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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Candid Camera, an Embarrassing Liaison

What happens when you bump into someone you really don't want to meet? And what if you are Russia's prime minister, the encounter is televised and neither of you has a script? For Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who chanced into Alexander Lukashenko, the maverick front-runner in Belarus' presidential race, the answer was embarrassment, blather, and some of the most awkward seven minutes in Russian television history. Lukashenko won 45 percent of a first-round vote on a promise to imprison officials he says are corrupt, starting with Vyacheslav Kebich, Belarus' prime minister and Lukashenko's opponent in a run-off election to be held Sunday. Chernomyrdin was in town to seal an agreement on closer economic ties between Belarus and Russia with Kebich, in what many saw as a barely concealed effort to prop up the chances of the prime minister, who won only 17.4 percent of the vote. During the pomp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of Belarus from Nazi occupation, Chernomyrdin and Lukashenko found themselves standing together. A watchful crew from NTV television clicked on their cameras, providing Monday-night viewers with the odd dialogue that ensued. Lukashenko broke the ice with a barb by inviting Chernomyrdin to Belovezhskaya Pushcha on the Polish border. The hint was clear: Lukashenko has vowed to return to the site with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to undo the 1991 agreement signed there that finished off the Soviet Union. Chernomyrdin smiled uncomfortably and attempted to ignore the jibe, mumbling: "The main thing is that there should be no confrontation there. Everything is for the people." Lukashenko, who has accused Russian officials of compliance in a campaign to discredit him, followed that up with a thinly veiled warning not to interfere in Sunday's vote. "Now, if someone should try and impair the fate of the people," he began in his high-pitched voice. "So, you respect the choice of the Belarussian people. After all, that's the way it is." "Yes, that's what I have said," said Chernomyrdin, still smiling nervously at the camera. "But that's the position of Russians, and the Belarussians will make their own decisions." "Despite this sharpness our simple people have always conducted themselves peacefully," Lukashenko said. "We are not the first, nor are we the last," Chernomyrdin continued. "This is life, But of course, we have to do it so that everything is for the people." At this point, someone in the crowd shouted out: "You are talking to the future head of state of Belarus." The commotion apparently attracted the attention of Kebich, standing not far away. The camera caught him glancing briefly at the meeting, and then, like a jilted lover, turning his head away. Chernomyrdin gave a nervous little laugh, and looked around, as if searching for some aide to bail him out or perhaps someone who could unplug the television camera. "Well, O.K., Alexander Grigoryevich, we agree," he said, and shook Lukashenko's hand. Mercifully, the cameras switched off.