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Belarus: President Snubs U.S. Ambassador

The relationship between the U.S. and Belarus has been strained for a long time. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has refused to meet a new American ambassador who arrived in October. Today Lukashenka delivered another snub to the Americans by not inviting the U.S. ambassador to a grand ball this weekend. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For weeks now the U.S. ambassador to Belarus has been in the position of the fairy-tale character Cinderella: wondering whether he would be invited to the ball. Today, veteran American diplomat Michael Kozak got the answer: No. He's not invited.

The ball in question is a grand affair on Saturday, New Year's Eve by the old Julian calendar of the Orthodox faith. It will be hosted by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and most of the diplomatic community resident in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, will join favorites of Lukashenka for a night of champagne, food and dancing.

But Kozak will not be entirely surprised that he is not being invited. The American government has been foremost among Western governments in criticizing Lukashenka's regime for cracking down on political and press freedoms.

It has made it clear that Washington does not regard the present parliament of handpicked Lukashenka nominees as representative of the people. America also questions the legitimacy of Lukashenka's own presidency, whose tenure he prolonged without an election.

Kozak arrived in Minsk 20 October to take up his appointment as the new U.S. ambassador. At the airport and in subsequent interviews, he expressed the U.S.'s misgivings about the Belarus government.

An interview he gave to Belarus television explaining his views was not broadcast, and so Kozak posted a transcript of it on the publicly accessible Internet site of the U.S. embassy in Belarus.

In it Kozak says: "The perception exists in the United States and in Europe that the processes by which the parliament was recently appointed or selected did not meet, in the view of the other countries, basic standards of democratic processes that are applied to all -- as we mentioned earlier -- members of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. Likewise, the procedures by which the referendum was passed in 1996 -- the president's term was extended -- again didn't match up to those standards."

He said it was essential to set in place free, fair, and transparent mechanisms for the presidential elections that will take place later this year. He said that unless the elections are demonstrably fair, then the U.S. and many European states will continue to be critical.

Kozak said: "It's the choice of the people here to make the country whatever they want it to be. What, I think, we and the rest of the international community are saying is we want to be sure we've got a government in Belarus that has gained its authority through a process that makes it clear that it's the expression of the will of people."

In early November, Kozak presented his credentials to the Belarus Foreign Ministry - the diplomatic etiquette for a new ambassador to announce his arrival and be accepted as his country's representative. The Foreign Ministry accepted the credentials. Kozak was then supposed to present his credentials to Lukashenka at a ceremonial meeting.

But Kozak's remarks so angered Lukashenka that the Belarus president has not invited Kozak to meet him. Kozak maintains that following his acceptance by the Foreign Ministry he is the ambassador and that a meeting with Lukashenka, although useful, is not necessary for him to function.

Kozak said: "Under the Vienna Convention, when you present a copy of your credentials to the Foreign Ministry, that begins your functions in the country. But the presentation of credentials to the head of state is also a very important ceremonial act."

Lukashenka has found time to accept the credentials of other new ambassadors, most recently that of the representative of Madagascar, but he has not summoned the American.

Both the American embassy in Belarus and the Belarus Foreign Ministry were reluctant to talk about the snub over the ball or Kozak's future.

A US embassy spokesman said:

"I don't have any comments for you on this issue. Ok?"

Belarus Foreign Ministry Spokesman Pavel Latushko had a similarly brief comment.

"No comments sir on this situation. I'm so sorry. No invitation was sent for Ambassador Kozak."

Although Kozak presently seems to be in a diplomatic no-man's land, he has not officially been declared "persona non grata" -- unwanted person -- the diplomatic language for "get out of our country."

Again the Belarus Foreign Ministry would not say whether they would press for Kozak's eventual removal. But Latushko did say:

"We are very interested to improve relations between Belarus and the United States of America."

Lukashenka has written to U.S. President-elect George W. Bush congratulating him on his victory and hoping the new American administration will work towards warmer relations with Belarus. Kozak's absence at the ball will not help to achieve that aim.