The last time the United States had an ambassador in Minsk, she was appointed by President George W. Bush. Since Karen Stewart left that post in March 2008, the U.s. diplomatic mission to Belarus has been head by a Chargé d’Affaires. For a little over a year, veteran Foreign Services officer Jenifer Moore has been working in this position, representing the U.S. government and its interests here.
In an interview with TUT.BY she spoke about the expected arrival of a new ambassador, the high cost of American visas, what she expects from Belarusian parliamentary elections, and what she does in addition to her work.
“At best, the ambassador will come to Belarus in spring.
– How did you imagine our country before you came here to work?
– This is a very interesting moment. I recently celebrated 20 years of service in the State Department. I remember that when I came to work—I was just 24 years old—we were given a list of possible assignments abroad. And I wanted to go to Minsk. But it happened that I was sent to Indonesia. And when, after many years, I had the opportunity to work in Minsk as a temporary U.S. attorney, I was very happy. Naturally, as a Cold War child, I considered Minsk a mysterious city, terra incognita.
– Were there any expectations?
– My expectations were not met at all. Americans in general know very little about Belarus, and until recently it received very little attention in the press. It is noteworthy that interest has been growing recently: articles appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Lonely Planet magazine [catering to Western tourists—ed.] included Belarus in the list of the most interesting tourist destinations in 2019.
Not only me, but all the Americans who come to Minsk, come here with their own stereotypes, and, as a rule, they are destroyed in the first 15 minutes of their arrival here. They see a beautiful city, with warm and friendly people. They realize that there are a lot of successful people here.
I think there are few things helping Americans change their ideas about Belarus. First of all, the fact that Americans can come and stay here for 30 days without a visa. Secondly, a growing number of Americans with Belarusian heritage origin are interested in in their roots. We are a country of immigrants, and we are very interested in returning to the places where our grandparents come from.
I have noticed that a large number of subscribers of the Embassy’s Facebook page are Americans of Belarusian origin. Many of them are looking for information about their historical homeland. I personally accompanied two such Americans who visited the towns and villages of their ancestors in Belarus. It was a touching experience.
– You have been in Belarus for a year now. What was the most difficult thing for you during this time?
– It was a wonderful year. Belarus has lifted restrictions on the number of American diplomats in the country. There have been several visits of American officials to Minsk, and we have made progress in our bilateral relations. At the same time, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the country and communicate warmly with people.
Recently, I participated in the opening of the navigation system for the visually impaired, a project implemented by the Center for Human Success with the support of the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Program. The project works in Minsk, Brest, Gomel and Vitebsk. In Minsk, it allows students from the College of Electronics who are visually impaired to move around and study freely.
I was also recently in Brest to celebrate the city’s 1,000th anniversary, where I spoke to U.S. Agency for International Development partners, a woman who set up a hotline for safe employment and stay abroad. I attended the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant in Brest. This was interesting to me for two reasons. First, I saw the common ground in the family traditions of Belarus and the United States. I remember when we were kids, we loved going to McDonald’s after football games or other family events, and I saw the same thing in Brest. And second, each new McDonald’s restaurant is a $2-3 million foreign investment in the city where it opens, and new jobs. Since the opening of its first restaurant in Belarus, McDonald’s has spent about $2 million on charitable purposes. As I like to say, American companies are becoming very good neighbors.
Did you ask me what was the hardest thing for me this year? The first thing that we failed to achieve was to increase the growth of American investments in Belarus. As [former U.S. national security advisor] Mr. [John] Bolton and [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Mr.[David] Hale stated, the sovereignty and independence of Belarus is very important for America. And political independence is always linked to economic independence. And it can be achieved by attracting private investment from abroad.
If we talk about why more American investments do not come to Belarus, the first reason is sanctions. Although they are not directed against private companies, when U.S. companies consider investment opportunities abroad and are aware of the existence of sanctions against Belarus, it often becomes a moral barrier and a factor influencing their decision.
There is also a second reason – the need for equal conditions for all players in the economic market. In Belarus, there is a wonderful example of the Hi-Tech Park, where the government has adopted clear, understandable, transparent rules, which are beneficial for all market participants. And we see growth in this area. But the High Technology Park remains a small island, where the government has taken progressive measures to regulate the economy. There should be more approaches and experiments of this kind, and they should be in other areas of the economy as well.
– You mentioned Mr. Hale, and I would like to return to his visit. During his visit, it became known that Minsk and Washington were re-engaging ambassadors, which we had not had since 2008. Do you have any idea when the ambassador may come and who they may be?
– I am very pleased that Mr. Hale has announced that we will exchange ambassadors. When I started working in Belarus, I told your colleagues that I hope to become the last Chargé d’Affaires in the U.S. affairs and that the ambassador will come to replace me. And today, a year later, I am sure that it will be so.
