Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE's rapidly shrinking presence in Belarus dwindled still further today with the departure of the mission's last senior diplomat.
First Secretary Meaghan Fitzgerald returned to her home in the United States after authorities refused to extend her visa beyond midnight tonight. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on the reasons for its refusal.
It's the latest run-in between the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the Minsk mission of the 55-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The two have long had strained relations. The OSCE has repeatedly criticized the country's human rights record and condemned Lukashenka's re-election last year as flawed. Lukashenka, in turn, has accused the mission's diplomats of supporting his political foes.
The mission's last acting head, Andrew Carpenter, left Belarus in June after authorities refused to extend his visa. The previous acting head of the group, Michel Rivollier, left in April for the same reason. His replacement, Eberhard Heyken, was barred from entering the country that same month.
But the latest departure means the Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) has only one foreign staffer, an administrator, left in Minsk.
Earlier this week, the OSCE's Portuguese chairmanship said in a statement that "in the present circumstances, the AMG is no longer in a position to perform its duties."
The OSCE said the Belarusian authorities' attitude "does not contribute to the desirable normalization of relations between Belarus and the OSCE."
But it added that the organization is keen to keep in close contact with local authorities to discuss the future of its Belarus mission.
Speaking shortly before her departure today, Fitzgerald told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the mission had not been able to work effectively this entire year. "But I hope that our monitoring, our presence here, our attention to serious problems [will have an effect]," Fitzgerald said.
The mission's one remaining foreign staffer, Moldovan Alina Josan, said she now finds herself in the surprising position of being one of the OSCE's longest-standing members in Minsk. "If someone had told me when I came here in September 1998 that I would outlast [former mission head Hans-Georg] Wieck, Heyken, and Rivollier, I would never have believed it," Josan said.
Josan does not require a visa to enter Belarus.
(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)