From Belarus to California: Vodka for Governor, books for children

How Lukashenka’s envoys introduce themselves and what they say to politicians in the United States

Several years ago, official representatives of Minsk began to regularly visit California in order to build up social, political, trade and economic ties. Slavic Sacramento briefly reported on this in 2016 and 2017 (Read our articles “Belarus is establishing cooperation with California” and “Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to the United States Pavel Shidlousky visited Sacramento”). Today, when the official regime of the Republic of Belarus opposes democracy and human rights, which puts Belarus on a par with such dictatorial countries as Venezuela, North Korea and Somalia, it’s time to revise the relationship between the United States and this Eastern European country.

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But first, let us share with you a picture of international relations and some details of the official meetings that have taken place here in California over the past few years.

In 2017, I was witnessing the official visit of the Charge d’Affaires, a.i. of Belarus in the U.S. Pavel Shidlovsky to the capital of California – Sacramento. It should be said that this Belarusian diplomat had been heading the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Washington, DC for several years.

The official representative of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was speaking to the audience gathered in the premises of one of the city’s Slavic Christian churches – “Light of the Gospel”, where he was talking about the Belarusian economy, international relations and answered several “burning questions.” Here I should say that the Church “Light of the Gospel” has a significant number of religious refugees from Belarus.

According to the diplomat, Belarus was in a difficult situation, but it was trying to do everything possible to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The head of the embassy mentioned the “Minsk Protocol” (The Protocol on the results of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group, or commonly known as the Minsk Protocol, is an agreement to halt the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, signed by representatives of that country, the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on 5 September 2014. It was signed after extensive talks in Minsk, Belarus.) and also told the audience that Belarus was an exceptionally peaceful country.

“Recently, Belarus increasingly sounds like a country influencing the maintenance of peace in our region. It is a peaceful country, which is ready to live with all the people and nations in peace and friendship. Our country is known for contributing to the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine,” said Pavel Shidlovsky.

Speaking about the relationship with NATO, the head of the Belarusian mission said: “We are not standing on the other side of the barricades with the North Atlantic Alliance… Although NATO is approaching our borders, we cannot say that this is the border of militancy, mistrust… We are ready to cooperate with the European Union, with all the countries that surround us, the United States is here not an exception”.

According to Mr. Shidlovsky, “Belarus is gradually building up relations with the United States”.

“These relations are improving, the level of mutual trust is improving, the dialogue is improving at the highest level, including the Department of State and the US Congress. More and more, the United States understands that Belarus does not keep a stone in its bosom and does not wish anyone any harm… ”, said the diplomat.

Religion and human rights

At a meeting with representatives of the local community, Shidlovsky revealed the purpose of his visits to California and other American states, which he visited “several times” according to the instructions of the Belarusian government. And the goals of the Belarusian government in the US were quite simple and prosaic – building up bridges with the local government, entrepreneurs and politicians. In particular, in California, the representative of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry visited the office of the Governor Jerry Brown (that time he was on this post), the mayors’s offices of two cities, Sacramento and Rancho Cordova. More on that later.

 First, the Belarusian community in California will be interested to know how Belarusian officials represented the human rights situation in the Republic of Belarus and what they said about the government’s actions, especially considering the situation after fraudulent elections in August 2020 and brutal suppression of protests. 

When asked by representatives of the community about the relationship between the state and religion in Belarus, Shidlovsky assured that “the state does not infringe upon the church in our country”, and that “the state and the church are acting separately”.

“Our state policy is not connected with the church. At the same time, the state is cooperating equally well with the Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, and other churches,” Shidlovsky claimed. “The state will not interfere with the church’s programs that help girls understand the abortion situation.”

It was extremely hilarious to listen to the speech of Minsk official representative, being in one of the most Belarusian churches of Sacramento, because, apparently, it was sounding in dissonance with the real situation in the homeland of many religious immigrants who had fled to the United States from the persecution of Alexander Lukashenka’s regime. At that time, we also heard a lot about the open persecution of some Protestant churches in Belarus – for example, the situation with the New Life church in Minsk.

