Thursday, August 25, 2011

Minsk 2000, Part One

Chapter 12.2

Minsk 2000

At the request of S/NIS, EUR broke my assignment to the Kosovo Implementation Office so that I could help fill some of the many senior staffing gaps that were opening up at our posts in the former Soviet Union. My first assignment in this new role was Minsk. During the course of my three-month TDY, I acted as Chargé, Deputy Chief of Mission, AID Director, and Public Affairs Officer for extended periods due to significant staffing gaps at the top four positions at post. This was an extremely busy period for the Embassy. Only two weeks after arrival, I conducted round the clock negotiations with the Foreign Ministry to obtain the safe passage of defector Oleg Baturin out of Belarus to the West. After becoming Chargé, I led the initial stages of our successful diplomatic campaign to convince our European friends and allies not to observe or recognize the fraudulent National Assembly elections organized by Belarusian President Lukashenko. We at Embassy Minsk also took the lead in supporting local human rights and political activists with Democracy Grants, and in keeping the plight of human rights activists and the families of the disappeared before the international public.

A Modest Proposal.
I had become increasingly unhappy in S/SA as it became apparent that, in the wake of the successful conclusion of the Kosovo conflict, the numerous offices involved in our Kosovo policy were clearly redundant and constantly warring for turf. My own office, EUR/KI (Office of Kosovo Implementation) theoretically had under its purview the reconstruction and reformation of Kosovo, as well as the support of our Mission in Priština, but in reality, all of the most interesting issues were taken by my former boss, Jim Pardew, when he moved up to become one of Jim Dobbins' deputies, and there was little left for us to do but to compete with our neighboring geographic office, EUR/SCE (which had its own Kosovo Desk) for the scraps. It was Foggy Bottom at its worst, with everyone scrabbling around for insignificant pieces of turf, and nothing much getting done as a result. I wanted out.

My opportunity came unexpectedly. S/NIS had for years been suffering severe problems in its efforts to staff its posts in the New Independent States. On average, about 25 percent of positions in the new Embassies and Consulates were vacant at any given time, and it was even getting difficult to recruit for Moscow, an almost unheard-of situation in the early 1990's when we often had 40 or 50 bidders for the more sought-after positions. This was the new personnel reality: no one wanted to serve in the former Soviet Union. Life in the NIS was full of hardships, and, with the end of the Cold War, a posting in the former Soviet space had lost its career-enhancing cachet. This phenomenon was compounded by the fact that during the Clinton years, the “wiser” heads in upper management had failed to recruit sufficient numbers of Junior Officers, while showing entirely too many Senior Officers the door. The result was an acute personnel shortage. Ever more liberal bidding rules enabled those officers remaining to avoid hardship posts, and the result was that many posts around the world were very poorly staffed, including those in the NIS.

It was getting so bad that even Deputy and Chief of Mission positions were sometimes vacant for months at a time. This was where I came in. As a person who had decades of experience in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and also had no family, I was tailor-made for the position of “utility infielder,” the kind of person who could be sent in to fill senior gaps at a moment's notice, and to stay only as long as was necessary, before moving on to the next post. In early 2000, I had discussed this idea informally with Ross Wilson and Steve Sestanovich, and they began talks with Jim Dobbins about the possibility of moving me over to S/NIS.

In May of 2000, the time was finally right. Most posts were still suffering serious gaps, but a real problem was emerging for one post in particular: Embassy Minsk. Dan Speckhard was leaving in August, and his successor as Ambassador, Mike Kozak, was having trouble getting confirmed (nothing against Mike -- it was just a byproduct of the glacial pace of the confirmation process in the Senate under Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms). In addition, Embassy Minsk's DCM, Randy LeCocq, was leaving in July for a well-deserved retirement, taking with him his wife, Sheri Sprigg, who was the Embassy's Administrative Officer. At the same time, Diana Moxhay, the PAO and the person who would normally take charge, was also scheduled to depart for Vienna with no replacement in sight, and the head of the USAID Mission had yet to be named. In sum, the entire senior leadership of the post would be gone for at least two months during the summer, and possibly much longer.

