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.
Looking for ‘happiness on a different part of the planet’
“[N]o one nation can meet the challenges of the 21st century on its own,” acknowledged the president of the United States Barack Obama in his speech to Chinese officials today. Uncharacteristically, his Belarusian counterpart seems to agree, at least in principle.
Despite its advantageous geopolitical location between the West and Russia, Belarus resigned itself to political isolation in the late 1990s. However, the change is in the air. Hockey ace Alyaksandr Lukashenka has started aiming at a different net and hopes to join the rest of Eastern European team in cooperating with the West. The Belarusian President has even promised to restore mutual diplomatic presence with the United States, if Washington lifts economic sanctions.
The leader hurried to explain that his civilized tone with the West is not a result of some “bargaining, over-compromising or PR.” Indeed, it would be hard to reach a compromise with President Lukashenka. However, Lukashenka has implemented a few liberal reforms, released most of political prisoners, and markedly loosened control of the economy. To be sure, Lukashenka clarified that Belarus “has its own way forwards” and will not develop “according to one stereotype, to somebody’s dictation.” In presidential lingo, this probably means that Lukashenka’s authoritarian leadership style and human rights violations will continue. After all, in his view, “Belarus doesn’t have less democracy than its neighbors.”
In return to Lukashenka’s overtures to the West, the EU lifted the travel ban on the President and his retinue last fall. This May, Belarus – along with other five former Soviet republics – was invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership, a project intended to foster closer economic and political ties with the EU. Moreover, Minsk has collected a $1.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund and is waiting for another $1.36 billion from the IMF and $200 million from the World Bank.
Since Lukashenka’s gaze turned westward, the “union state” with Moscow has become “a neverending construction project.” Increasingly more “controversial matters” are emerging “in relations with brotherly Russia,” as the Belarusian President noted. On July 22, Belarus urged its citizens to obey Georgian laws when traveling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called Lukashenka’s move “bizarre,” his behavior is actually becoming more predictable as it now corresponds to a broader trend exhibited by leaders of most post-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia. Russia’s economy is sinking, and it is smarter to sail away and look for happiness on a different part of the planet, as Lukashenka himself aptly noted in May. Had it not been for Moscow’s generous gas subsidies and the need to sell Belarusian goods on the Russian markets, the Belarusian-Russian symbiosis would have ended even sooner.
“It’s a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire,” US Vice President Joe Biden noted in the interview at the end of a four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia. His ‘condolences’ have come at the right time. Russia’s influence in Near Abroad has weakened as the country struggles domestically. On the one hand, giving (subsidizing) is no longer tenable in the dire economic situation; on the other, strong-arming its neighbors now brings too little bang for the buck. In fact, flexing its muscles in the Near Abroad has only backfired. The EU was spurred to start a new pipeline through Turkey and southern Europe to bypass mercurial Moscow. The United States neither canceled its missile defense plans in Europe nor backed down from supporting Georgia and Ukraine. Even Belarus failed to follow the suit of Nicaragua by recognizing the breakaway Georgian provinces.
Losing an empire is tough indeed. How is the empire’s backyard braving such a ‘loss’? Those less fortunate in the Russian orbit have to endure Moscow’s tightened grip. Thousands of Russian troops are stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Ukraine’s gas flow was shut twice in the last three years, but neither Tbilisi nor Kiev returned under the Russian wing. The grip on other former Russian satellites – especially on the few acolytes that stayed loyal after the Soviet implosion – has actually loosened. Belarus belongs to the latter.
However, President Lukashenka admitted to still feeling “a threat of graceless great power statehood” as Russia froze its $500-million loan in May and announced construction of a new pipeline to cut off Belarus from its oil supply route to Europe in June. The rules are being redrawn, and although it is unlikely that Belarus-Russia brotherhood will end for good, the Belarusian foreign policy is clearly becoming more balanced.
Read more on the subject in Wall Street Journal, “Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend to U.S.”