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Belarus: Officials Seek Solution To Diplomatic Crisis

By Charles Fenyvesi/Sonia Winter

Washington, 29 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- American and Belarusian officials are trying to find a way out of an impasse that has left Belarus without diplomatic contact with more than 20 major countries. But expectations for success are not high.

Officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told RFE/RL that a face-saving formula for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is being discussed to resolve the diplomatic crisis that began last month, when he ordered foreign ambassadors in the Drozdy diplomatic compound near Minsk to leave their residences immediately -- ostensibly because of a need to repair sewer and water lines.

U.S., European and other countries responded to this violation of international accords with sanctions, recalling their envoys, asking Belarusian ambassadors to leave their capitals, and imposing a travel ban on Belarusian officials.

But a State Department official said Tuesday the U.S. does not want see Belarus isolated and would like to get the dispute over residences settled.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Daniel Speckhard remains active in Washington and has been taking part in talks with the Belarusian government on ways to settle the issue.

The proposed solution, as outlined separately by American and Belarusian officials, would have Belarus announce that the sewer and water lines have been repaired and invite the ambassadors to return to their former residences.

Once the ambassadors are reinstalled and enjoy unhindered access to the residences, Western governments would be expected to lift the travel ban on Belarusian officials.

However, another official said the odds are not better than 50-50 for such a compromise for at least three reasons.

First, significant differences remain on who controls the security arrangements around the compounds, he said.

Furthermore, according to the official, Belarusians are still trying to move some of the residences elsewhere.

Third, even if the Belarus foreign ministry agrees to the package, Lukashenka might decide unilaterally to cancel parts of the agreement.

Lukashenka has acquired a reputation of ignoring agreements reached by his diplomats, says one source involved in the negotiations, noting that Lukashenka likes to say he is a free man and that his hands are not tied.

In previous negotiations, Belarusians have tried to divide the Western powers by offering some countries advantageous deals. But from the beginning of the dispute, the U.S. and the EU have been coordinating their positions.

The State Department official emphasized Tuesday that the U.S.-EU consultations continue and said the U.S. would n o t act unilaterally.

State Department spokesman James Rubin, announcing the travel ban earlier this month, said the U.S. and the international community cannot condone what he called "Lukashenka's crude and intolerable actions."

He said Belarus not only evicted the U.S. and other envoys but earlier this month tore down fences around the U.S. ambassador's residence and took control of the house.

Rubin said embassy chanceries and residences of ambassadors are protected by the principle of inviolability. They cannot be entered by host governments without permission. He said these are basic legal rights that must be protected.