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Belarus: EU, U.S. Diplomats Not Allowed To Return To Former Residences

Washington, 13 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - A senior European statesman says Belarus has rejected demands by the European Union and the United States to allow their diplomats to return to their residences outside the capital city Minsk.

Austria's Minister Plenipotentiary Josef Litschauer told RFE/RL on Wednesday that the rejection is contained in a letter to Austrian Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel. The Austrian foreign minister has been trying to negotiate with Belarus on behalf of the EU and the United States.

According to Litschauer, Belarusian Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich said the diplomats evicted in June may store or retrieve their personal belongings while they search for new accommodations. However, the letter said restoration of the situation that existed before the controversy -- the status quo ante in diplomatic language -- is not possible.

A U.S. State Department official who did not want to be quoted by name told RFE/RL that the letter from Antanovich is not acceptable. The official said: "Our position remains the same. We continue to view the residence as properly our own, and we should have full access. We insist on our full rights."

The official added that Belarus has failed to take steps on restoring the rights of the diplomatic tenants to the properties they rented, and it has failed to stop the violation of the diplomatic convention.

The key U.S.-EU demand has been a full restoration of the diplomats' right to live in their residences in Drozdy. The Belarus letter said such a thing was "not possible." Noting "some ambiguities" in the English wording of the letter allowing for storage of personal effects in Drozdy, Litschauer said that Austria will ask Belarus for clarifications following consultations with its Western partners.

The crisis erupted in June, when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka summarily evicted 22 foreign envoys, citing the need to repair sewer and water lines. Since then, efforts to resolve the crisis have failed, as Belarus rejected the Western charge that Belarus is in violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic privileges.

In his speeches Lukashenka accused Western envoys of gross but unspecified misuse of their residences which are near his presidential compound. The West responded by withdrawing ambassadors and suspending aid and cooperation programs. In July, the United States, the EU's 15 member states and 10 other states have imposed bans on entry visas for senior Belarusian officials. Some European diplomats have also suggested economic sanctions.

Belarusian diplomats say that the Minsk area has plenty of other suitable residences appropriate for diplomats. Western diplomats are not so sure.