Economy and culture

It’s well known that the Belarusian economy depends on the import/export of goods, and the United States (as of 2017) was in 8th place in the import of Belarusian goods and services worth over 225 million dollars a year. Belarusian IT companies supplying high-tech services to the United States hold a special place. In 2017, the Belarusians were ordering cars, medical devices, medicines, vaccines, etc. from America, and the Americans were buying IT products, potash and nitrogen fertilizers, woodworking products, confectionery and metal products from Belarus – totaling about 570 million dollars. 

In California, in particular, the presence of Belarusian products is not very noticeable or visible though, except perhaps Spartak candies on the shelves of Russian stores and applications of Belarusian IT specialists in the AppStore.

The visit of Shidlovskiy was somehow beneficial for the students of the Community Outreach Academy charter school in Sacramento, they were presented with a set of Belarusian textbooks and national costumes.

Politics

During the visits to official places in 2017, the delegation from Belarus also came to the Rancho Cordova City Hall, where during the official part it was decided to make Rancho Cordova a twin-city of the Belarusian city of Grodno. I believe here we should ask if people in Grodno know about this and what this formal twinning gave to both cities? Mutual trade and economic partnership was being also discussed in the offices of the Californian officials, as well as in the office of the then governor Jerry Brown, whose representative was solemnly presented with “Biełaviežskij Balsam”, alcohol beverage, reflecting name of the famous primeval forest on its label – Belarus is famous by it’s Biełaviežskaja pušča, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain, it straddles the border between Belarus and Poland.

It was so obvious that the staff of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Washington, DC, received a strict “Batska’s” (Alexander Lukashenko is referred to as “Batska”, “father”, by his supporters) order to urgently and rapidly develop relations with the United States. What was achieved – the Belarusian side received some interest and assurances of support from the Sacramento County supervisor Sue Frost, as well as from Ted Gaines, a California State Senator, representing the 1st Senate district from 2011 to 2019, member of the California Board of Equalization for the 1st district. 

The trip of the head of the Belarusian Embassy to the capital of California was supposed to precede the high-level meetings between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus and Californian officials, which were not destined to happen. The general impression of these meetings between Shidlovsky and  the state representatives was ambiguous – it seemed like I sincerely wanted to help my native country build friendly bridges with California, however, there was always a certain sediment associated with the undeniable toxicity of the odious personality of Alexander Lukashenko…

And what about the cooperation with the administration of Gavin Newsom, the current Governor of California who headed the state in 2018? We don’t possess information, confirming official visits of the Belarusian government representatives, or that alcohol and towels were presented.

Regarding the official position of the US in relation to what has been happening in Belarus, it’s worth recalling that in December last year, President Donald Trump signed the Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act, which expands the President’s authority to impose sanctions related to Belarus to include activities surrounding the disputed 2020 Belarusian presidential election and subsequent government crackdown. The bill also expands authorized assistance to Belarus. The bill also expands authorized assistance related to Belarus to include assistance to counter internet censorship and surveillance technology, support the work of women advocating for freedom and human rights, and support political refugees fleeing the crackdown in Belarus.

Also, the San Francisco City Council adopted a resolution condemning Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime, expressing solidarity with the Belarusian community in the region.

Meanwhile, at the building of the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Belarus in Sacramento (yes, such organization exists in the capital of the state, but just a few people know about it, as well as about its activities), a picket of the Belarusians was held, who reminded of the unfair and unfree elections in August 2020, demanded ending of repressions, freeing of political prisoners and respecting human rights. By far, as we know, the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Belarus in California has not yet condemned the actions of the tyrannical regime of Lukashenka.

And here a logical question is raising: what, apart from sending children’s books and trips to the Capitol with Belarusian alcoholic souvenirs and towels, is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus doing in California? And why is the Belarusian community used only when the authoritarian regime of Minsk needs it?

Ruslan Gurzhiy, SlavicSac.com