News from Belarus reported that the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Minsk has suspended visa operations temporarily. The Consular Service Notice was posted on its website: “The U.S. Government is in the process of reviewing the request made by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 17 that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk reduce its staffing. Therefore, visa processing has been temporarily suspended while our resources are engaged addressing other priorities. Some visa appointments have been postponed. Further information will be provided once the extent of the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide visa services in Belarus has been determined. Services for American Citizens continue as usual.” That’s plain and clear enough. But the suspension of visa services had sparked a comment from Mikalai Charhinets, a senior member of the Belarusian National Assembly (and chairman of the upper chamber’s Committee on International Affairs and National Security) who asked, “What priorities can be in the country of stay except for establishing and development of relations by means of visa support in travelling of citizens?” And told Interfax that “The staff of the Belarusian Embassy in Washington does not brief the local opposition or take part in anti-government actions by US citizens whereas they (US embassy officers – Interfax)] exceed the limits of accepted international rules on staying in a country. This means they have too many officials who have nothing to do here.” Obviously, Mr. Charhinets has a gap in his knowledge about how an embassy operates; too many officials with nothing to do? Dear me! The guy does not know what he is talking about; most of our folks never get home before 6 pm – whether in London or Abuja. We’d be lucky if diplomat Mom or diplomat Dad gets home in time for an occasional early dinner.
In any case, I supposed he could be forgiven for a minor ignorance like that. I do not know Mr. Charhinet from Adam but I presume that as a senior member of the Parliament, he was competent enough to be elected (and re-elected) and to sit in the upper chamber’s committee. But he must have missed International Relations 101 – “the role of a diplomatic mission is to protect in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law; negotiating with the Government of the receiving State as directed by the sending State; ascertaining by lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State; promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.”
Diplomats talk to everyone, whether politicians in power or local oppositions – that’s a fact of diplomatic work to help them ascertain local conditions and development, so unless talking has been declared a crime in old Belarus … Mr. Charhinet, by the way, was also in world news last year for filing a 600-million-ruble libel suit against the private newspaper Novy Chas over a story that was run under the headline ‘Senator General Charhinets.’ Reports states that “Mr. Charhinets considers as libel the journalist Aliaksandr Tamkovich’s remarks that he had been appointed the chairman of the ‘pro-governmental’ union of writers, the Union of Writers of Belarus, and that the seat on the Soviet of the Republic meant not only a good wage but also foreign trips to him.” Good gracious! I can’t imagine that this conception about freedom of expression and movement steams from total ignorance; could it be that the old Soviet view is hard to outgrow?
As to the question on priorities – how could anyone seriously think that visa processing is a priority when the folks who are processing visas could be asked to pack up and go shortly (the staff reduction demand did not indicate which staff to kick out, apparently)? The reduction of any diplomatic presence involves negotiation, for sure, but above all, it involves real people with real lives. The thing though is, diplomats like ordinary people have a tendency of collecting possessions, having spouses, having children and pets, and so on and so forth. Our families pitch tents and move homes every 2-4 years. Would it be too much to ask then that when an official demand for our removal is in place, that packing our household would take top priority over the host nationals’ travel plans? To our friends at AmEmbassy Minsk, take care and good luck!
In the November 2007 issue of Fast Company, Jonathan Green wrote “Nightmare in Boomtown,” an article that I think should be part of the reading fare for Americans intending to do business abroad. This piece is about Mark Siedenfeld, a married rabbi who originally went to Russia in 1991, became a telecom executive drawn to the post-Soviet boom, had a business partner murdered in broad daylight in Moscow, then went through a 19-month trudge through the post-Soviet justice system, including 11 months in a Siberian prison, and an extradition to Kazakhstan (where he was eventually declared not guilty for charges of embezzlement).
This is a cautionary tale, for sure. But there is also the misconception about the U.S. Government’s influence when something like this happens abroad. The article mentioned that Siedenfeld’s supporters (unnamed in the article) “had been stunned by the apparent reluctance of U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway to help an American citizen in distress. The ambassador had met with the Kazakh general prosecutor, but nothing had come of it. Beyond that, he sent Seidenfeld a few magazines and some energy bars in prison.” In another part of the article, it says “As the months passed after his arrest, Siedenfeld came to the creeping realization that he’d been hung out to dry. The State Department had done next to nothing to get him sprung, despite pleas for help to the consulate.”
The notion that the U.S. Government by virtue of its power and influence can “sprung” anybody from a foreign jail is quite absurd.Let’s put this simply – let’s say we have a Kazakh national languishing in a Detroit jail for embezzlement (or it could be any other national, or any other crime, take your pick). How would you feel, if the Kazakh Ambassador to the U.S. demands that our Attorney General sprung this individual from our jail? Can you imagine the uproar that would make? From experience, more than a few of our nationals do expect American Ambassadors or American Consuls to spring them out of jail. Not only that, some Americans also expect that the U.S. Marines would come to extract them when they get into trouble overseas. Would you expect Kazakhtan’s military to send in their Marines to extract their Kazakh national from our jail? Absolutely not!
A note on the energy bars – U.S. Embassies normally do not have regular funds for something like energy bars for incarcerated Americans. There is, however, something called the Emergency Medical/Dietary Assistance (EMDA) under Public Law 95-45, which authorized the Department of State to provide, on a reimbursable basis when possible, medical and/or dietary assistance to U.S. citizens/nationals incarcerated abroad when private sources for this assistance are not otherwise available. You can read more about EMDA here.
I must add here that I have seen consular officers bring dinners to incarcerated Americans during Thanksgiving. I have seen Foreign Service spouses who have cook meals for Americans in jails, and they’re not even employed by the U.S. Government! We have Consular Sections with collection tubs for hotel give-aways like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoos, etc. Our diplomats who frequently traveled are gently asked to bring back hotel give-aways so these can be distributed to Americans in jail or those in distress.Why? Uhm — because our Embassies do not have money to pay for these basic necessities, and most foreign jails barely have money to feed their prisoners, much less provide these necessities. In any case, it is possible that Mr. Siedenberg’s energy bars were bought with EMDA funds, or were funded from contributions from American businesses operating in the area (I am speculating here) but it is also a good possibility that they came out of Ambassador Ordway or some nameless Consul’s personal funds.
Here’s the lowdown — if you intend to do business abroad, be sure to conduct due diligence before diving head on and have a risk mitigation plan in place. Yeah, yeah, yeah, these can be a hassle but these hassles are minor compared to the prospect of navigating the justice system overseas, if you tumble. Take to heart what the State Department says about your American rights … “The rights an American enjoys in this country (the United States of America) do not travel abroad. Each country is sovereign and its laws apply to everyone who enters regardless of nationality. The U.S. government cannot get Americans released from foreign jails. However, a U.S. consul will insist on prompt access to an arrested American, provide a list of attorneys, and provide information on the host country’s legal system, offer to contact the arrested American’s family or friends, visit on a regular basis, protest mistreatment, monitor jail conditions, provide dietary supplements, if needed, and keep the State Department informed. You can read more here.
In short, your rights as an American citizen are non-portable; you cannot take them with you. When push comes to shove, you can proclaim, “I am an American,” as loudly as you can but – when you are overseas, you are fully subject to the laws of your host country and at the mercy of a foreign justice system that may have little or no resemblance to our own.