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Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK

World: Europe

Belarus plays down the ambassador exodus

German Ambassador H E Horst Winkelmann with his luggage before leaving

By BBC regional analyst Stephen Mulvey:

Belarus has reacted with defiance to the withdrawal of ambassadors from the United States and five west European countries in a dispute over access to the diplomatic compound in Minsk.

President Alexander Lukashenko: "I fail to see any problem"
The Belarus Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich said the government would not be taking any action; he said the ambassadors had departed with pomp and champagne, but they would soon be back.

But it is likely that, before the end of the week, roughly half of the ambassadors stationed in Minsk will have left the country. Meanwhile the European Union and the United States are considering possible further measures, so far unspecified, to express their protest at the behaviour of the Belarussian authorities.

The dispute began quietly enough two months ago, with a request from the Belarussian authorities to 20 diplomats to vacate their residences, and accept alternative accommodation.

The government said that the move was necessary to repair the ageing sewage system, but did not explain why the ambassadors would not be allowed to return to the residences once the repairs had been completed.

Crisis could have been avoided

The Belarussian government must have known that the diplomats would be reluctant to leave, and that they would lose face if they agreed to an arbitary eviction.

[ image: Access to the diplomatic compound is denied]
Access to the diplomatic compound is denied
The authorities may nonetheless have calculated that the ambassadors would back down before allowing the dispute to develop into a crisis. The Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said on local television on Monday night that he could not understand why such an "ordinary everyday problem" was being made into a political issue.

It is hard to say quite how disingenous this remark is. On one hand Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, had no experience of international relations until he was elected president four years ago.

On the other hand, the Belarussian authorities have obviously contributed to the escalation of the dispute: either side could have backed down at any stage in the last two months, but neither side was willing to do so.

Deliberate confrontation?

There is also a possibility that Mr Lukashenko was deliberately seeking to provoke a confrontation with the western diplomats, whose criticism of his authoritarian leadership is a constant source of irritation.

But this theory by itself fails to explain why the Russian ambassador has been subject to the same eviction measures as the ambassadors of America, Germany, France and others.

One western diplomat said it was a "mystery" why Belarus was risking a rift with Russia, its closest ally.

Teaching Lukashenko a lesson

The other most widespread explanation for the eviction of the ambassadors is that Mr Lukashenko wants the houses in the leafy out-of-town compound for himself, and for his entourage.

But this too seems insufficient as an explanation for his behaviour - there can be few presidents who would put the accommodation needs of their staff above the need to preserve normal diplomatic relations with foreign states.

For their part, the western diplomats appeared to be glad of an opportunity to teach Mr Lukashenko a very public lesson.

The British ambassador, Jessica Pearce, said they were leaving to show Mr Lukashenko that he could not treat them in the same way he expects to be able to treat the citizens of his country.

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