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Belarus Seeks Staff Cuts In U.S. Embassy

Belarus Seeks Staff Cuts In U.S. Embassy
By Dmitry Sergeychik
Belorusskie Novosty
Belarus’ diplomatic offices in the U.S. keep providing consular services for U.S. citizens, spokesman for Belarus’ Foreign Ministry Andrey Popov told a news briefing on Thursday. “We have not received official notifications from the U.S. about discontinuation of visa processing in Belarus,” Popov said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Belarus said in a statement posted on its website that it had suspended visa processing, since the U.S. Government was in the process of reviewing the request made by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 17 that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk reduce its staffing. “Services for American citizens continue as usual,” the statement reads.
The Embassy’s web-site said that further details about accepting applications and issuing visas will be withheld as the US Embassy is deciding how many visas it will be able to process.
“Therefore, visa processing has been temporarily suspended while our resources are engaged addressing other priorities. Some visa appointments have been postponed. Further information will be provided once the extent of the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide visa services in Belarus has been determined,” reads the official statement posted on the website of the Embassy.
“U.S. Charge d’Affaires a.i. Jonathan Moore was invited to the Foreign Ministry on Monday. It was brought to his attention again that the Belarusian side insists on the U.S. Embassy’s cutting its staff,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Belarus’ media on Monday.
According to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, the Belarusian government wants the US embassy in Minsk to reduce its staff, suggesting that “it is necessary to equalize the levels of diplomatic presence on a parity basis,” which means that the USA’s diplomatic presence in Belarus should match that of Belarus in the United States. “The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in particular Article 11 of this document, gives us such an opportunity in full measure. That is why this demand of the Belarusian side is well-founded.”
Belarus and the United States do not exchange visits at the top and high levels and economic ties will now be reduced as well because of the US sanctions, that is why “the level of equal representation that we have proposed is quite sufficient under these conditions,” Spokesperson for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrey Popov said. “We have proposed to the American side that it should decide by itself on the list of the people who should leave for their homeland under the Belarusian foreign ministry’s recommendations in order to equalize the level of diplomatic presence on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”
The Associated Press reported earlier this week with reference to the US State Department that Belarus had asked the United States to reduce its embassy staff and threatened to expel some of the 35 US diplomats if it does not.
Karen Stewart, the US ambassador to Minsk who had to leave Belarus on March 12 “for consultations” under pressure from the Belarusian government, said in an interview with AFP on Tuesday that the American side was trying to find out what caused such recommendations. “They probably want our Embassy to have the same number of employees as they have in the U.S. However, we don’t think that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requires this parity. So, we keep negotiating this point,” said the diplomat.
Washington is likely to bow to Belarus' call to cut its embassy staff to avoid breaking diplomatic ties altogether amid a row over sanctions, she said. “At this stage, having considered everything, I think it is very important to keep an embassy there,” Karen Stewart said when asked if the United States would respond to Minsk's demands or risk seeing the mission closed.
She said that the staff issue should be resolved the following week. “It is a meaningful cut because we feel like we don't have an overstaffed embassy,” she said. “We think we are staffed for what is right and appropriate for the responsibilities we have there and for our security concerns. This includes our security people, our Marine Guards and all that.”
It is not the first “persistent recommendation” for the U.S. Embassy from official Minsk. Belarusian Ambassador in the U.S. Mikhail Khvostov was called back for consultations after more details were made available about the sanctions introduced last year against  Belneftekhim. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry suggested that Washington would do the same and call back Karen Stewart for consultations.
Her departure can be taken as Washington’s attempt to compromise with Minsk in order to avoid unnecessary confrontation with Belarus. It was probably the same reason as to why the number of staff at the American Embassy has been reduced, which sent the visa section on a break.
Belorusskie Novosty reported earlier that all the parties involved in the conflict: Minsk, Washington, and Brussels have been quite clear about their intentions. The West has at least two immediate requirements – releasing Kozulin, and holding fair parliamentary elections. Minsk is talking about revising economic sanctions particularly about ‘the black list’ of those Belarusian officials that are not allowed into the western countries, which leaves behind the economic side of the conflict.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko also confirmed the little consequences the economic sanctions had on the state budget. At the conference with the law-enforcing institutions on 18 March, he stated that the American sanctions were not deadly for the country: “We lived before; we live now with their so-called economic sanctions; and we will keep living.”
Of course, with no details available about the losses the Trust and state budget had, Lukashenko’s statement sounds like a promotional slogan aimed at local residents. Lukashenko said that by making life difficult for Belneftekhim, the US keeps pressurising Belarus, “and these restrictive measures are the evidence”.
Anyhow, it was the Belarusian authorities in Minsk that used the ‘pressurising’ term for the first time. If the conflict does little economic damage, politics is something that is almost lost – the image the Belarusian authorities have in the West is quite straightforward, and we do not have much to lose in this sense.

 

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