Our Man on a shoestring: Ruth Dudley Edwards watches the diplomats setting up shop in Minsk

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JOHN EVERARD, Our Man in Minsk, was recently in London to discuss commercial opportunities in the former Soviet Union. On his return to Belarus, he was intending to take with him bed- linen, some bacon, some pate, some 'special surprise food' (a bit of fresh fruit, a large packet of crisps), and a newspaper for Carl. Oh yes, and a large consignment of catfood.

John and his wife, Heather, were one of the ambassadorial couples featured in True Brits, the BBC2 series about the Foreign Office. They arrived in Belarus (the former Soviet republic of Byelorussia) in May 1993 to run the new embassy. At first, they lived in spartan conditions in a hotel, and the embassy consisted of one tiny room beside the kitchen in the large German embassy. Mr Everard - then charge d'affaires, now at 37, the youngest ambassador in the British foreign service - ran the mission single-handed, when Mrs Everard was training to become what she calls 'Mrs Consular and Visa'.

But things have changed on the domestic front. Last August they moved to a flat, but the unreliable electricity, urine in the lift and 'awful clunks in the dark' got them down. Now their official residence is a five-room dacha-cum-building site on the outskirts of Minsk, which Heather has spent months persuading local workmen to render comfortable and presentable.

This, says her husband, has done wonders for her Russian. She can say lots of things, such as, 'This socket has the wrong amperage,' and, 'How can you possibly put a three-pin in here?' In the meantime, John managed to add reasonably fluent Russian and an understanding of Belarussian to his other languages (Chinese, French, Spanish, German).

The British couple have moved up one flight to a slightly bigger room in the embassy, but they have less space since Carl Malin, a 24-year-old third secretary, arrived. He is known as 'the Latin American floater': Minsk had to be designated as a Latin American post so that his urgently needed administrative services could be deployed until a permanent deputy head of mission can be appointed.

Although the relationship with the Germans is good, visitors from headquarters have noticed that the embassy accommodation is ludicrously cramped. But the Germans are expanding, so the future would appear to lie with the Italians.

Suitable accommodation is in very short supply in Minsk, but with the help of the Belarussian government, a building near the Foreign Ministry has been made available; probably some time in 1995, the British will occupy one floor, the Italians two, and they will share a visa section. Though Heather has been looking after consular matters - lost passports, theft, etc - for the British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens who are the embassy's responsibility, British visas still have to be issued in Moscow, Warsaw or Kiev.

Many Belarussians are desperate to migrate to the prosperous West; a market is even developing in mail-order brides, because British men seem to be attracted by the beauty and gentleness of Belarussian women.

Weeding out the economic migrants and corrupt applications will require more resources than the embassy has at present. But Mr Everard is an optimist, much heartened by the high regard in which Britain is held in Belarus.

One-quarter of the country's population was killed during the Second World War, and Britain is revered for having stood alone in Western Europe against the Nazis. What are perceived as distinctively British values, such as decency and fairness, are admired, and Belarussians have a huge appetite for British culture and British (as opposed to American) English, which the hopelessly underfinanced British Council outpost tries vainly to satisfy. Again and again, the embassy is approached for advice on modernisation and the introduction of democratic institutions.

Though commercial prospects are limited in the short term, Belarus is pivotally placed between Eastern Europe and Russia, and it is in the interests of the West to help it to develop into a stable and prosperous independent country.

That the British mission has only two full-time staff - compared with Germany's 21, France's 12 and Italy's eight - is a constant source of surprise in Minsk. Seeing Britain behave like the poor relation suggests to locals that it is either completely on its uppers or has little interest in this part of the world.

The Foreign Office postbag shows that a large section of the British public wants Britain to contribute to making the world a safer place. But the Treasury's departmental salami-slicing ignores the enormous strains on Foreign Office resources. In Minsk, as in Tashkent and Alma Ata, the shoestring mini-missions struggle to achieve even the most urgent tasks. If the cuts continue, more and more of our posts abroad will be run in the same way.

The writer is the author of 'True Brits', based on the series, published by BBC Books, pounds 16.99.