KYIV – Belarus has forced the shutdown of public diplomacy offices at the US Embassy and USAID amid tensions with the US and its allies over the repression of protests by Belarusian authorities.
Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said on Friday that Belarusian authorities aimed “to seriously disrupt US development assistance and public diplomacy in Belarus by forcing the closure of facilities that house major U.S. government operations and terminating the employment of all local USAID personnel and State Department public diplomacy personnel.
She added that this decision, which is effective on November 20, demonstrates the “insensitive disregard of the authorities for the interests of the Belarusian people”.
US envoy to Belarus Julie Fisher described the Belarusian authorities’ decision as a reflection of their “deep insecurities about the role of diplomacy, people-to-people relationships and independent civil society.”
She added that the United States “will not be deterred from its commitment to help advance democracy and human rights in Belarus and to support the aspirations of the Belarusian people to build a brighter future in a free Belarus. and independent ”.
The Ambassador noted that US government development assistance USAID in Belarus since the 1990s has supported entrepreneurship and the expansion of private small and medium-sized enterprises. More recently, it provided key relief from COVID-19 as Belarusian authorities scorned the pandemic.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the contested presidential election in August 2020, was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure. She expressed her gratitude to the public diplomacy offices of the United States Embassy and USAID on Friday.
“They will return to the new Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter. “I ask them to continue working for Belarusians – we see and appreciate this constant support.”
Belarusian relations with the United States and the European Union became increasingly strained after the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was given a sixth term in the August 2020 vote on the opposition and the West dismissed it as rigged. The election fueled massive protests, to which authorities responded with a fierce crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Lukashenko’s government has acted methodically to quell any remaining resistance, shutting down NGOs and independent media and arresting activists and journalists.
Viktor Babariko, the former head of a Russian-owned bank who aspired to challenge Lukashenko in the 2020 vote, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July on money laundering charges which he dismissed as being politically motivated.
Babariko’s last lawyer, Yauhen Pylchanka, was stripped of his license on Friday due to alleged violations of the law during the trial. Pylchanka said the move was led by the country’s top state security agency, which still goes by the name of the Soviet-era KGB.
“The Belarusian KGB initiated my expulsion from the college of lawyers under the fictitious pretext of violating professional ethics,” Pylchanka told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Babariko found himself without a lawyer and without any communication with the outside world, deprived of the possibility of properly defending himself. “
Also on Friday, the Belarusian Interior Ministry banned popular messaging app channels NEXTA, NEXTA-Live and LUXTA as extremists and blocked German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Current Time TV channel.
PA diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.
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