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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Minsk Evictions Stir Up Ambassador Row

Strongman Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was once again at the center of a diplomatic tiff Tuesday, as angry foreign ambassadors protested against an attempt to evict them from their lodgings.

Authorities in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, say a diplomatic compound on the outskirts of the city must be shut down for urgent repairs. The 22 missions in the compound -- including those of France, Russia and the United States -- have until noon Wednesday to clear out.

The diplomats are crying foul, citing international treaties that make foreign missions untouchable. Some nations are threatening to recall their ambassadors and even slap sanctions on Belarus.

However, official Minsk did not look as if it was preparing to give way Tuesday night: Russian television pictures showed Belarussian police amassing outside the diplomatic compound.

The row was sparked off Monday night when the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Daniel Speckhard, had to sneak into his residence through a reserve passageway after discovering that his door had been welded shut by the police.

"Police tried to weld shut the side gate," Diana Moxhay, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Minsk said in a telephone interview. "But [the ambassador] got in through a different door."

She said the U.S. Embassy was "functioning normally," but added: "We consider this to be a violation of the Vienna Convention."

The ambassadors say that under the convention, which Belarus signed, their residences are considered sovereign territory, and governments have no right to enter without permission or insist that diplomats leave.

The odd diplomatic dispute is a product of a little-noticed decree issued last month by Belarus' nationalist and sometimes unpredictable president.

Although few diplomats at the time thought Lukashenko would ever follow through on his threat, the edict said the upscale diplomatic village, called Drozdy, was about to be shut down for repairs.

Some countries, including Russia, France and the United States, have been given the opportunity to put up new buildings on plots of land about 40 kilometers outside the city limits. In the meantime, diplomats' families have been offered the use of "luxury apartments" around Minsk, Belarussian Foreign Ministry official Sergei Malenovsky said in an interview Tuesday evening.

Minsk officials say they don't quite understand what all the fuss is about.

"Drozdy has always been a place for temporary housing of diplomats," Malenovsky said. "We regret if this has caused anyone an inconvenience."

He said the compound, completed in 1948, had been in urgent need of repair for years, and that residents would be much better off living elsewhere.

"We have now built enough very comfortable apartments for all the families to move out," he said. "The fact of the matter is, Drozdy is in a poor state. ... It cannot be provided with clean water and sufficient amounts of electricity."

Moxhay refused to comment on the quality of the compound's water and other utilities, but said that the Americans have recently spent $800,000 to spruce up their compound, which is under lease until 2001.

Some Russian newspapers in Moscow have speculated that Lukashenko -- who himself has a building in Drozdy -- simply wants the pleasant compound all to himself. Officials in Minsk deny this.

In either case, even if they are running into some unexpected difficulties getting home at night, the foreign diplomats are getting ready for a fight.

The French foreign ministry has said it will consider recalling its ambassador from Belarus and may even slap sanctions on the struggling former Soviet republic because of the eviction attempt. Germany, Russia and Lithuania have also filed official complaints.

Washington is upset. The U.S. State Department threatened Lukashenko with unspecified "retaliations."

"If the government of Belarus makes it impossible for our embassador to carry out his responsibilities, we will be forced to take retaliatory actions," said a State Department statement distributed by the Moscow embassy.

The State Department said "it would be premature to speculate" what measures might be taken, although a recall of the ambassador has not been ruled out.

Kremlin officials are also none too pleased, although the Russian Foreign Ministry is taking a softer approach.

"We are very concerned with the situation," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin in a telephone interview. "The embassy in Drozdy is the property of Russia. We hope this incident is resolved before it heightens tensions between our governments."

But he said the situation was likely to resolve itself soon. "This is just a part of life," Nesterushkin said. "We are not thrilled that this had to happen."

Lukashenko's nationalist policies have turned Belarus into something of a pariah state in recent years. He provoked anger in Russia last year by arresting journalists working for the ORT television network on charges of illegally crossing the border.

Relations between Minsk and Washington went sour in 1995 after two Americans died when their hot-air balloon was shot down by Belarus fighter jet. Minsk has since apologized for the incident. But last year, Lukashenko expelled a U.S. embassy employee from the country after the man allegedly took part in an opposition rally.

Russia remains among Belarus' closest allies. The two sides last year signed a loose unification treaty last year, although Kremlin officials have since backed off in their outright support of Lukashenko.

Prime Minster Viktor Kiriyenko is scheduled to meet Lukashenko in Minsk on Wednesday. The two were preparing to discuss progress on the integration of the two countries, but the latest diplomatic spat is likely to feature highly on their agenda.