Ambassadors leave Belarus in the cold

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The Independent Online
LOATHED BY the West and regarded askance even by his friends in Moscow, President Alexander Lukashenko led Belarus into still deeper isolation yesterday as ambassadors from seven countries, including Britain, flew out of the former Soviet republic.

The US and Japan joined five European Union countries in withdrawing their envoys "for consultations" to protest over their eviction from their diplomatic residences by the virulently anti-western leader.

The 15-nation EU underlined its anger with President Lukashenko - a former director of a collective farm who once spoke admiringly of Hitler - by asking his ambassadors to leave their countries. Even Russia, Belarus's close but uneasy ally, has sharply criticised the president, although its envoy will remain.

The row blew up over the decision by Belarus to oust 22 ambassadors from their homes in a wooded compound near Minsk, ostensibly to carry out repairs to the sewage system. Suspicions abound that the president wants the compound - where he also lives - for his cronies. The diplomats were told they could not return after the work's completion.

When the envoys protested that the eviction violated the Vienna Convention, the president stepped up the pressure by turning off the electricity, gas and water. A ditch was also dug preventing cars from entering - an inconvenience which the French ambassador avoided by using a bicycle.

The decision, which some western observers have compared with Stalin's efforts to oust the US and British ambassadors from their lush Moscow residences in 1952, has been greeted with outrage by the diplomats. But it is typical of the president's attention-seeking behaviour. German ambassador Horst Winkelman called it "incomprehensible and sad". Japan's envoy said it was "very hurtful".

But the EU also made clear that the withdrawal of its ambassadors did not mean that its envoys would be gone indefinitely. Before driving in a convoy of diplomatic cars to the airport, flags fluttering, to board a flight to Frankfurt, the EU ambassadors drank a champagne toast outside the British Embassy "to an early return".

Jessica Pearce, the British ambassador, said that they wanted to show Mr Lukashenko "that he cannot treat us in the way that he expects to be able to treat anyone in his country" - a reference to his ruthlessly repressive record, which has included jailing his opponents, closing opposition newspapers, seizing control of the judiciary, and disbanding an elected parliament. She said their withdrawal was for a "cooling-off period" and she hoped to return soon.

Eight countries have now pulled out of Belarus, but others have indicated they will soon follow suit.

Although Belarus has protested its innocence and accused the West of "overreacting" and playing politics, the affair has served as a reminder of the president's relish for trouble-making, which he has exhibited regularly since his arrival in power in 1994.

The US still deeply resents the death of two American pilots whose balloon was shot-down over Belarussian territory in 1995. His period in office has been characterised by economic stagnation, human rights abuses and a referendum that illegally lengthened his period in office.