Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov’s August 27-28 mission to Minsk failed to obtain the release of the two Russian ORT Television journalists still jailed in Belarus. The country’s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, held on to his prisoners, despite Primakov’s deeply deferential behavior and an apparent appeal for Boris Yeltsin’s intercession midway through the talks.
The Russian president appeared on television yesterday to state that he had just spoken by telephone with Lukashenka "like a president to a president," and that Lukashenka "resolves the issue. He releases the lads. He may need another day or two to finalize the paperwork. We consider the matter resolved, it is settled." Yeltsin went on to announce that he would receive Lukashenka soon in connection with the celebration of the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow.
Lukashenka, however, told the media that he and Yeltsin had agreed by telephone that the matter would be discussed in detail at their Moscow meeting and would be decided afterward. Lukashenka further linked that decision to changes in ORT Television’s "approach" toward Belarus. "They know what they have to do," he said, apparently implying the network’s programming policy. More explicitly, Belarusan deputy prime minister Vasyl Dalhalev stated in a Moscow media interview that negative media coverage of Lukashenka "is aimed against the Russia-Belarus Union… it does not benefit the Russian and Belarusan peoples, but it serves the enemies of Russia-Belarus integration, particularly the USA… Belarus must defend our Union’s Western border and can not tolerate provocations." Dalhalev urged Russian media to "help the two leaders build up the Union as a great power."
Primakov in turn stated in Minsk that "the Belarusan president consistently demonstrates his will to resolve all issues proceeding from the interests of our two peoples’ Union. His position is exceptionally important to us." The Russian foreign minister also stated that he was representing "president Yeltsin’s personal position and high interest in strengthening the Russia-Belarus Union. Everything should be done to strengthen it." (Russian agencies, Federal News Service (correct), Ekho Moskvy, ORT, NTV, August 27-28) Such statements weakened the Russian side’s leverage and underscored Moscow’s policy of working with Lukashenka as its partner of choice in Belarus. Russian journalists Pavel Sheremet and Dmitry Zavadsky were arrested on July 22 and have been held since July 25 by the Belarus KGB. Lukashenka released four other ORT journalists on August 22 and 25, in a judiciously timed move, after closing down the network’s operation in Belarus.
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