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….
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