As for the timing, it all depends on how the bureaucratic machine in Washington works. The White House nominates ambassadors, then they must be approved by Congress. This could happen within a wide range of time. The least is one month. And then, at best, the new ambassador – she or he – will come to Belarus in spring. But this is the most optimistic forecast. Perhaps everything will take longer.
– What exactly do you think may change in the relationship between the U.S. and Belarus after the diplomatic mission is fully operational?
– The most important thing is that our bilateral relations will expand. Due to the fact that we have an incomplete staff– there are only ten Americans in the embassy—I, for example, can’t often travel to other cities of Belarus and we can’t expand our collaboration in other areas. The programs conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Culture, Information and Education of the Embassy are truncated, because there are not enough people to deal with them.
I hope that when the ambassador arrives and the number of employees grows, and I think it will at least double, our capabilities will expand.
“Our bilateral relations do not depend on U.S. relations with Russia.
– What can change in the relationship between Belarus and the United States, given the current process of Belarusian-Russian integration?
– We understand that Belarus has very close political, economic, and historical ties with Russia. As Mr. Hale said, we cannot force Belarus to choose between East and West or break these ties. At the same time, the U.S. is a supporter of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Belarus, as well as all other post-Soviet republics. In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize Belarus’ independence. Our bilateral relations do not depend on the U.S. relations with Russia, or Belarus with Russia.
The current stage in our relations began after the decision of the Belarusian government to release political prisoners in 2015. And we believe that the Belarusian people have the right to choose their own path and destiny. I am happy to see how self-awareness grows among Belarusians, how proud they are that they are Belarusians, how proud they are of their history and their language. As for our bilateral relations, there are still topics to discuss such as border security, human rights, and democracy.
– How do you assess the Kremlin’s policy towards Minsk and do you see any threat to the Belarusian sovereignty?
– I do not see a threat to Belarusian sovereignty, because I have never met a Belarusian who would be ready to give up independence.
– As far as we know, it is planned to expand the U.S. military contingent in Poland. Are you not afraid that after that Russia may somehow put pressure on Belarus to deploy its troops here?
– The increase of the American contingent in Poland is defensive in nature and does not aim to provoke anyone. This is necessary to assure our NATO allies that we adhere to the fifth article of the North Atlantic Treaty. Moreover, the expansion of the military contingent in Poland does not pose any threat to Belarus, and I hope that Russia will not consider it a threat either.
The U.S. welcomes Belarus’ willingness to cooperate on the topic of arms in compliance with the Vienna Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. I hope that the presence at the embassy of a military attaché permanently residing in Minsk will allow for an expanded dialogue between our militaries. This includes cooperation in law enforcement matters. This year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with five Belarusian government agencies, previously signed by the FBI. There is multilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
“I’d like to see more independent votes in the Belarusian parliament.
– Recently, John Bolton, who was a U.S. national security advisor at the time, came to Belarus. Which party initiated this visit?
– The final point of Mr. Bolton’s visit was Warsaw, where he was to take part in the events dedicated to the anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. President Trump was also supposed to participate in these events, but he cancelled the trip because of the natural disaster in the United States. Mr. Bolton wanted to get to know the region better during this trip, and therefore Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were included in the program of the trip.
– Can this American initiative be seen as a response to Moscow’s desire to integrate even more deeply with Minsk?
– No, it is not.
– Will such high-level visits to Belarus continue, and do you know who might come next?
– I think that such visits will continue because there is a high interest in the bilateral U.S.-Belarusian relations. I expect more congress members and trade delegations to come. It is important not to forget about the expansion of contacts between ordinary people – Americans and Belarusians. For example, we have visitors from organizations from Detroit, Michigan, who hosted the participants of the exchange program of the U.S. Agency for International Development. They have very good relations with the Belarusians and wanted to see the country whose citizens were visiting them.
– This year, the Belarusian authorities refused to hold the Day of Will in the center of Minsk. Activists, who came there despite the ban, were detained. I understand correctly that there will be no relaxation in terms of sanctions from the U.S. because of such situations?
– Initially, sanctions were introduced in 2006 under the Belarus Democracy Act. We suspended and mitigated the sanctions in 2015 after the release of political prisoners, and last year, in response to the peaceful and successful celebration of Will’s Day, we extended the suspension of sanctions from six months to twelve.
We have seen some progress in the area of human rights and in the openness of the government to civil society. But, as Mr. Hale said during his visit to Minsk, there are still issues that your government will have to work on under the Belarus Democracy Act, and the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are an opportunity for Belarus to show even greater progress on the problematic issues of the Democracy Act.
We will follow the upcoming elections in November very closely, and if there is progress, we are ready to discuss further easing of sanctions.
Unfortunately, the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] recommendations from previous elections to change the legislation were not taken into account. But even under the current legislation there is a chance to hold the elections honestly and transparently. This also applies to freedom of campaigning and access to the press for all candidates. Of course, at the end of the election we would like to see more independent votes in parliament.
“22,000 applications since the beginning of all visa types in 2018.”
– Since last year, your consular office has issued all types of visas. Although Belarusians have been traveling to Moscow and Warsaw for 10 years before that… How many visas has your consulate issued since last year?
– I consider the expansion of visa services in Minsk to be one of the most important steps in improving our bilateral relations. Since then, we have considered 22,400 visa applications. The absolute majority of them have been approved. I think that when the number of our employees increases, we will be able to accept more applications.
– You say that most applicants get a visa, but what percentage of refusals?
– We do not publish these figures in public.
– What mistakes do Belarusians make most often when filling out the questionnaire?
– I think the main task of applicants is to be open and honest before the consul. It is very easy to start worrying during the visa interview. I felt it myself when I applied for a visa to Brazil for the first time. I was surprised how excited I was, although I had been through many such interviews, although I was on the side of the reviewer. Some people tend to be very excited when talking of thinking during the interview. I encourage everyone to be honest and to talk openly about everything during the interview. This will help to get a visa.
– The visa fee for an American tourist visa is now $160. Is there any hope that American visas will become cheaper?
– Visa fees and visa validity periods are based on the principle of reciprocity. For example, if a country limits the validity of its visa for U.S. citizens to three months, the U.S. will issue visas to citizens of this country for the same period of validity.
$160 is the basic rate for a U.S. tourist visa fee. It is established by law and cannot be lower. [The annual Belarusian visa fee for Americans is $70 if the documents are processed within five working days, and $140 if the documents are processed within one or two working days. – Note: TUT.BY].
“My working day lasts much longer than expected. But it’s for love.
– Could you tell us about the family you grew up with?
– My father served in the U.S. Air Force, which is why I lived in Italy and West Germany as a child. From my father, I had a passion for moving and adventure. Curiosity is a feature of my mother’s character. She was an art teacher. My hometown is Atlanta, Georgia, where I went to kindergarten and school and studied international relations at university.
My parents came to visit me in all the countries I worked in, except Iraq. And two weeks ago, during Mr. Hale’s visit, they came to Minsk and loved it here. I took them to see GUM first, which is not known for its level of service, and they said, “This is not the Belarus you told us about.” But after we went for a walk in the parks and talked to people, their impression changed.
My aunt’s husband’s family is from Pinsk. They will come this spring, and I will go there with them, because I want to be there when they experience their family history.
– Are you the only child in the family?
– No, I have a sister. She is 11 years younger than me. We are very different. I like to travel the world, it’s hard for me to stay in the same place for a long time, and my sister, who has two beautiful children, has long been based in Brooklyn, New York, and doesn’t want to go anywhere.
– Georgia, where you come from, invented the Coca-Cola. Does its taste in Belarus differ from American?
– I studied in Atlanta, and one of the main attractions of this city is the Coca-Cola museum. The museum has a hall where you can try Coca-Cola from different countries. When we were poor students, we sat there for hours.
I will not distinguish the Belarusian Coca-Cola from the American one. Coca-Cola is the same company in America and Belarus. I studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and we said it was in the shadow of Coca-Cola’s headquarters. Literally, the shadow from the headquarters fell on the territory of the university. Many buildings in Atlanta are named after the founder, Ernest Woodruff. My campus dormitory is named after him.
For any daughter or son of Atlanta, there are some very important things: Coca-Cola, Gone with the Wind, and Delta Air Lines. And Delta Air Lines is the only one of these things that is not yet in Belarus.
– There is an opinion about the Americans that they are workaholics. Do you consider yourself a workaholic?
– I think the Americans are enthusiasts. They are passionate about their work, and, perhaps, it looks like workaholism. As far as I am concerned, my working day is much longer than it should be, but so are my colleagues’. But it happens because we love our work, we are interested in it, and now we are at a very interesting stage of the U.S.-Belarusian relations. And this is exactly what makes us work even harder. But it’s all for love.
– What do you do here in your spare time?
– I’m a little introverted, and that’s why I like to walk around the city and watch people. I go to museums, like the National Art Museum, and I like the fact that there are examples of traditional and contemporary art. But I would like to have more free time for this.
It may sound strange that I say that I like to watch people, but we diplomats spend a lot of time talking to people, so watching them is like watching TV for someone.
– What would you note in Belarus as a result of such observations?
– Sincerity and warmth.
– And what makes you happy?
– The feeling that I am doing what matters, that there are new opportunities, adventures and travels ahead.