This was not to the Department's liking. Relations with the increasingly repressive regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko were steadily deteriorating, and it was clearly desirable that someone experienced should be on hand in case some new crisis arose. In addition, Lukashenko was putting the final touches on his power by holding National Assembly elections that October. The elections were likely to be observed by OSCE, but strong American participation was also desirable in order to chronicle the expected violations of election procedures. I was the logical choice to fill the gap. Accordingly, at the end of the month, my old friend Mary Warlick, who at the time was the head of the Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus Office (UMB), drafted a memo for Dan Fried's signature (Dan was acting head of S/NIS) asking Jim Dobbins to release me from my EUR/KI assignment for special duty in Minsk. The request was phrased as temporary, but the understanding was that in all probability, I would be detached permanently from S/SA and my position would be “swapped” for a vacant one in S/NIS.  This is indeed what happened a few months later. The request was quickly approved by Jim Dobbins, and, much to my relief, I was bundled off to Minsk in early July.

Preparing for Minsk.
Truth be told, I really didn't know that much about Belarus, even though my familiarity with the Soviet style of government, which is what Belarus had descended to, was fairly deep. For me, Belarus was another one of those places “out in the boonies” that was best avoided. I can remember when my good friend George Krol went out as DCM to Minsk in 1993. I felt a little sorry for him. George was a well-respected Soviet Hand, who had served honorably in Leningrad, and had faced some danger during the riots in Vilnius in 1991. Now he was going out to a sleepy provincial capital, where little had happened since the Belovezha Accords, and where the politics, while democratic, were boring. Hearing that the restaurants in Minsk were even worse than usual for that part of the world, I gave George a last sumptuous lunch at Les Champs in the Watergate and bid him good luck and farewell. George, of course, loved his tour of duty there, and went on to serve under Jim Collins as Political Counselor in Moscow and eventually returned to Minsk as Ambassador from 2003 until 2005. I could not have been more wrong about his prospects, and I could not have been more glad of the error.

Thus fortified with the idea that Minsk might not be so bad after all, and certain that any fate in S/NIS would be better than what awaited me in S/SA, I buckled down and studied all that I could in preparation for my brief TDY. I talked a good bit with Mary Warlick and John Armstrong, the Belarus Desk Officer of that era, and they graciously let me rummage through their files to get up to speed on the present goings-on in Minsk. John was particularly helpful. Something of a right-wing zealot, John fit the neocon mold of promoting democratic revolution at the earliest opportunity. He despised the Lukashenko regime, and felt that, if anything, we had not punished that regime quite enough for its misdeeds, which included serious breaches of human rights, the falsification of elections, the harassment of Lukashenko's political opponents and the mysterious disappearance of more than a few of them. John was all for pumping up our democracy programs in Minsk, primarily as a means of providing financial support to dissident elements there, and was supported strongly in this view by Senate staffers, particularly those who worked for Jesse Helms, as well as Helsinki Commission staff. I was not so sanguine about our chances to effect realistic change in Belarus, but I kept my counsel and read and studied as much as I could. Soon, almost before I knew it, it was time to leave for Minsk.

Arrival in Minsk.
I had been doing pretty well in the stock market, and so decided to spring for a business class ticket to Minsk, a phenomenon met with incredulity by the Transportation types in the State Department Travel Office, who were more used to people trying to wheedle them out of a business ticket based on dubious medical excuses. The trip was uneventful, and I landed in Minsk on a beautiful, warm July day.

It was my very first time in Minsk, and, based on what I had heard, I was prepared for the worst, but I noted immediately that the airport, at least, was a pleasant surprise. Vast and monumental, it seemed to dwarf the few passengers who used it. It was an emblem of Lukashenko’s grandiose ambitions for his country, ambitions that inevitably came into collision with the grim reality that there were very few people who actually wanted to visit Belarus and even fewer who wanted to do business there.

