order of the Justice Minister, Gennady Vorontsov, because of "professional ethic violations." Interfax quoted Vorontsov as saying that the ministry "came to this conclusion, following past defender's statements to the media."

The ORT journalists' case has strained relations between the two countries, but observers say it is at the center of a wider economic discussion.

Demonstrators in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow last week called for Sheremet's release and said that Lukashenka "wants to free Sheremet in exchange of new gas supplies from Russia." And speculations that the Kremlin had given clear instructions to Serov to obtain the release of Sheremet spread in Moscow as the Russian official left for Minsk this week.

Giving ground to speculation that Serov's talks in Minsk would focus on the issue of Belarus' energy debt, the official newspaper of the Lukashenka administration, "Sovietskaya Byelorussiya," accused Russia of using energy debts to blackmail Belarus. The paper said that "debts for gas supplies are often used to blackmail the President of Belarus."

Lukashenka has said that "it is not Belarus owing money to Russia, but rather the contrary." Lukashenka said Russia owes Belarus, "to say the least, 800-million dollars." According to Lukashenka, the figure does not take into account "money Russia owes Belarus for the strategic partnership" between the two countries.

Russian officials have not commented on these statements. However, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov last week compared Belarus with Cuba and Stalinist North Korea. Lukashenka slammed Nemtsov's comments, terming them "childish."

The Russian daily "Kommersant" said that last year, to mark the decision to strengthen relations, Russia had written off 380-million dollars from Belarus' debt. According to "Kommersant," Belarus, whose economic situation is extremely critical, hoped to obtain also relief of it energy debt to Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom. The debt is estimated at 100-million dollars. The Russian government did not support the idea.

As are other former Soviet republics, Belarus is greatly depending on Russia's energy supplies. The Russian government has been taking an increasingly tough position on the issue of the repayment of energy debts from CIS countries.

Minsk, "Kommersant" notes, so far has paid its debt - not with cash - but with a complicated barter scheme, including the supply of goods and services for the construction of a gas pipeline across Belarus, to export Russian gas to Western markets. "Kommersant" says that Gazprom, having recently paid off a large tax debt to the Russian government, needs now to raise money from its own debtors, including Belarus.

According to "Kommersant," the Russian government, despite the Union Treaty with Belarus, supports Gazprom in its request, and Serov was dispatched to Minsk to "finalize the details of a new mechanism," to facilitate the payment of Belarus' energy debt to Russia.

Chernomyrdin, a former Gazprom top executive, is seen in Moscow as sympathetic to the gas monopoly's interests.

The newspaper says Ling traveled to Moscow after Serov's talks, to "agree with Chernomyrdin the payment of the debt with bills of exchange. Moscow, it said, would prefer cash, but since Belarus' government could not raise it, the Kremlin would like to have control of how the bills of exchange are issued, or issue them through a Russian bank.

The bills of exchange amount to short-term, unregulated promises to pay the debt in cash or goods. In Russia, they are generally used to clear debts between companies, which have little access to cash.