In Response to Sanctions, Belarus Seeks to Oust U.S. Envoy

Ambassador Karen Stewart is to
Ambassador Karen Stewart is to "remain in Minsk" for now. (Sergei Grits - AP)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008

MOSCOW, March 7 -- Belarus said Friday that the U.S. ambassador should leave the country, a response to sanctions that the United States has imposed on the former Soviet republic because of the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.

"Belarus emphatically recommends that U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart leave our country," the Belarusan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site Friday. Belarus recalled its own ambassador from Washington.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that Stewart was not being immediately withdrawn from the Belarusan capital. "She is in Minsk, and she'll remain in Minsk while we continue to review," he said. "It's important, we think, to have our embassy there in Minsk and to have high-level diplomatic representation there to engage with the Belarusian government on a number of concerns."

Belarus's moves were prompted by sanctions imposed last year on the state oil company, Belneftekhim, which the United States charges is personally controlled by Lukashenko. In November, the Treasury Department froze the company's U.S. assets and barred Americans from doing business with it.

After those actions, Lukashenko said that if there were any more sanctions, Stewart would be expelled.

The Reuters news agency quoted a source close to the Belarus government as saying that Friday's action followed a U.S. note on the November sanctions that "allowed for a broad interpretation of a list of firms linked to Belneftekhim. The Belarusan side viewed that as additional sanctions."

It was unclear Friday evening when Stewart would leave the country of almost 10 million, which is sandwiched between Russia and Poland. The Belarusan Foreign Ministry said Friday that the latest steps are only two of several "tough moves" that Belarus plans, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

After flawed presidential elections in March 2006, the United States and the European Union barred Lukashenko and about 30 other Belarusan officials from their territories. The travel ban was widened last year to include directors and deputy directors of state-owned enterprises.

The 2006 vote was followed by a violent crackdown on people who protested Lukashenko's ostensibly huge victory. Some leading opposition figures, including presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, were imprisoned.

After his relations with Moscow deteriorated last year over increases in the price of Russian energy, Lukashenko attempted to rebuild ties with the West by releasing a number of activists. But the United States said that Kozulin would have to be released before relations could be normalized.

Kozulin, who is serving a 5 1/2 -year sentence after being convicted of hooliganism and inciting mass disorder, was briefly released last month to attend his wife's funeral but was immediately returned to prison afterward.

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