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Belarus: Government Moves Against Foreign Diplomats

Prague, 9 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian government has announced that it intends to close tomorrow the diplomatic complex in Drazdy, a suburb of Minsk, locking 22 ambassadors out of their residences.

The government served notice in April that the closure is required to overhaul water and sewage pipes in the complex.

Most residents protest, saying that they would prefer to do the repairs themselves or remain in the complex during the work. The residents include ambassadors of the United States, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Turkey and India.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Speckhard told reporters yesterday that he intended to stay in his residence. "If the government wants to lock us out," he said, "we will have to leave the country."

Speckhard criticized the government's decision, saying it violated the international convention on diplomatic practices that considers ambassadors' residences foreign territories over which local governments have no right of entry without specific permission.

Speckhard also said that the move violated of the lease which the United States had signed in 1992 and which runs until 2001. The U.S. government has only recently completed a thorough overhaul of the residence, spending about $800,000 on repairs.

The Lithuanian embassy is reported to be among several others which have joined the protests by the American diplomat. "The Lithuanian embassy is not packing its bags," First Secretary Dainyus Trinkunas was reported to have said, "even if (the government) cuts communication or blocks the road."

Pawel Koc, second secretary in the Polish embassy, told reporters that "we follow the example of the majority" of the resident diplomats.

The Belarusian government said in a statement read on national television that the embassies involved were being offered small apartments in the city center or parcels of land for building new residences about 30 kilometers from the city. The offer has been rejected.

The government also said that both President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Prime Minister Serhei Linh, who maintained their residences in Drazdy, "have given an example by leaving" the complex.

Clearly, the government plans a massive program of repairs. But there could be other reasons for its move.

A senior Belarusian official, who asked not to be named, told a Western reporter yesterday that "it cannot be that State President Lukashenka is neighbors with the American ambassador."

Lukashenka is well known for authoritarian methods. He has been strongly criticized by European institutions and many Western governments for persecuting opponents, muzzling the media and suppressing any form of criticism to his rule. Last week, the Belarusian parliament passed a law that made it a crime to slander or insult the president, setting penalties of four years in prison or two years of labor for such actions.

Lukashenka himself has repeatedly verbally insulted the West, claiming that any criticism of his rule was prompted by politically motivated drive to isolate him and his government. It may be that he considers the very prospect of physical proximity with a representative of the U.S. government as conflicting with his perception of his power.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said yesterday that the Belarusian "repair" project amounted to an attempt to evict diplomats from their residences. Rubin said that the U.S. government would consider retaliatory measures if its ambassador were prevented from keeping its residence.

There has been no response from the Belarusian government.