The only “business transactions” that I did note were the wide-eyed Americans getting off the plane with me who were met by their Internet brides and escorted to a white stretch limousine. The marriage trade was alive and well in Belarus, where there were plenty of young women desperate to get out of the country, and plenty of “entrepreneurs” ready to help them meet the right American. I later mentioned the scene at the airport, and one of my Embassy colleagues noted that it was a common occurrence. “Belarusian girls are the most beautiful on earth,” he said, adding the caveat that “they would live forever if they didn’t drink and smoke themselves to death.”

I was met at the airport by Randy LeCocq. As the outgoing DCM, Randy was very glad to see me. He was on the verge of retirement, having served honorably as an old Soviet hand for many years, and he was ready to move on. Randy had been the first Consul General in Vladivostok, when we returned to that Mission in 1992 after a 44-year absence, and I later found that he was still much admired there. He was certainly just as popular among the rank and file at Embassy Minsk, and nearly everyone was sorry to see him leave.

Randy drove me into town along deserted highways that reminded me of Moscow in the late 1970s. Minsk had a bleak Brezhnevian look about it, and was filled with “communist kitsch” buildings, many of which had been built by German POWs during the years after the war. The city had a curiously peaceful air about it, with orderly, uncrowded streets, clean open spaces, and massive apartment blocks. Monuments to Lenin, Dzerzhinskiy and other communist heroes, long retired in other parts of the former Soviet Union, stood proudly in their traditional places, and, in a bow to the new era, Lukashenko was busily constructing his own personality cult, with the help of an adoring rural population that valued him as the guarantor of their social and economic security. The Lukashenko cult even extended to sports, where he ruled supreme. I had heard from another of my old friends, John Boris, who preceded Randy as DCM, that President Lukashenko, ever the sports fanatic, would often roller-blade to work. On these occasions, the streets from Drozdy to the Presidential Administration were blocked off for his skating pleasure. Lukashenko also liked to play ice hockey, and, not surprisingly, his side always won.

I also found out another thing about Minsk: there was hardly a decent restaurant in sight. There were several Soviet-standard hotels, such as the Planeta, but their menus reminded me of the lengthy tomes that used to be offered to us in Moscow, with prices beside the few items that were actually available. The one alleged pizzeria in town served fare that barely deserved the name, and the other more pretentious restaurants plied their trade with offerings that could best be described as “mystery meat.” As Randy soon showed me, there was really only one decent place to eat -- the local McDonald’s. For once, I relaxed my self-imposed ban on fast food and joined Randy in the drive-thru for a Big Mac and fries. It was a matter of survival.

Randy settled me into my two-bedroom apartment, which was located about a block from the U.S. Embassy compound, across a vacant lot. Out the back window of my apartment, I could see the Svislach River, which wound through the center of town, and the “Island of Tears,” where a monument had been erected to the 771 Belarusian soldiers who had died in the Afghan War. It was quiet and peaceful there, just like the rest of Minsk.

I had arrived on July 3, which by a curious twist of fate was Belarus Independence Day, the day Minsk was liberated from the Nazis. Randy and I attended an outdoor reception and I spent the afternoon meeting many of my diplomatic colleagues for the first time. That evening, the city was lit up with fireworks, a traditional Soviet spectacle. As I fell into a dreamless sleep, I felt, in many ways, as if I had stepped into a time machine and gone “back to the USSR.” I was content.

The Embassy.
I was also pleasantly surprised by my first look around the Embassy. Located at 46 Starovilenskaya Street, right next to the Russians and just down the street from the brand new Ukrainian Embassy, the American Embassy consisted of a multi-acre compound surrounded by a plaster wall and centered on a three-story colonial-style chancery that looked a little out of place amid all the more traditional Soviet architecture. Behind the chancery was a row of administrative offices of more modern design, with the Consulate General in one corner. About a hundred Belarusians worked as guards or administrative and consular staff, and the American staff, although severely depleted, nonetheless numbered over a dozen.

Randy introduced me to the staff, and they all seemed pretty glad to see me. I was particularly impressed with Frank Fulgham, a WAE employee who was in Minsk temporarily to act as Administrative Counselor until Sheri Sprigg’s replacement arrived. Frank’s GSO, a young Junior Officer by the name of Jeff Reneau was also very impressive. I was relieved to find that even though I was to assume several Embassy functions, at least in Administrative terms everything was in good hands. Frank also assured me that the Belarusian staff was well-qualified and that there were no major problems that he had encountered thus far in the running of the Embassy.

