Out of Belarus: A capital idea that has been kept in the dark

MINSK - When the Soviet Union went out of business in December 1991, Minsk was declared capital of the new outfit called the Commonwealth of Independent States.

No one knew quite what to make of it. A city that had just reached 1980 in its Five-Year Plan could boast a certain dogged perseverance. But little else. Its abrupt elevation did not bode well for foreign journalists and diplomats paid to watch a superpower crumble. They lived in Moscow, not exactly the Copacabana of Communism but, looking on the bright side, it was not Minsk.

Rebuilt after the Second World War, Minsk had come of age. It could finally bury the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald, who built radios here before going home to shoot Jack Kennedy. Visitors flooded in. Minsk was on the map. It stayed there for about a week.

Then Minsk dropped off the map. Journalists took one look at the queue for international phone calls and scurried back to Moscow. When President Clinton passed through this month on his way from Moscow to Geneva, he stayed in Minsk for six hours. It is that kind of place.

It deserves better. There are many far uglier former Soviet cities. And few less contaminated by Soviet rudeness. And while Minsk may never have quite found its stride as the cosmopolitan hub of a redesigned empire, it remains the capital of Belarus, formerly Belorussia and before that the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Few seem to know what this means exactly. Or how long it will last. But so long as it does, Minsk must be staffed. The United States embassy occupies a large house next to another large house occupied by the Russian embassy. Then, further along the street, come the British.

The British presence is what might be called modest. It is not so much an embassy as a room. This is where His Excellency John Everard, Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Belarus (and Britain's only diplomat in Belarus) sits. His wife, Heather, also sits there on most days. She was to open a visa section but there was nowhere to put it. Compare this to 49 diplomats and many more support staff at the embassy in Moscow.

In Minsk, they work by candle-light. Not because of power cuts, though these will start when Russia tires of unpaid Belarussian bills and pulls the plug. Nor is it because the fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling are too bright, though this too is a problem. The candles are not even a quaint affectation to go with the dated picture of the Queen on the wall, the big canvas bag marked 'On Her Majesty's Service' or the other archaic features of diplomatic life.

The reason is the electric light is too loud. Yes, loud as in deafening. It rattles, buzzes, whines and, on a bad day, can even manage a shriek. 'Candles are a lot less noisy,' says the ambassador. And so, in semi-darkness, does Mr Everard ruminate on the rewards of being the youngest diplomat - 36 at the time of his appointment last year - to become British ambassador 'certainly this century and perhaps ever'.

He does have a few compatriots outside Her Majesty's Room. The British Council helps run a library for English-language teachers, Cable and Wireless a joint venture. There is also a handful of students. The embassy is on the first floor of what used to be the East German consulate and trade mission.

Britain maintains a small outpost in the ground-floor kitchen too: a desk next to the gas heater. This is for Yuri - secretary, receptionist, telephone operator and all-purpose fixer.

The rest of the building is filled with Germans. Not the Marxists and merchants sent by Erich Honecker, of course. They all left when the Berlin Wall fell; Belarus became a country and their own country vanished. Today's Germans are from the other side, more than 20 in all, including an ambassador, assorted attaches, an archivist and a security detachment.

Oh, and a few other things: the government fell apart; the leader was booted out; the economy collapsed. Who ever said Minsk was boring?

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