Minsk and Washington are negotiating the mutual expansion of the diplomatic presence.
Why is Belarus opening up to the USA and what implications will it have?
Decade-long cap off
According to Foreign Policy magazine, Minsk lifts a long-standing cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country.
MFA head Vladimir Makei reportedly called U.S. Assistant State Secretary Wess Mitchell to inform him about the decision on 10 January.
Belarusian MFA has confirmed they had a number of calls with Washington lately. Improving relations, including the issue of diplomatic presence, was discussed, MFA spokesman said.
The cap on the U.S. diplomats in Minsk dates back to 2008 when Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador retaliating for the sanctions Washington had imposed for poor human rights record and untransparent elections. Minsk withdrew its ambassador and staff accordingly.
Between 2008 and 2018 the quota was gradually expanded from 5 to 10 diplomats as relations between the USA and Belarus got unfrozen. The embassies in Minsk and Washington are still headed by charge d’affaires.
The normal size of a U.S. embassy in a country like Belarus is about 30 diplomats plus local staff.
Why go so quick now?
Belarus’ lifting the cap on U.S. diplomats is not a spontaneous move.
By now, Minsk and Washington have been discussing the resumption of normal diplomatic presence for at least a couple of years. This is a part of a larger rapprochement between Belarus and the West that started in 2015 with the release of political prisoners by Belarus and sanctions’ relief by the States.
In October 2018, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko met with Wess Mitchell in Minsk. They are said to have agreed to return the ambassadors back to both capitals during that encounter.
To enable the ambassador’s work, one has to allow him or her to bring the necessary number of assistants. That is why the proper way to do it is to let the whole pre-2008 number of diplomats in.
However, the timing of the decision is not accidental. The day Makei reportedly called Mitchell was the day Lukashenko yet again instructed his aides to diversify foreign policy and trade to balance out the worsening relations with Russia.
The current conflict between Minsk and Moscow has a new quality to it. For the first time since the early 2000s, Russia predicated its further economic assistance to Belarus on the “advanced integration” of the two states – something that Lukashenko clearly read as a veiled threat to Belarusian sovereignty.
Hence, Belarus’ outreach to the West got a new boost.
“This is the beginning of a thaw,” one U.S. official told Foreign Policy. Washington will most likely agree to restore its full diplomatic relations with Minsk.
However, unlike Belarusian bureaucracy, where such decisions can be implemented almost instantaneously, on the American side it will take time.
One has to politically approve the decision to select a person to become an ambassador, get Belarusian formal agreement to receive him or her, recruit or reassign diplomats from other places to serve in Minsk.
Experts believe in the best case scenario the ambassadors will arrive by the end of 2019, more likely – in 2020.
When the U.S. embassy is able to work at its full capacity, it will definitely issue more visas to Belarusians and potentially even to Russians. It will make sense since visa services to the citizens of Russia were cut to the minimum when the U.S. State Department dramatically reduced the number of its diplomats in Russia after a new round of conflict between the two countries a year ago.
Besides that, the U.S. embassy in Minsk will be far better equipped to work with Belarusian state, business, and civil society.
Naturally, it will take time for this work to bear palpable fruits.
Moscow will definitely make a note of this development – the Russian ally is effectively unfreezing ties with its staunchest geopolitical foe. However, it will only be a contributing factor to Kremlin’s growing dissatisfaction with Minsk.
The magnitude of other, more urgent Belarus-Russia disagreements (mostly economic ones) clearly overshadows the looming diplomatic thaw between Minsk and Washington.
Featured image: DVIDS photo by Joe Kane / Navy Visual News Service