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The Clash between the United States and Belarus

karenstewart031208.jpgMove over UK and Russia, the new East vs. West diplomatic battle royale is now going down between Washington and Minsk. Today Reuters is reporting that U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart (pictured) has been temporarily withdrawn to Washington following a recommendation from the Belarusian authorities that she return for “consultations.” This confirms an earlier report from Kommersant, which quotes the Belarusian statement on their decision to suddenly pull their ambassador Mikhail Khvostov last Friday. What is amusing and absurd about the diplomatic spat are the vast differences between each side’s reasoning for pulling their ambassadors. The Americans have issued a statement laying heavy on the human rights abuses, even going so far as to state “Following the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the United States stands ready to explore steps to improve our bilateral relations.” Good luck with that – this is Alexander Lukashenko we are talking about here – he hasn’t even heard about glastnost yet.

In fact, earlier this week during a ceremony held for International Women’s Day, President George Bush spoke about Irina Kozulina, the activist and wife of Belarus’s most well known political prisoner Alexander Kozulin. Kozulin, who had placed second in the 2006 rigged presidential elections, was only released from prison for three days to attend his wife’s funeral (she had died of cancer), and was denied the opportunity to be with her during her final days.An administration displaying this level of cruelty would seem unlikely to free the political prisoners just to re-establish diplomatic relations – but perhaps Washington has already figured out what hurts Minsk the most: money. And oddly, they have Russia to thank for showing them how to properly twist Lukashenko’s arm. Minsk went into hysterics over their energy dispute with Moscow, and ended up having to borrow money from their only friend left in the world – Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.The hostile discourse between the two governments over the past week shows that the Americans have really struck a nerve. This seems plainly evident from the truculent statement from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which assumes a mighty posture against those Yankee imperialists, and threatens to escalate with more retaliations “of harsh character” to these provocations. The straightforward criticisms of human rights has never seemed to bother Lukashenko (they have been ignoring these claims for decades) but rather the recent sanctions on the state-owned oil company Belneftekhim. In November of last year, the U.S. Treasury froze accounts of the company in the United States and its branches in Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia and China, as well as accounts of Belneftekhim USA Inc., a move which has been vigorously protested by the Belarusian authorities.According to the civil society group Charter 97, President Lukashenko directly threatened to eject Ambassador Stewart back in December following the freezing of accounts, stating “She will be the first to be thrown away … She hangs out with opposition and says that sanctions can be imposed on Belarus.” Another MFA statement complained that the sanctions against the state-owned firm constituted a violation of the Helsinki Final Act, as the economic coercion violates the sovereignty of the nation. They are now depending upon Russia and the United Kingdom to act on their behalf within the OECD to convince the Americans to unfreeze Belneftekhim. Their statement reads “The Republic of Belarus underlines that United States’ violation of the Memorandum provisions radically undermines US trustworthiness as a partner. Can anyone trust the US after all, all the more so, in such a strategic cause as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons?“But the dirt really started flying at the end of last week during a Daily Press Briefing with State Dept. Spokesman Tom Casey on the 7th, when he claimed that Belarusian Foreign Ministry convoked a closed meeting with all the heads of the OSCE to complain about the activities of the U.S. Embassy, and asked for the withdrawal. Casey said “we are appreciative of the fact that they have released several of the political prisoners. And we, in fact, noted at the time that if they were to release the remaining political prisoners, very specifically Mr. Kozulin, then we might be in a position to engage with them and begin a dialogue on how we might be able to improve relations. But frankly, if the Belarusian Government wishes to shoot itself in the foot, they’re welcome to do so.“Belarus quickly responded to this statement, claiming that the Americans were indeed present for the meeting with other OSCE representatives, and that they expect the State Dept. to disavow the statement by the press secretary.As the Russians quickly proved last year, the Lukashenko dictatorship is propped up by its control over the economy, and when their ability to deliver cheap energy was threatened by the Kremlin, the panic among the bureaucracy was widely visible (some even claim that control over natural gas supply is what created the dictatorship). Then Gazprom’s games with prices to Minsk ended as soon as they were able to snatch away control of Beltransgaz in exchange for inflated overdue gas debts that everyone knew Belarus had no chance of paying (the Russians love a good asset swap). So with a reduced income stream thanks to Moscow, the Belarusian government is having to get creative in finding ways to fund its power over society, and likely Belneftekhim has become the president’s most important personal piggy bank – explaining the disproportionate reaction.The CEO from the U.S. Belneftekhim entity has stated that the company “comprises largest enterprises that substantially influence the economic potential of the Republic of Belarus and to some extent the world market.” It is hard to find much transparent information about the company, but some sources indicate that the state monopoly comprises about 50 companies and 120,000 employees, while taking on activities in Venezuela (thank you, Hugo!), Kaliningrad, Africa, Asia, and is involved in dozens of securities ventures. Last year, the company was at the center of an oil industry corruption probe, and some of its top executives with ties to the KGB were arrested on charges of embezzlement and spreading state secrets.So while one side of this dispute continues to talk only about the political prisoners, the other will only talk about the sanctions on their money train. I hope that eventually Belarus and the United States can at least start talking about the same topic, as we may be approaching a very interesting moment in this country with the changing of the guard in the Kremlin and the weakening of President Chavez’s support in Venezuela. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Minsk look to Tehran for help next, but never underestimate Lukashenko’s ability to slip out of sticky situations – no one stays in power for 14 years without being rather crafty and dangerous.