Going upstairs to the second floor of the chancery, I met with the RSO, the DATT and dropped in to say hello to Dan Speckhard, whom I had known for years. I also met my Pol/Econ “section,” which at this point had shrunk to one Junior Officer, Chris Robinson. Like John Armstrong, Chris was a bit of a true believer, but he was also a very hard worker, and had all the contacts necessary to perform his reporting responsibilities. I immediately liked Chris, and knew instinctively that we would get on well together.

The following day I was introduced to the rest of the Embassy staff at the Fourth of July reception, which was held outdoors in the backyard of the compound. Several hundred diplomats, Belarusian officials and local contacts also attended what proved to be an extremely enjoyable, and long, afternoon gathering. I also got to hear Belarusian spoken for the first, and just about the only time during my tenure in Minsk when Dan’s interpreter read out his July 4 greeting to all our guests. I noted that nearly everyone, if they did not speak English, spoke Russian by preference. By the end of my second day, I was relieved to find that the Embassy was in good hands, and that everyone was prepared to do his or her duty in what was becoming an increasingly difficult assignment.

Dan Speckhard.
The Ambassador to Belarus was Dan Speckhard. Born in 1959 and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Dan was a career bureaucrat, having served mostly in the Office of Management and Budget, and then AID, before taking a job in the State Department in 1990 as an adviser to the Deputy Secretary on foreign aid questions. He joined S/NIS in 1993, and worked there for four years in the front office on a wide assortment of issues. I had known Dan since my years in ISCA, and we had become good friends. When he was chosen in 1997 to replace Ken Yalowitz as Ambassador to Belarus, most of us who knew him were happy for him, but thought that he had gotten the job less for his foreign policy acumen than for his skill at backroom bureaucratic maneuver. As time went on, however, Dan proved to be a very resourceful and effective representative, doing everything he could to advance U.S. interests.

Dan’s tour in Belarus was rocky, to say the least. Relations with the Lukashenko regime started off poorly, and rapidly got worse. U.S. support for the beleaguered democratic movement in Belarus meant that any Ambassador would have had a difficult, perhaps impossible task in keeping relations on an even keel with an ever more despotic regime. This problem was compounded by Dan’s active and public promotion of democracy programs during his tenure in Belarus, a stand that found favor with conservatives in the Senate and to a certain extent with the Washington foreign policy bureaucracy, but which of course did nothing to endear him to the powers that be in Minsk. The Lukashenko regime, realizing that Dan’s active support was invigorating the democratic opposition, constantly schemed to find a pretext to get rid of him, but for the first year of his tour Dan skillfully avoided handing them any excuse for drastic action.

Matters came to a head in 1998 over, of all things, VIP housing. When Belarus became independent in 1991, there was very little suitable housing for Ambassadors, and as a result, many of them had been offered properties in the former VIP housing complex located at Drozdy. Many Belarus government officials also lived in the same area, and in fact, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador was located very near the Presidential residence. This had been fine with the authorities when Belarus was a democracy, but following the rise of Lukashenko to power in 1994, it became increasingly clear that the new Belarusian leader was looking for an excuse to get the foreigners out of the choice housing in Drozdy and to bring in his own cronies.

In April of 1998, operating under the flimsy pretext that “emergency” repairs were needed to the sewer lines, the Lukashenko regime demanded that all foreign diplomats “temporarily” leave Drozdy. When Dan and others refused, a campaign of harassment began, which included denial of vehicular access, intrusions into the territory of the residences, and, in one strange episode, an abortive attempt to weld shut the gates to the American Ambassador’s residence. In the end, Dan and his EU colleagues left Belarus in protest in June-July, 1998, and sanctions were slapped on the Lukashenko regime. Dan and many of his EU colleagues were in effect “Ambassadors in exile” for over a year before the issue was settled. Dan returned to Minsk in September of 1999 to find that his new Ambassadorial residence in Raubichi, while large, modern and on a lake, was a 45-minute drive from the center of town. Lukashenko, in a snit over the Drozdy fallout, had decreed that the U.S. Ambassador would not be allowed to reside within the city limits, and so Dan was stuck with a long commute every day.

