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Belarus/Russia: Yeltsin Puts Lukashenka In His Place

Prague, 2 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow today dealt Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a public rebuke when it forced a last-minute cancellation of his scheduled trip to the Russian cities of Lipetsk and Yaroslavl.

Moreover, the Kremlin told Lukashenka that he could come only after he released a jailed Russian TV journalist, and under conditions set by the Russian government.

According to Mikhail Myasnikovicz, Lukashenka's chief-of-staff, the Russians refused to allow the president's airplane to fly into Russia, just hours before its take off.

Subsequently, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said in a message to Lukashenka that he could receive "a positive reaction" for a future visit -- after "the fulfillment of the well-known agreements with Moscow." Belarusian officials confirmed that the agreements related to Lukashenka's promise to release the journalist. This promise has not yet been fulfilled.

The case goes back to July 29, when two journalists and their driver -- all Belarusian citizens working for the Russian ORT television station and fully accredited in Belarus -- were detained by the Belarusian police on charges of illegally crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. They said that they were doing reports on smuggling.

After some tense wrangling between Belarusian and Russian officials, the driver and one of the journalist were released. The third, ORT correspondent Pavel Sheremet, was kept in jail.

At the beginning of August, the Russian government abruptly cancelled Lukashenka's planned visit to Kaliningrad. In retrospect, it may be assumed that it was a warning.

At the end of August, Lukashenka promised in a telephone conversation with Yeltsin that Sheremet will be released soon. This promise made it possible for Lukashenka to attend ceremonies marking the anniversary of the city of Moscow.

But, Sheremet was not released. Today he is still sitting in a jail in the city of Grodno, although the Minsk government yesterday said he could be set free soon, because the formal investigation of his case had been completed.

Lukashenka has been saying in the meantime that he could not interfere in the judicial process, and that the Sheremet's case would have to be decided by the courts according to the laws of the land. This was from the man who forcibly dissolved the parliamentary assembly, who disbanded the constitutional court, illegally suspended labor unions, muzzled the press and imposed authoritarian methods in flagrant violation of the same existing laws.

Lukashenka's behavior has been castigated by international organizations and human rights groups. It has been criticized by numerous Russian officials, who saw in his methods a danger to the recently signed Russia-Belarus Union Treaty.

Lukashenka openly ignored his promise to Yeltsin. And Yeltsin now reacted by exposing Lukashenka's deceitful behavior. If nothing else, Yeltsin's message, made in public, put Lukashenka in his place.

At the same time, Yeltsin used the occasion to send a reminder to various regional Russian officials about who is in charge of political decisions, such as invitations to heads of other states.

"I am warning the (Russian regional) governors about one thing," Yeltsin was reported to have said today in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. "They are forbidden to invite heads of other states without the President's permission."

In this way, Yeltsin appears to hit two birds with one stone. To put in place an arrogant political upstart in Belarus, and to assert his authority at home. This is the message that neither Lukashenka, nor local officials in Russia are likely to forget.