Archive for November, 2009

Medvedev Goes West

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has given his first ever interview to Belarusian journalists from state and independent media. Nothing special, you might say? You’d be right.

The invitation to Moscow came out of the blue. Why? Why now? What would be his message? Was he going to spank Lukashenka, the Belarusian president, in Lukashenka’s own usual manner? Lukashenka has a tradition of inviting several dozen representatives of Russian regional media to first impress them with tales of enterprises in local villages and then to follow-up with three hours of harsh anti-anything rhetoric on national TV and radio.

Medvedev was highly diplomatic and discreet though. No sensations.

The Russian President called on Lukashenka to restrain himself from making “politically incorrect remarks” about the Russian government.

He assured that Russia had never tried to interfere in Belarusian internal affairs.

For instance, Medvedev said he had never, personally or officially, asked his Belarusian counterpart or other Belarusian officials to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said it would be good for Russia, but that this is an internal affair of Belarus. And that it was Mr Lukashenka who had himself repeatedly assured the Russian leader that Belarus would consider this issue favourably.

Medvedev said he plans to hold regular meetings not only with Belarusian journalists, but also Belarusian politicians and probably even with the opposition. When foreign representatives come to Moscow they also meet with Russian opposition: It’s normal, he said.

The Russian president calculated that Russia has invested about $50 billion in the Belarusian economy since 1991. During the last two and a half years Minsk received loans from Moscow worth almost $3 billon. Next year Russia will sell natural gas to Belarus at a rate that is 30-40 percent cheaper than for other countries in the region.

He even underlined that Belarus should be pronounced “Belarus” not “Belorussia,” as most Russians say it.

In a contradiction of the same message, the news editor of the biggest Belarusian portal, TUT.by, found herself sitting in front of a sign which said TYT.ru. Freud would have loved it! As if psychologically, the Russians do not see any other domains in the region but their own, even internet domains.

It was also interesting that Belapan, the news agency I work with, managed to win over the Kremlin in bargaining about the conditions of the media invitation.

The Russian press-service originally asked us not to report that we had been invited, refused to say who else was coming, what would be the length and format of the meeting and requested three our questions in advance. All this would be OK, I suppose. But they also told us that any articles would have to be based on the Kremlin’s official transcript of the discussions and could only be published after a date that they would reveal down the line.

An hour after Belapan sent an email explaining the reasons why it was forced to refuse the invitation, the Kremlin press-service called the office to inform us that they had changed the conditions for Belarusian journalists. The Belarusian media even got a 30-minute head start on the publication embargo.

So why was Medvedev talking to the Belarusian press, which actually enjoyed his witty and self-assured manner?

Russian experts say: It’s much ado about nothing. His messages have anyway lost their value. Only time will show what it was all about.

Belarusian experts say Medvedev is trying to rattle the nerves of his Belarusian counterpart. It’s in the Russian tradition: As relations with Minsk officials get less friendly, they try to mend ties with opposition. Or: It was another way for Medvedev to show he is an independent political figure who might run against Vladimir Putin in 2012.

Lukashenko reacted in his usual manner. He said it was a “meaningless” exercise. He wondered why the Kremlin invited journalists who “hate the Russians’ guts”. They could have asked his advice about how to handle the media, he said.

On 27 November Medvedev will be in Minsk for a regional meeting. We will probably learn more in Chapter 2 of this political tale.

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