KYIV, Ukraine -- Belarus on Wednesday rescinded its permission for the U.S. ambassador's appointment and told the U.S. to cut its embassy staff in retaliation for Washington’s sanctions.
President Joe Biden's administration slapped Belarus with new sanctions Monday, the anniversary of last year's election in Belarus that was denounced by the opposition as rigged. Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko responded to protests against his re-election to a sixth term with a sweeping crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
The new U.S. sanctions target Belarus' giant potash producer that has been a top revenue earner for the country, the Belarusian National Olympic Committee and 15 private companies with ties to Belarusian authorities.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz on Wednesday denounced the U.S. action as “blatant and openly hostile” and announced the decision to rescind an earlier agreement for the appointment of Julie Fisher as the U.S. ambassador to the country.
He said Belarus also told the U.S. to cut its embassy staff in Minsk to five diplomats until Sept. 1.
“In view of Washington's actions to halt cooperation in all spheres and strangle our country economically we see no reason in the presence of a significant number of diplomats at the U.S. diplomatic mission,” Glaz said in a statement.
While Belarus agreed to Fisher's appointment in December as the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since 2008, it never issued her an entry visa. Fisher has remained in neighboring Lithuania where she maintains contacts with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the Aug. 9, 2020, election who was forced to leave Belarus under pressure from authorities.
Commenting on Belarus' moves, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “Belarussian authorities are responsible for the deterioration in U.S.-Belarus relations through relentless repression against their citizens,” noting they have targeted civic groups, media, athletes, students, legal professions and others.
“The United States government, Ambassador Fisher, personnel at our embassy in Minsk will continue to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," Price said. "U.S. diplomats will continue to engage with Belarusians, including leaders of the pro-democracy movement, media professionals, students and other elements of civil society wherever they are.”
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.