Dan soldiered on for the remaining ten months of his tour, but as relations with the Belarusian authorities were in the deep freeze, he was unable to accomplish very much. Shortly after I arrived, it became plain to me that Dan and his wife, Anne, were very much looking forward to their new assignment at NATO, where he was to be a senior advisor to the Secretary General, and where the living would be considerably more easy.  Dan and I worked together very closely during his last month in Minsk, and we faced a number of serious challenges, including a harrowing 72 hours in which we narrowly averted yet another foreign policy disaster during the Baturin affair. When Dan and Anne left post on August 5, we parted as firm friends.

Dan went on to have a very successful career under the Bush Administration. After doing a creditable job at NATO, he served as DCM in Baghdad during the worst years of the insurgency, and then was appointed as Ambassador to Greece in November, 2007.

Oleg Baturin.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Minsk and had begun to settle into my job, our first crisis struck. I was informed one morning after coming into work that we had an asylum seeker in the USIS building. In those days, USIS had its own office in a separate part of town, with no security, which meant that if the authorities ever got wind of the fact that we had an asylum seeker, they could, if they wished, extract him from the building with little or no difficulty. After conferring hurriedly with Dan, I drove over to USIS along with a couple of colleagues to check out the situation and to interview our asylum seeker.

During the interview, I heard a very strange story indeed. The would-be asylum seeker was Oleg Baturin, a militia captain who had fled to Poland after denouncing the Lukashenko regime for inciting violence against opposition demonstrators. As of July 16, Baturin had reportedly been in Poland, but had disappeared. Baturin himself told us that he had been kidnapped by the Belarus KGB and forced on a train to Kiev. Under close supervision at all times, and apparently fearful that his family might be under threat, Baturin rode with his captors to Moscow, and from there to Belarus, a roundabout journey that took three days. On the outskirts of Minsk, he gave his captors the slip and jumped off the train, eventually winding up at the USIS building. He now sought refuge with us.

My instincts told me that there was something very wrong with his story, and it smelled like a provocation. However, I could not simply go on instinct in this case. If Baturin was telling the truth, he probably faced execution at the hands of the authorities, and if it ever got out that the U.S. had blithely turned him over to the BKGB because they doubted his story, it would place a permanent black mark against us, and me personally, and poison our relationship with what was left of the dissident community in Belarus. If on the other hand, we played along, and did everything we could to get him back out of the country, we would come up winners, whether or not he was telling the truth.

As I turned over the problem in my mind, I also thought back to other examples of asylum seekers: the Vashchenkos in Moscow, Cardinal Mindszenty in Budapest, Soviet soldier Aleksandr Kruglov in Kabul (with whom poor Bob Ober had to deal), and many others. The key lesson that I had learned from these and other cases was that if the matter wasn’t resolved in 72 hours or less, bad things could happen -- the chief bad thing being a lengthy stay in some part of the Embassy by the asylum seeker, a phenomenon that often put a permanent crimp in Embassy operations.

I got on the secure phone with Mary Warlick, and outlined our dilemma to her. She agreed completely with my thinking, and said she would go to bat for me with the S/NIS front office. Dan let me call the shots, since I had more experience dealing with asylum/defector cases, dating from my days in SOV/Bilat. Over the next couple of days, neither Dan nor I got much sleep and we both found ourselves on the secure phone around the clock relaying the latest developments to the Department. Mary, for her part, gave us magnificent support.

