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Watchdog: Accountability

US embassy in Belarus plagued by inadequate staffing, unsafe offices

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Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,State Department,Inspectors General,Waste and Fraud,Accountability,Ethan Barton

Poor relations with the government of Belarus have led to understaffing and structural issues, among other serious problems, at the U.S. embassy in Minsk, the State Department’s inspector general said.

Belarus, formerly part of the Soviet Union, became increasingly authoritarian after the 1994 election of current president Alexander Lukashenko, which has led to deteriorated relations with the United States.

“To visit Embassy Minsk is to step back in time to an era when American diplomats in Eastern Europe operated in inhospitable environments,” the IG report said. “Embassy staff members are subject to regular harassment by the Belarusian security services.”

In 2008, the U.S. ambassador was recalled, and 30 diplomats were expelled. As a result, only five remain at the U.S. embassy at the Belarusian capital.

While there are 119 local staff — an inadequate ratio, according to the IG — the limited number of U.S. employees has created a number of problems, with three employees performing “at least double duty.”

The understaffing has made it almost impossible for Belarusians to get a visa interview in Minsk, causing more than 12,000 applicants to travel to a nearby post in other countries.

Also in 2008, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations condemned the chancery because of structural concerns. The staff was forced to evacuate and work from annexes.

A $34 million structural rehabilitation project had to be suspended because of the Belarusian government’s staffing cap.

The public affairs section works in an annex 15 minutes away from the embassy, and has been given a March 2014 deadline by Belarus to vacate their current offices, despite a legal agreement that grants the right to renew the lease until 2032.

However, the move may be in the staff’s best interest.

“The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and the State Department team that reviewed alternate lease options was horrified by the condition of the public affairs office and recommended that employees vacate the building,” the report said.

Only one lease option met requirements, but would cost three times the current agreement every year.

The embassy also does not have classified communications, as staff assume they are monitored by Belarusian government security services.

Despite inadequate offices, the understaffing, and regular harassment, the report indicates overall positive morale and efficiency at the embassy.

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