Future of dialogue with USA depends on lifting of sanctions against Belarusian economic entities

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations gives us such an opportunity in full measure. That is why this demand is well-founded...

The future of Belarus’ dialogue with the United States depends on the complete lifting of sanctions against Belarusian economic entities, Andrey Papow, spokesman for the foreign ministry, said at Thursday’s briefing.

“It was not us that were the source of the tension in Belarusian-American relations,” the spokesman said according to BelaPAN.

According to him, the Belarusian government wants the US embassy in Minsk to reduce its staff, suggesting that “it is necessary to equalize the levels of diplomatic presence on a parity basis,” which means that the USA’s diplomatic presence in Belarus should match that of Belarus in the United States. “The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in particular Article 11 of this document, gives us such an opportunity in full measure. That is why this demand of the Belarusian side is well-founded.”

Belarus and the United States do not exchange visits at the top and high levels and economic ties will now be reduced as well because of the US sanctions, that is why “the level of equal representation that we have proposed is quite sufficient under these conditions,” Mr. Papow said. “We have proposed to the American side that it should decide by itself on the list of the people who should leave for their homeland under the Belarusian foreign ministry’s recommendations in order to equalize the level of diplomatic presence on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”

The Associated Press reported earlier this week with reference to the US State Department that Belarus had asked the United States to reduce its embassy staff and threatened to expel some of the 35 US diplomats if it does not.

Karen Stewart, the US ambassador to Minsk who had to leave Belarus on March 12 “for consultations” under pressure from the Belarusian government, said in an interview with AFP on Tuesday that Minsk wanted equal numbers of diplomats working at the US embassy in Minsk, where there are about 35 staff, and in the Belarusian embassy in Washington, which employs about 20. Washington is likely to bow to Belarus' call to cut its embassy staff to avoid breaking diplomatic ties altogether amid a row over sanctions, she said.

“At this stage, having considered everything, I think it is very important to keep an embassy there,» Ms. Stewart said when asked if the United States would respond to Minsk's demands or risk seeing the mission closed.

She said that the staff issue should be resolved the following week. “It is a meaningful cut because we feel like we don't have an overstaffed embassy,” she said. “We think we are staffed for what is right and appropriate for the responsibilities we have there and for our security concerns. This includes our security people, our Marine Guards and all that.»

She told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she returned to Washington after the Belarusian government had threatened to expel her in retaliation for the US sanctions against Belarus’ petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim. «I was not expelled, but they made it clear that that would be the next step if I did not leave,» she said.

Minsk recalled its ambassador to the USA, Mikhail Khvastow, on March 7 «for consultations» after the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a statement with regard to the applicability of the sanctions, which were imposed by the Department as far back as November 2007 over human rights abuses.

The sanctions included freezing any assets under US jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and barring US citizens from doing business with Belnaftakhim, and applied to its offices in Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia and China, and its US subsidiary identified as Belneftekhim USA, Inc.

Ms. Stewart said that the United States would still consider loosening its sanctions if Belarus released the remaining political prisoners. «Releasing the political prisoners is the step that opens the door to all sorts of better relations,» she said.

Several opposition activists have been released in Belarus since the start of the year in what Alyaksandr Lukashenka called an “unprecedented goodwill step.”

Article 11 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations reads:

1. In the absence of specific agreement as to the size of the mission, the receiving State may require that the size of a mission be kept within limits considered by it to be reasonable and normal, having regard to circumstances and conditions in the receiving State and to the needs of the particular mission.

2. The receiving State may equally, within similar bounds and on a nondiscriminatory basis, refuse to accept officials of a particular category.