Dan and I decided that the first thing we needed to do was to get Baturin to the Chancery for his own safety. This was a risk, since he might wind up staying there permanently, but we saw no other way to deal with the situation, and it would also force talks with the Minsk authorities, once we notified OSCE of our situation. Accordingly, at 1:00 a.m. the next morning, we bundled ourselves into the Ambassador’s limousine, and, flags flying, drove quickly over to the USIS facility. The Belarusian authorities knew that something was up by then, and had the USIS office under observation, but we got in and got Baturin back to the Embassy without incident. Three of us went into the building, and three came out, but the officer who accompanied us exchanged clothes with Baturin, who exited with us and took our officer’s place in the car. The authorities were fooled long enough for us to get back to the Embassy. Dan joked nervously about all the cloak-and-dagger stuff, but it was clear that he was also enjoying himself. We set up Baturin in the basement cafeteria, much to the consternation of our local employees, who arrived that morning to find that their favorite spot for taking breakfast and unauthorized smoking breaks had been appropriated by an interloper. It was left to me to explain to the staff, both American and Belarusian, as much as they needed to know about what had transpired.

With the morning began marathon negotiations, first with the USA Desk, then with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov. At the end of each session, I would go back to the Embassy, report on the latest proposals to Dan and the Department by secure phone, get our guidance (usually consisting of “do what you think best”), and then return to the MFA for the next round of talks. Negotiations culminated in a three-hour session that lasted until four a.m. the next morning, with Dan and me sitting across the table from Martynov and Foreign Minister Ural Latypov. Negotiations at the final session proceeded swiftly, because, according to my sources, Lukashenko wanted to wrap things up before the Baturin issue began to interfere with his campaign to improve Belarus’ image in the run-up the National Assembly elections. The only obstacle to an otherwise smooth negotiating session was, unfortunately, Dan, who picked that moment to try out his own negotiating style, which was to be unaccountably intransigent. Dan later told me that he was just being difficult as a negotiating ploy, but I failed to see the utility of the effort, as it was clear that the Belarusians had already decided among themselves to resolve the issue provided some face-saving solution could be found. I kept reminding Dan under my breath about the Vashchenkos, and, in the end, we managed to wrap things up.

The Belarusians eventually agreed to let Baturin return to Poland, but only if he read a statement to be broadcast on Minsk TV in which he said that he had not been kidnapped and that the Belarusian authorities had had nothing to do with his arrival in Minsk. In return, Dan would be allowed to escort Baturin to the border in his limousine, with the Belarusian authorities’ agreement that they would not interfere. We haggled over the wording of the short statement, but in the end found agreement. I went back to the Embassy and briefed Baturin, who consented to do the statement. After that, all that remained was to set up the videotaping session, and to get everyone on board with the plan. Our Embassy in Warsaw agreed to send representatives to meet us at the border, and Dan was ready to leave direct from the Embassy with Baturin, once the Belarusian authorities had given the go-ahead. The next day, I was on my poor overused cell phone virtually continuously, ensuring that all parties understood the situation and that nothing fell through the cracks. There was no need for secure phones now, since everyone appeared to be working toward the same objective.

Nonetheless, not everything went smoothly. As the evening wore on, I noted that a large contingent of “brown shirt” types was gathering in front of the main Embassy gate. They belonged to Viktor Sheiman, Lukashenko's national security adviser, and the person suspected of involvement in the disappearances of Zakharenko, Gonchar, Krasovskiy, Zavadskiy and many other regime opponents. I had a few anxious moments when I considered just how little the rule of law and diplomatic immunity might mean to these thugs.

On July 21, Baturin’s statement was broadcast on the nightly news, and the next morning Dan and Baturin departed for the border. We waited for an anxious few hours until we got the word from Dan that Baturin was once again safe in Poland. The next day, Baturin disavowed his TV statement, asserting that he had indeed been kidnapped. The Belarusians were not surprised, of course, since they expected Baturin to do this, and it was a key point I used with him in convincing him to do the statement in the first place. A few days later, Baturin received refugee status, and, within a relatively short time, moved to the United States, thereafter fading into obscurity.

I was pleased. No further damage had been done to U.S.-Belarus relations, Baturin had gained his freedom, and the Embassy had not been saddled with a permanent resident. All was well, except for one thing: I still didn’t know if Baturin had been telling the truth, or was simply a provocateur. To this day, I still don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter. In diplomacy, the truth is often sacrificed to expediency, especially when one is working in the service of a higher national interest. That’s something I can live with.

End Part One.

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