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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Long Time Coming




The conflict over diplomatic accommodation between Belarus and a score of foreign countries has resulted in unprecedented sanctions. Henceforth, the nation's leaders, including President Alexander Lukashenko, are prohibited entry to practically all European nations and the United States.


Belarussian authorities themselves provoked the conflict three months ago by demanding that diplomatic missions accredited in Minsk leave the suburban residences they were occupying. The official reason was the need to repair the plumbing. There was hardly anybody then who could have foreseen how the situation would end.


At the same time, the incident that occurred was predetermined by the very logic of the authorities' actions from the minute Lukashenko came to power.


Western European nations and the United States were psychologically ready for this a long time ago. Thus, the decision was easily made. There was even a feeling of haste.


Official Minsk just needed to give a reason, which it did. Part of the Belarussian leadership's mistake was that it was sure up until the last minute that the conflict would not turn into a display of open confrontation, that it would gradually come to naught, like earlier misunderstandings regarding foreign diplomats.


I have practically no doubt that resettling the ambassadors was originally conceived with only one goal -- to turn the entire diplomatic compound into the president's residence and calm his suspicion that everybody around him is spying and listening. The problem was that on the other side of the presidential dacha's fence was the U.S. ambassador's residence. And "well-wishers" were constantly telling Lukashenko that the insidious Americans were listening in and spying on everything.


When it was already clear that there was no avoiding the conflict, Lukashenko consciously aggravated it. While the diplomats were still on Belarussian territory, they were forbidden to come onto the territory of their residences. Then, in an ultimatum-like manner, authorities demanded that they remove all their property from the residences within two days. Lukashenko was sure that the ambassadors would nonetheless return -- more than once in the past, diplomats left the country for consultations, and every time they returned.


It's significant to note that there were no people in the president's inner circle who could have explained to him the possible consequences of this step. The conflict's course confirmed that diplomats from the Foreign Ministry have no role in the conduct of foreign affairs in Belarus. It is conducted by the president himself and a group of utter dilettantes in his circle, who have not the slightest idea what the Vienna Convention is.


Even employees of the Belarussian Foreign Ministry had to admit this. On July 9, when the EU passed the decision barring Belarussian government officials from EU nations, and the United States joined in, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Gerasimovich stated that "the Foreign Ministry has received necessary authority from President Lukashenko to conduct normal negotiations."


Western governments have not been talking to Minsk for some time. As of late, economic relations between the nations have fallen apart. Not one European state has ratified the agreement on cooperation between the European Union and Belarus signed at the beginning of 1996, and its implementation is frozen. All financial aid programs were frozen two years ago. Foreign investment in Belarus has not exceeded $100 million to $200 million per year for a long time.


The theory of "maintaining a dialogue for the sake of maintaining a dialogue" with an undemocratic regime has shown its insolvency in the case of Belarus. All of the talks, aimed at liberalizing the country's political regime and conducted on the initiative of the EU and the OSCE, ended without result, and it was Lukashenko's fault.


Thus, a definitive break in relations is only useful for Europe. It allows Europe to distance itself from the odious regime. And it would have happened next year, even without the conflict over residences.


Obscured by the diplomatic conflict was the crucial date of July 10, the fourth anniversary of Lukashenko's election as president of Belarus. His lawful term in office runs out in a year. But Lukashenko intends to conduct elections only in 2001. This statute is written into the new constitution, which he introduced in 1996 and which is not recognized by European nations. EU members have stated that they won't recognize Lukashenko's authority if elections are not held in 1999.


Along with the Western diplomatic missions the Russian Embassy also lost its place. Moreover, it lost more than the right to stay in a leased house outside the city. Unlike other ambassadors' residences, the Russian Embassy's suburban residence is Russian property.


At first, the Russian side was indignant at Minsk's actions. Even Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov admitted that "Belarussian friends are acting in undiplomatic ways." But Russia did not partake in any of the diplomatic moves of its Western colleagues. What's more, the Russian State Duma rose in Lukashenko's defense. And Russian Foreign Ministry representatives are saying that they will "make every effort to reconcile the conflict between Belarus and the European Union."


This was perhaps to be expected. It is obvious that while a pro-Russian is in power in Minsk, Moscow doesn't care where the Russian ambassador will be in Belarus -- a suburban residence or on some cattle yard. What's most important is that the "younger Belarussian brothers" continue looking out for Russia's strategic interests and do not go the way of their Western neighbors, who have reoriented themselves toward the EU and NATO.


Thus, Russia just grins and bears it when Lukashenko allows himself to say "undiplomatic" things about Russia, or indeed when he does even worse.


Viktor Dziatlikovich is a correspondent for the Belarussian service "Radio Freedom." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.