Friday, March 27, 2009

Saying goodbye to friends

As mentioned here, we had been told to reduce American staff at the embassy. We waited while the powers that be compiled a list of who would be allowed to stay, and who would be leaving. It turned out that my husband and I were safe, for now, but we had to say goodbye to half of our American friends. It was awful. We had made some wonderful friends and we were 'supposed' to have an additional 2 1/2 years to make memories with them, to go on embassy outings, to have each other over for dinner. This all seemed so unfair, but it was out of my control, and so on March 27, 2008, we said goodbye.

U.S. trims embassy staff in Belarus
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is cutting the size of its embassy staff in Belarus amid a diplomatic dispute with that country's government, the U.S. State Department said Monday.

"The United States will, with great regret, reduce the number of American staff at our embassy in Minsk by almost half, at the insistence of the Government of Belarus," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.

The State Department did not announce the number of cuts, but Andrei Popov, press secretary of the Belarussian Foreign Ministry, said staffing at the U.S. Embassy would be equal with the Belarussian embassy in Washington, which has 18 diplomats, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

"Visa processing in Belarus is temporarily suspended," McCormack said.

Relations between the United States and Belarus have been tempestuous for the last decade, but they deteriorated quickly over the last month.

On March 7, Belarus recalled its ambassador to the United States and suggested the U.S. ambassador to Belarus leave that country. Belarus acted to protest U.S. sanctions against Belarussian oil monopoly Belneftekhim.

On March 12, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart returned to Washington.

Then, on March 17, the Belorussian Foreign Ministry gave an "urgent recommendation" to Jonathan Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, that the United States reduce the size of its embassy staff.

"The unfortunate actions by the Belarus authorities demonstrate that Belarus has taken a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform," McCormack said.

"We would like a different relationship with Belarus, but that can only happen when the government of Belarus shows commitment to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Washington has been pushing for the release of Alexander Kozulin, the runner-up in the 2006 presidential election in Belarus. He received a five-year prison term for leading demonstrations against election results that international observers said were flawed.

The sanctions against Belneftekhim were meant to pressure Minsk to release Kozulin, as well as several other political prisoners.

The United States has long been critical of the iron-fisted rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, lending its support to the opposition and barring entry into the United States to members of the Belarussian government. He took office in 1995 and quickly consolidated power.

In 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus the last "outpost of tyranny" in Europe. A year earlier, the U.S. Congress approved American assistance for democratic political parties, non-governmental organizations and media and barred all non-humanitarian aid to the government.

It was also around this time that I was told to prepare the house to be packed "just as a precaution". I finally had the house decorated and put together the way I wanted it, and now I had to have it packed up again? Were they serious? Yes, yes they were. Unfortunately for our friends who had just left, there hadn't been enough time for them to organize and prepare for their move, so telling us to "get ready" was viewed as a favor. It certainly didn't feel like a favor at the time, though looking back, I know it was.

For international moves our stuff is generally put into one of three categories. There are weight limits for HHE and UAB so you learn very quickly what is and isn't a necessity.

HHE- household effects (the majority of your things which you don't usually see again until you've been in your new city for 1-3 months)
UAB- unaccompanied air baggage (some clothing, pillows, bedding, that with any luck, are waiting for you when you arrive in your new city)
luggage- the things you fly with (clothing, toiletries, laptop, important paperwork)

I'm in no way a novice when it comes to international moves, but how do you prepare when you don't know where you are going, when you are going, or even if you are going? I was about to find out.

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