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Russians Yank Welcome Mat for Belarus' President

Dispute: Officials cancel planned visit by neighboring strongman after his country arrests foreign journalists.

August 02, 1997|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The strongman president of Belarus, Alexander G. Lukashenko, who has said he admires Hitler and believes his people want a new Stalinist-style dictatorship, was slapped down by Russian officials Friday after the latest round of arrests of Russian and other foreign journalists in his country.

Lukashenko's plan for a weekend trip to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea was abruptly canceled when the local governor, Leonid P. Gorbenko, sent a telegram asking the mustachioed former state farm boss not to bother coming. The visit would not have the "desired effect," a spokesman said.

The spat erupted after two employees of the Russian public television station ORT were arrested in Belarus on Sunday, accused of smuggling. Lukashenko also claims, without offering proof, that they worked for foreign spy services. They would face five years in prison if found guilty.

A tendency toward authoritarianism in Belarus has caused alarm in the West because Russia and Belarus signed a treaty in the spring, agreeing to form a union of their former Soviet republics. Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has said the two Slavic states could eventually merge.

But the ORT arrests annoyed Yeltsin. On Wednesday, he said he was "deeply indignant" that Lukashenko had detained the ORT pair, complaining that no other ex-Soviet state had "ever taken such a liberty" and warning that the union treaty might have to be reconsidered.

Lukashenko took no notice. When 15 journalists working for Russian and Western media demonstrated in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, on Thursday evening against the ORT journalists' arrest, his police rushed out to detain them too.

After that latest crackdown, the Belarussian leader's trip to Russia was scrubbed. He angrily responded with a statement saying that the Kremlin's "attempt to put pressure on Belarus directly contradicts the norms of international law."

Yeltsin tactfully dissociated himself from Friday's public humiliation of Lukashenko. Aides said he had nothing to do with the Kaliningrad embarrassment; it was the local governor's own "willful and harmful" idea, they insisted.

But Yeltsin rubbed salt into his Belarussian colleague's wounds by appearing on Russian television stations to chuckle over Lukashenko's rage. "The thing is, he's young . . . and a bit too hotheaded in this respect," Yeltsin said. "But this will not affect our cooperation or our union."

Lukashenko has restored many of the steelier aspects of Soviet life in Belarus. His moves include getting rid of a parliament that disagreed with him last year, bringing back the old Soviet flag and a Soviet-style planned economy, and expelling a U.S. diplomat in March.

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