Robert Riley has been the new US Charge a’affaires to Belarus since August.
In an interview with TUT.BY, the diplomat shared his experiences from observing Belarusian parliamentary election, expressed his views on the future of Belarus-US relations and return of ambassadors and spoke about his impressions of Belarus.
How Robert Riley observed the elections
Robert Riley was an observer at the elections to the Belarusian parliament two months ago. He visited three polling stations in Minsk and watched vote counting at one of them. The diplomat says that the voting process was orderly, there were no obvious violations before the polls closed. The heads of election commissions seemed ready to talk.
“But the most important part is the actual counting of the votes. The chairman was trying as hard as he could to be cooperative, he was trying to explain the whole process to me and other observers. We had no problem seeing the ballots as they were but into stacks on the table to prepare them for counting. When we did have that issue in the beginning, I asked if we could approach closer, and he brought us right up to the table. So I appreciated that.”
On the other hand, Riley adds, the members of the commission did not read each ballot out loud and quietly passed the numbers to the secretary or the chairperson.
“I asked if the chairman would call out loud the numbers for each person. But he said that, unfortunately, that was not possible, this was not within the rules. So the count itself was completely non-transparent; we couldn’t verify the numbers.”
Robert Riley notes that other diplomats reported completely different experiences – they were deliberately obstructed the view or put too far away to see the ballots.
After the parliamentary elections, the USA extended the sanctions relief with regard to nine Belarusian companies, partially because two alternative candidates won places in the new Parliament. Is it everything that Belarusian government can expect from the States and can there be other steps and new developments in the bilateral relations?
“It’s clear what our views on the elections are – there were some improvements, problems remain, and we’re urging the government to take that issue up as soon as possible rather than wait until the next elections. And we surely welcome that alternative voices will be represented in the parliament for the first time in twelve years. But it’s still early to say if they’ll be permitted to fully participate, and be allowed to play the full role.”
When will U.S. embassy in Minsk become fully functional?
In 2008 relations between Belarus and the US soured to the point when Minsk demanded that all the American diplomats, except five, leave the country in response to the introduction of sanctions against Belneftekhim, the largest oil producer and exporter in Belarus.
The number of Belarusian diplomats in Washington was reduced to the same number. It was not until recently that the diplomatic staffs began to grow.
At present there are seven U.S. diplomats working in Belarus. The eighth diplomat, Riley hopes, will arrive in spring and will take care of administrative issues. The ninth position has also been approved by the Belarusian side, but it will be filled sometime later.
Robert Riley cautiously reacts to the statement made by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko two months ago when the latter said there was a kind of an agreement to “resolve the issue of ambassadors” after the U.S. presidential elections.
“What I can tell you is that we’ve been discussing it with Belarusians for a long time. Not just getting an ambassador here, but the full normalization of relations. Having an ambassador here would be a fitting end to this process. But I don’t have any more information on timing, because it can be a long process.”
Working in Belarus is a challenge
Before coming to Belarus the American diplomat has not worked in an East European country. So the logical question is whether Mr. Riley had any stereotypes that turned out true or untrue after his arrival.
“Back in my university days I studied international relations and I focused on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I think Americans , like other nations, have a number of stereotypes about others. One of those stereotypes about this part of the world is that people in this region are cold, stern, unfriendly. And I can honestly say that has not been our experience here.
We found Belarusians to be very warm, friendly and helpful people. I’ve had a couple of experiences – similar to ones I can have in my country – when I am in a store, looking for something I can’t find, then I would go up to a worker to ask for it. And in every case I had people hustle around trying to help me; I had people going out of their way to help us visit museum or look for something while we’re walking…”
The diplomat is living in Minsk with his wife and two sons, who are 10 and 12 years old. The children study at an international school.
“It’s the first trip to this region for them and so far they’re having a great time. At school they get to meet kids from everywhere. When they’re not at school, they play computer games, play outside, visit their friends. We live very close to a very nice park area near the National library.”
Robert Riley says the family have enjoyed many outdoor activities in Minsk, and have already visited Mir and Nesvizh castles.
“Belarus reminds me so much of where I grew up, in Michigan. Same birch trees, the same kinds of lakes, the same terrain, all the pine trees.”
Finally, we ask the Charge d’affaires if he chose Belarus himself or if he was assigned.
“I applied specifically for this position. I wasn’t told to come here. This is a very important part of the world right now, and Belarus itself is a very important relationship for us. It’s located in the area where a lot of things are going on, and it’s a challenge for a diplomat.
I also made sure that the country I applied for was a fascinating and a comfortable place for my family to live. And if I had not found all of those things in Belarus, I wouldn’t have asked for this job”, the diplomat smiles.