Two Letters to Obama with One Subject: Russia
Last July, a number of European leaders, signed an open letter to Obama urging a more active and principle-driven role of the United States in Europe. Vaclav Havel, Lech Valensa and other former European presidents were worried about what they called the Russia’s creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region.
Recalling the “realism” of Yalta conference which divided Europe for decades, the authors praised the US role during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. In their opinion, role of the United States was crucial in NATO enlargement and the realization of the idea of united and free Europe at peace. The European leaders called for renaissance and strengthening of the role of NATO, creation of a special program for young leaders, relaxation of the U.S. visa regime and promotion of Europe’s energy independence from Russia.
This week a similar letter was written from Belarus. Stanislau Shushkevich, the first Head of State of Belarus, and Ivonka Survila, President of the Rada of Belarus Democratic Republic-in-Exile, expressed concerns about Russia’s economic and political pressure in their letter to President Obama. The authors called the United States to create an initiative similar to EU’s Eastern Partnership, which would include the countries of the former Soviet Union into transatlantic cooperation.
Below is the text of the open letter from Belarus.
On July 16, 2009, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published an open letter to the administration of President Obama raising crucial issues pertaining to the Euroatlantic partnership. It was signed by some 22 foreign policy and security elites from the newer NATO and EU members-—self-styled Central and Eastern European (CEE) intellectuals. Whether implicitly or explicitly, all the matters they touched on concern the dynamics of current and likely future events in their region of Europe vis-a-vis Russia. Their call for a reengaged, collaborative United States as a true partner with Europe in addressing concerns of the region was eloquent, accurate, and most timely.
Regrettably their letter omitted input, or at least signatures, of their counterparts from those Eastern European slates which unfortunately do not at present enjoy the luxury (and security guarantees) of NATO and EU membership—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Not coincidentally, they are the ones closest to Russia in Europe and the ones, in the cases of Belarus and Ukraine, having had by far the longest experience with Soviet Russian communism. That experience is of particularly crucial value now in the context of evolving developments and trends.
All the issues raised by the authors of the Open Letter published in Gazeta Wyborcza — and many, many more – apply even more vitally to these countries. Last year’s Russo-Georgian conflict is no doubt the most graphic demonstration, but hardly the only one.
Moscow’s economic blackmail, most recently, of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine to force them into the Kremlin’s revisionist line of post-Soviet spheres of influence is a less publicized but no less real threat to their future. Periodic energy blackmail by Russia of all of six of these countries became the norm in this first decade of the 21 st century.
Through its long domination by, first, Russia and then the Soviet Union our homeland of Belarus is a special case and needs special attention. We discern that the present “constellation of forces” — economic, political, security—may be propitious for bringing about that “change we can believe in” which your administration has enunciated and which has captured the imagination of people everywhere.
With most welcome wisdom, the European Union has responded to evolving realities in Eastern Europe, notably, through its Eastern Partnership initiative. Now we call on the United States to join in with equal vision and vigor. For all the reasons pointed out by the signers of the July 16 Open Letter from their vantage point in NATO and EU member countries, we too call on the United States to carpe diem. Please engage with us and with our NATO and EU friends from Central and Eastern Europe. We have much to offer from our perspective outside these organizations. And our needs ace ever so great. We look to America, just as we look to Europe, for the wisdom and spirit these times demand.
When Diplomacy Becomes Non Grata
“I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.”
Minsk must be the worst place John McCain could think of off the top of his head when he was making fun of Senator Phil Gramm, a co-chairman of his campaign. The experiences of US diplomats serving in Belarus prove him right.
In March 2008, Belarus pulled its ambassador, Mikhail Khvostov, from Washington, DC giving US ambassador Karen Stewart 24 hours to leave before she would be declared persona non grata. Shortly afterward Belarusian authorities requested that the United States cut the staff of its 35-employee embassy in Minsk by half.
The American diplomats were accused of setting up a spying ring in the country. A state television report claimed the embassy had recruited 10 Belarusians to collect information for the FBI. The embassy was alleged to provide the informers with an apartment near the embassy as well as cameras and binoculars.
A month later ten more US diplomats were ordered to leave Belarus within 72 hours. In an immediate response, the US State Department ordered Belarus to close its embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York withdrawing its six diplomats within fifteen days. The State Department announced shutting down the US Embassy in Minsk. Washington retreated at the last minute, and the embassies remained open, although barely functional.
Of course, it is not the protection of state secrets that explains the undiplomatic actions of the Belarusian government. On March 6, 2008, Washington issued a statement concerning the sanctions imposed in 2007 against Belarus’ largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim over Minsk’s deteriorating human rights record. The assets of the company’s US subsidiary were frozen. The United States – along with the European Union – has also restricted the travel of Lukashenka and his ministers to urge the regime to free political prisoners, including Alyaksandr Kazulin, a runner-up in the 2006 presidential election, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for leading a protest rally after the vote.
Although Lukashenka’s defied sanctions saying that “if the Americans introduce new sanctions and think we will collapse, that’s rubbish,” the restrictions turned to be a major annoyance to Minsk because the Belneftekhim accounted for nearly a third of the country’s foreign currency earnings.
The economic impact was strong as in 2008 the USA ranked 11th among Belarus’ non-CIS trade partners in terms of the foreign trade volume, 17th in terms of Belarus’ export, and 6th in terms of Belarus’ import. Moreover, the United States is second to Russia only in the number of joint ventures and foreign companies set up in Belarus. The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the sanctions “radically undermine[d] US trustworthiness as a partner.” The website of the Belarusian embassy in Washington, DC rhetorically asked its visitors: “Can anyone trust the US after all, all the more so, in such a strategic cause as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons?”
Who really suffered while the governments argued were the people, however. The U.S. Embassy stopped issuing visas for Belarusian citizens and closed several “American corners” in local libraries that provide information about the United States.
Significantly, the row occurred when Lukashenka seemed to be edging closer to the West. In February 2008, Belarus freed six political prisoners and finally conceded to the European Commission’s opening a branch in Minsk. In March 2008, with expelling America diplomats, the regime regained its anti-Western posture, however. Expelling the fiercest critics of his authoritarianism, Belarusian President proceeded to dispel street rallies and detain demonstrators. Interestingly, Belarus-US relations worsened at exactly the same time that Moscow’s stance toward Washington hardened.
This year, the Belarusian leadership is again flirting with the West, and the relationship between the two countries is slowly improving. Visiting Minsk at the end of June, the US Congressional Delegation reminded Lukashenka that restoring the staffing of US embassy in Minsk is the first step toward improving relationship between the two countries. In the view of the Belarusian president, however, the first step is to lift sanctions, and only then may the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States become possible.
Michael Scanlan, the newly-appointed Chargé d’Affaires of the United States has a very difficult task to accomplish in Minsk.