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Belarus: U.S. Embassy Cuts Staff Amid Diplomatic Row

Ambassador Karen Stewart has urged the release of political prisoners (RFE/RL) The United States has agreed to cut its embassy staff in Minsk by almost half at the request of Belarusian authorities following the U.S. ambassador's forced departure from Minsk and accusations that the embassy was involved in spying activities.

The move is likely to ease immediate tensions between Washington and Minsk, but some observers suggest the spat is evidence that hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has abandoned a brief flirtation with the West to focus on his country's relations with Moscow.

Some 15 U.S. diplomats are scheduled to leave Minsk by March 28, bringing the number of U.S. diplomats in the country down to 17, in a development that comes just two weeks after Washington recalled its ambassador to Belarus, Karen Stewart.

Then-U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer told RFE/RL's Belarus Service last week that Stewart's departure was a forced one.

"We interpreted the [authorities'] initial comments as a recommendation, since that's the word they used," Kramer said. "But we subsequently learned that what they had in mind was in fact an ultimatum, that Ambassador Stewart was given 24 hours to return to Washington for consultations, otherwise she would be declared persona non grata. We felt, in the interest of trying to keep things from escalating, that we would call her back for consultations to avoid what would have been a rather dramatic step."

The U.S. Embassy, which branded the imposed staff cuts "unreasonable and inconsistent with normal diplomatic practice," responded by halting issuing visas for Belarusian citizens. The embassy said it would also close several "American corners" in local libraries that provide information about the United States.

Washington on March 24 harshly condemned what it described as the Belarusian government's "unfortunate actions." U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Minsk had taken "a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform."

Ambassador Stewart said last week that Belarus could end the standoff by freeing Alyaksandr Kazulin, a runner-up in the 2006 presidential election who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for leading a protest rally after the vote.

Spokesman McCormack reiterated calls for Lukashenka's administration -- which U.S. officials have described as the "last dictatorship in Europe" -- to show commitment to human rights and basic freedoms.

Belarusian authorities were quick to show that these calls fell on deaf ears. Truncheon-wielding police violently broke up a street rally on March 25 and detained some 80 demonstrators. Several hundred opposition activists had gathered in a Minsk square to mark the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic, subsequently crushed by Bolshevik forces.

Minsk Surprises

The current diplomatic row with the United States has taken many by surprise. Lukashenka, whose once warm ties with Russia have soured over energy prices, recently appeared to edge closer to the West.

Police arresting demonstrators in Minsk on March 25 (RFE/RL)

In February, Belarus freed six political prisoners in February in what Lukashenka called a "goodwill gesture" and gave the European Commission the green light to open a branch in Minsk, a decision the commission had been waiting for since 2005.

Kramer said the dispute erupted after Washington issued a statement on March 6 concerning the sanctions it imposed last year against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim.

Washington had frozen the company's assets and barred U.S. companies from doing business with Belnaftakhim, placing pressure on Lukashenka's regime to improve its human rights record.

"What the U.S. Department of Treasury did on March 6 was to announce clarification, or elaboration, of existing sanctions. It seems as though the government of Belarus has interpreted that as additional sanctions," Kramer said. "I think it's in the eye of the beholder -- if that's how Belarus wants to interpret it, that's how it is going to interpret it. These were not new sanctions that were imposed but simply a reflection of what had already been in place."

On March 7, one day after the U.S. statement, Minsk blasted Washington for having "violated" what it said was the agreed course of action toward a normalization of relations and swiftly recalled its ambassador to the United States.

The staff reductions at the U.S. Embassy also follow accusations that the embassy set up a spy ring in the country of 10 million. A television report aired on March 23 claimed embassy staff had recruited a dozen Belarusians to pass information for use against Belarus to the FBI.

Yury Zhadobin, the head of the Belarusian intelligence service still known by its Soviet-era KGB abbreviation, confirmed the information on March 25 as "completely true."

The U.S. Embassy has denied the spying accusations.

Some observers said the U.S. Embassy's troubles signal that Lukashenka, after briefly flirting with the West, has gone back to courting Moscow -- which has adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward Washington -- in the hope of obtaining preferential rates for Russian natural gas.

"In my opinion, Lukashenka is deliberately exacerbating the conflict with the United States in order to put Russia in a situation where it cannot refuse to soften its policy of gas-price increases," Belarusian political analyst Vital Silitski says, "because Lukashenka is such a strong foe of the United States, the Kremlin's [gas] policy could be seen in Russia as pro-American."

Eugeniusz Smolar, the head of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, says he sees a precise pattern behind Lukashenka's seemingly erratic foreign policy.

"Lukashenka belongs to the Soviet-time type of leaders. On the one hand, he makes gestures and suggests that he will open up. But when the West says, 'Fine, we welcome your approaches but you must, however, offer us proof of goodwill and openness and free political prisoners,' nothing happens," Smolar says. "This doesn't surprise me. By being, in turn, hot and cold, people like Lukashenka think they control the situation."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report

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