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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Releases Jailed ORT Journalist

ORT television reporter Pavel Sheremet was allowed to return home to his wife in Minsk early Wednesday morning after a 72-day stint in solitary confinement, as Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko moved to ease friction with Russia over his authoritarian rule.

"When I made it up to my apartment at one in the morning, my wife was still awake," Sheremet said in his first ORT television report from Minsk since being arrested July 26 on espionage charges.

"She has been going to bed late. Every night she waited for my release from jail. I'm so glad I finally made it home," the Minsk ORT bureau chief said after being released on the condition he does not leave Belarus until a court hearing later this month.

Sheremet is the last of a group of Russian journalists arrested for illegally crossing into Belarus while researching a report on lax policing of the country's borders.

The others were quickly freed in response to complaints from Russia, but Lukashenko had refused to release Sheremet, a citizen of Belarus, who may still be sentenced to up to five years if convicted.

President Boris Yeltsin, who is reluctant to offend Russians who want closer ties with Belarus but also faces opposition from democrats to Lukashenko's authoritarian policies, has hesitated over how to react to the high profile case.

He has recently attacked Lukashenko for jailing Sheremet, calling it a provocation that threatened a unification treaty the two Slavic neighbors signed this summer.

Yeltsin claimed last month that Lukashenko had promised to release Sheremet, but Lukashenko, eager to maintain his strongman image, has been reluctant to back down.

The decision to let Sheremet out of jail was a sign that Lukashenko's will was broken, analysts said Wednesday. They said Lukashenko was convinced by a humiliating incident last week when Yeltsin showed his anger by denying the Belarus president the right to travel in Russia.

"Both Moscow and Lukashenko milked this incident for all it was worth, but it was time for Lukashenko to show some leniency," said Irina Siliyanova, a researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

"Moscow politicians who dislike Lukashenko used their chance to make Yeltsin look like he strongly defended democratic values," Siliyanova said. "Lukashenko showed his fans he is strong and cannot be pressured from abroad."

Behind the scandal is a greater Kremlin debate about how close Russia and Belarus, who once composed the heart of a Soviet military industrial complex, should come in the post-Cold War era.

Liberal aides, who lately seem to have Yeltsin's ear, insist that Belarus is an economic basket case that will further stall Russia's recovery. They also argue that rubbing shoulders with an authoritarian figure like Lukashenko is too big a price to pay for Yeltsin's dream of building a strong Russia from the ashes of the former Soviet Union.

"The facts show that to both Yeltsin and to Lukashenko, this union is much less important than the political intrigues surrounding it," said Pavel Kandel, director of Moscow's Institute of Europe.

"The conflict over Sheremet was just the surface," Kandel said. "Beneath it lie the much more important issues, such as Belarus' potential burden on Russia's budget, transit duties and the privatization of Belarussian oil refineries."

During the standoff, some Russian media reported that Sheremet had turned into the second-most popular person in Belarus, just trailing the president in popularity polls.

"Sheremet was a pawn and I expect that he will soon be forgotten. I don't think he will turn into a banner for the opposition because the opposition's morale is still weak," Siliyanova said.