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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- Undermining The International System

Washington, 10 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Welding shut a side gate to an ambassador's residence in the Belarusian capital of Minsk may seem a small thing. But it represents the latest in a disturbing series of departures from international legality in Belarus and the inviolability of diplomats more generally around the world.

Over the last two months, the Belarusian government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has repeatedly demanded that 22 ambassadors and their families leave the Drazdy housing complex in Minsk in order to allow for repairs.

The ambassadors have all refused, citing the Vienna Convention which specifies that their countries rather than Belarus have sovereignty on the territory occupied by their residences and chancelleries.

This week, the Belarusian authorities stepped up the pressure. On Monday, the government sent a team of workmen to the area who sought to force the ambassadors to leave by welding at least one gate to the area and threatening to block others.

In response to this action, governments around the world denounced this violation of diplomatic custom and practice. The Russian foreign ministry condemned this latest action by the Lukashenka government. European governments also weighed in with criticism.

And Stephen Sestanovich, the American ambassador at large for the post-Soviet states, said on Tuesday that there was no precedent for such unacceptable behavior.

In the face of this united front from the international community, the Belarusian authorities backed off from their latest ploy and gave the diplomats another week to vacate their housing to allow for what Minsk said were needed repairs.

This diplomatic retreat does little to solve the problem. Not only does Minsk continue to insist on its right to demand that the diplomats leave their housing, but the authorities there said that the international community had blown this incident out of proportion because of hostility to the Lukashenka regime.

This Belarusian response highlights a more general problem now plaguing diplomats around the world: Ever more governments have discovered that attacking the traditional rights of diplomats often plays well at home with little cost abroad.

Under pressures from populations angry about the supposed arrogance of diplomats who can be expelled but not tried for violating local laws, an increasing number of governments have demanded that diplomatic immunity be waived.

And now the Belarusian authorities have concluded that attacking the inviolability of diplomatic property will also probably gain them support from a population that appears to feel abandoned by both Russia and the West.

All too frequently, governments have ignored the broader implications of such demands largely because they do not want to make an issue of it with the host government and because both they and their own populations frequently do not understand just how important these diplomatic rules of the game are.

The inviolability of diplomats and their property are a necessary condition for the continued function of the international system. If one country can try the representatives of another for violations of its law, the latter country or some other can reciprocate.

And if one country can violate diplomatic property with impunity, then other countries can respond in the same way.

If that pattern escalated, few countries would be willing to risk sending diplomats abroad or maintaining them there. That in turn would reduce or in some cases eliminate the possibility for the international dialogue on which relations among countries now rest.

In such a situation, any move no matter how apparently small or superficially justified represents a threat to the entire system. And for that reason, the international community has worked out the special rules codified in the Vienna Convention.

Many times governments try to ignore the risks inherent in such actions. Indeed, most governments of the diplomats affected in Belarus had said little in public about Minsk's demands until this week.

But the latest Belarusian moves clearly threaten them all, and with a rare measure of agreement, they have denounced what must appear to some as a little thing for the major threat that it is.