Defiant Belarus Snubs U.S. Ambassador
As relations between the West and Belarus crash, the U.S. envoy is barred from entering the country.
In February 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a historic visit to Belarus on a mission to normalize ties with the authoritarian country as a means of blunting Russia and China’s influence in Eastern Europe.
The visit, the first by the United States’ top diplomat in more than 25 years, signaled a significant thaw in relations over a decade after Aleksandr Lukashenko kicked out the U.S. ambassador in 2008 after Washington slapped further sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses. “I think we can, if everything proceeds apace, have an ambassador here before too terribly long. I think it’d be a great thing for us,” Pompeo said.
A little over a year later—and after a rigged presidential election, a brutal crackdown on mass protests, and a brazen airline hijacking—those carefully laid plans for a rapprochement appear to be going up in smoke. Moreover, the highly anticipated milestone of sending an ambassador to Minsk has hit a major snag: Belarus won’t even allow her into the country.
The move presents the U.S. envoy to Belarus, career diplomat Julie Fisher, with a unique and increasingly challenging job: managing an embassy she is not allowed to step foot in and overseeing relations with a country that has barred her from entry.
The diplomatic slight also underscores how far U.S. relations with Russia’s last key partner in Europe have fallen in the past year, as Washington and its Western allies reacted with shock and anger to Lukashenko’s massive crackdown on political dissent. It is the latest sign Washington’s yearslong campaign to re-normalize relations with Belarus, accelerated under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, has run aground, and a defiant Lukashenko is doubling down on alienating the West to retain his grip on power.
After agreeing in late 2019 to exchange envoys with Belarus for the first time in over a decade, the Trump administration tapped Fisher, who previously served as charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to be ambassador to Minsk.
Fisher’s nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate in December 2020, but she has been unable to take up her post in the Belarusian capital because Belarus has refused to issue her a visa, U.S. and European diplomats familiar with the matter confirmed to Foreign Policy. She has spent recent months in Europe, meeting opposition leaders and civil society activists who have fled the country during its crackdown on dissent.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email that Fisher will “support the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus.”
“A vital part of the process of getting the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus to Minsk is the issuance of a visa by the Belarusian authorities. Ambassador Fisher is still waiting for a visa, which is disappointing,” the spokesperson wrote.
The State Department spokesperson added Fisher will “engage with Belarusians outside of Belarus, including the leaders of the pro-democracy movement, media professionals, students, and other members of civil society to express our support.”
In April, Deputy Lithuanian Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas said Lithuania, which neighbors Belarus and is home to a sizable diaspora, received a formal request from the United States to accredit Fisher to enable her to carry out her ambassadorial duties from its capital, Vilnius.
The United States has halted sending ambassadors to some autocratic countries it has either downgraded diplomatic relations with or removed its diplomatic presence entirely—such as Syria or Eritrea. There are U.S. ambassadors that execute their responsibilities from neighboring countries amid conflict and instability, such as the U.S. Embassy to Libya, based in neighboring Tunisia, or the U.S. Embassy to Yemen, based in Saudi Arabia. But it is exceedingly rare for a government to refuse to accredit a U.S. ambassador—let alone when there is already a U.S. embassy in the capital.
Igor Leshchenya, former Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, said he suspected authorities would only allow Fisher to enter Belarus on the condition she presents her diplomatic credentials to Lukashenko, thereby conferring legitimacy to his status as president. The United States, like the EU, has refused to recognize the results of August’s election.
Leschenya, who became the most senior Belarusian official to resign in protest of the violent suppression of demonstrations last year, noted that after previous elections marred by allegations of irregularities, the government used it as “propaganda” when foreign diplomats presented their credentials to Lukashenko. “We stated that handing over credentials is an obvious sign of the recognition of authority,” Leschenya said, who previously served as a foreign-policy advisor to Lukashenko.
The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
For even the most skilled diplomat, conducting an ambassador’s work from abroad is extraordinarily difficult, said Scott Rauland, a former career foreign service officer who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Belarus (at a level below ambassador) from 2014 to 2016.
Still, he said it was important to have an ambassador for Belarus, even if Fisher was forced to work from abroad. “Engagement is vital,” Rauland said.
“From my experience, Belarusian opposition parties really look to the U.S. and Europe both for leadership, so I think it means a lot to have an ambassador fully engaged,” he added. “I just hope conditions change so she is allowed eventually to actually go and step foot in the embassy in Minsk and start to do her job there.”
Kenneth Yalowitz, a scholar at the Wilson Center, said even if Fisher had been allowed to take up her post in Minsk, she would have limited room to maneuver.
“Knowing how Lukashenko operates, it would have made her life miserable. She wouldn’t have seen anybody. She would have been followed, harassed,” Yalowitz said, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the mid-1990s as Lukashenko was consolidating his grip on power. Despite being frozen out of diplomatic engagements with the embattled Lukashenko government, her support for democracy in the country will still resonate from abroad, he said.
“Belarus is not completely cut off,” he said. “Her interviews, her talks, I’m sure all of that is being picked up in Belarus, so it’s not as if she’s not going to be without a platform to support values.”
As part of the earlier thaw between Belarus and the United States, Minsk lifted a long-standing cap that previously limited the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to serve in the country to five in 2019, a move hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough.
Despite his economic dependence on Russia, Lukashenko has long been skilled at exploiting his country’s strategic location on the borders of both Russia and the European Union to play Moscow and the West off each other to his own political benefit. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 raised the stakes of his calculus and promoted Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, to try and make good with the West. In 2015, he freed the country’s last remaining political prisoners, prompting Europe and the United States to lift most sanctions on the regime.
The Trump administration continued the thaw in the hopes that new diplomatic olive branches could start Lukashenko toward shedding Belarus’s reliance on Russia and, increasingly, China for economic and political support. Pompeo, as well as John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, visited Minsk and met with top Belarusian officials in the latter half of the Trump administration as part of their efforts to normalize relations with Minsk.
Those efforts were brought to a screeching halt last August, as Belarusian authorities violently cracked down on protesters who took to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest vote rigging in the presidential election. More than 35,000 people have been arrested since protests began, and more than 400 political prisoners are currently behind bars. Earlier this year, the United States imposed visa bans on numerous senior Belarusian officials implicated in the crackdown as well as nine state-owned companies.
Yalowitz said he was not surprised by Lukashenko’s latest crackdown. “When push comes to shove, that’s when his true colors come to show,” he said, but he added that he did not consider earlier efforts to pursue a thaw in relations to be a mistake, given the geopolitical interests at play in Belarus.
“When you see a possibility of a diplomatic opening, you really have to go for it,” he said.
Last week, Belarus notified the United States it was imposing new restrictions on diplomatic and technical staff working at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, which are set to come into effect on Sunday. “Unfortunately, the Belarusian authorities have brought our relationship to this point through relentless and intensifying repression against their citizens,” said U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price during a press briefing on June 3.
Responding to comments by Price that Fisher would continue to support the democratic aspirations of Belarusians, the press secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Anatoly Glaz, said, “Julie Fisher is personally free to support any legitimate aspirations of any citizens, even in Greenland or the North Pole, because officially she has nothing to do with Belarus yet,” noting she had not yet been accredited by the country.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack