May-June 2018 Articles




Permanent Representative of Belarus at the United Nations in New York is a child of the Soviet Union and a diplomatic product of its break-up. Although he was born in the once “closed” Siberian city of Tomsk – home to major universities, critical industrial plants and secret nuclear facilities - in the depths of the Cold War, Rybakov’s family moved to the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) when he was a young child. He was raised in the Soviet educational system and studied the history, culture and arts of Imperial Russia and its successor state, the Soviet Union.

“I ended up in Belarus when I was less than 2-years old,” Rybakov explains. “I grew up in Belarus. I graduated from high school in Belarus. I graduated from a linguistic university [Minsk State Pedagogical Institute for Foreign Languages] in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. I am an ethnic Russian, but I am a citizen of Belarus."

Byelorussia, along with Ukrainian SSR, the Transcaucasian SSR and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, was one of the founding members of the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet system, though made up of constituent republics, did not encourage regional identities and often actively discouraged the preservation of non-Russian cultural heritage. Following policies earlier adopted by Imperial Russia, Russification began at an early age by making Russian the language of instruction throughout the expansive Soviet Union.

As Ambassador Rybakov notes, “Belarus and Russia were one country for decades, even centuries. We did not know any borders within the former Soviet Union. You could be in the same classroom with people, and you would not have any idea what their nationality, their ethnicity was. You would not know whether they were Russians or Belarussians or Ukrainians or people from the Baltic countries. It did not matter.”

Trained as a translator for both English and French, Rybakov began his international career as an English interpreter assigned to the Soviet Embassy in New Delhi, India. At the time, a decade before Belarus became a sovereign state, he had not even a dream of becoming a diplomat. “I was 21 when I came to New Delhi as head of the interpreters section,” he recalls. “I would never even have thought about the possibility of a diplomatic career.”

“Let me be absolutely frank,” Ambassador Rybakov offers, “if we had continued to live in the same country – the Soviet Union – I would probably never, ever have become a part of the diplomatic system. The diplomatic service in the Soviet Union was a very closely guarded institution. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to get into that service.”

Just as Byelorussia was part of the founding of the Soviet Union, so too, Belarus, following its formal declarations of sovereignty and independence, was a key player in the negotiations to determine the future of the rapidly disintegrating USSR.  These negotiations between the Russian SSR, the Byelorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR in December 1991 resulted in the so-called Belvezha Accords dissolving the Soviet Union and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Later that month most of the other former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states, would also approve the creation of the CIS. Subsequently, each of these newly sovereign states would accede to the United Nations Charter and initiate their own diplomatic representation in New York.

“When I was in my first posting in Washington, D.C.,” Rybakov recounts, “I was very often asked: ‘How did you feel when you realized that the Soviet Union was breaking apart?’ I would always reverse the question: ‘How would you feel if you woke up one fine morning and you discover that the United States has broken up into fifty independent countries? And, you are living in one of those newly independent states?’”

“That was precisely the situation in which Belarus found itself,” the Ambassador remembers. “It was necessary to build all of our new country’s institutions from scratch.  That meant expanding our Foreign Service and opening new embassies.  No longer would Belarus simply follow the foreign policy set by Soviet mentors. Now the government of our newly sovereign nation-state would need to analyze international events, interpret their meaning and shape its own policy initiatives.”

In those moments, Ambassador Rybakov’s unimaginable career as a diplomat became a reality. “My entire life changed when I joined my country’s Foreign Service in 1993. At the time,” he reflects, “Belarus had virtually no experts in international affairs. The expanding Foreign Ministry was looking for people with the necessary qualifications, one of which was the ability to speak foreign languages. It was my language skills that opened the door to my diplomatic career.”

That diplomatic career began with an initial posting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk. Ironically, however, Ambassador Rybakov’s most formal diplomatic training was in an intensive course for fledgling diplomats, many of them from the former Soviet bloc, offered at the Foreign Service Institute of the United States State Department. He takes considerable delight in that. “I’m always proud to say,” Rybakov notes with a smile, “that my only formal diplomatic training was in the United States.”

Throughout his career, Ambassador Rybakov has been assigned repeatedly to his country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., where he has served as Third Secretary, First Secretary, Counsellor and Minister-Counsellor.  He was also previously posted as Counsellor to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus at the United Nations in New York. Assignments at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belarus have included heading the Department for International Security and Arms Control, heading the Department of American Affairs, and serving as Ambassador-at-large. From 2006 – 2013 Rybakov served as Assistant to the President of the Republic of Belarus. Immediately prior to being named as Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Rybakov served as his country’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

We are grateful that Ambassador Rybakov was able to make time in his demanding schedule to speak at length with Diplomatic Connections not only about the work of the United Nations but also about the unique diplomatic space in which Belarus finds itself culturally, historically, economically and geopolitically – literally at the center of the European continent between East and West and yet with deep and abiding ties to Russia.

Diplomatic Connections: Despite the fact that present day Belarus is a very young country, it was nevertheless as a Soviet republic, one of the original signers of the United Nations. How did that happen?

Ambassador Rybakov: When the United Nations was created the Soviet Union, Belarus and Ukraine occupied three separate seats in the United Nations. That meant that Belarus was one of the founding members of the United Nations.
Some say that this was due to the talent or the diplomatic persistence of Stalin, who managed to push through this idea of three places at the United Nations for Soviet Republics. There may be some truth to that, but the more reasonable explanation is that the Russian FSR, Belarus and Ukraine were the three entities that suffered the most in World War II. Officially, we lost more than 30% of our population to the war. We lost large amounts of territory. The entire country was occupied by the Germans, and it was liberated only in 1944. Everything was destroyed – no industry and no agriculture.

Diplomatic Connections: Of all of the former Soviet Republics, it seems that Belarus has maintained the closest relationship to Russia. Why is that? What makes the relationship with Russia so key to the political and economic life of Belarus?  One obvious answer is geography. But there must be more to it than that.

Ambassador Rybakov: Certainly history and geography are major parts of Belarus’ continuing relationship with Russia. On the political level, the economic level and the humanitarian level Belarus maintains a very special relationship with the Russian Federation. This is something that, hopefully, will never be destroyed.

Belarus was always known as the assembly shop of the Soviet Union. We received components from all over the Soviet Union, and the finished products would be assembled in Belarus. Integrated into the Soviet economy, our nation had a very well developed industrial base and highly productive agriculture. We have not only managed to preserve everything that we had in the Soviet Union, but we have pushed it to a more advanced level.

Diplomatic Connections: Belarus, understandably, has its very close relationship with Russia, yet at the same time Belarus, as an independent country, has also begun to look in the other direction, to look toward Western Europe. What are the goals for the efforts Belarus is making to look West as well as East?

Ambassador Rybakov: This is a common misunderstanding. It is not that Belarus has all of a sudden started looking West. This observation is always made with the implication that we are having some confrontation with the East, so we begin to look West. That is absolutely not the case. The foreign policy and the economic policy of Belarus can be described briefly by one word – diversification.

Belarus realizes that we are deeply integrated into the economy of the Russian Federation. For instance, we are practically 100% dependent on oil and gas supplies from Russia. We get oil from other countries, but long distance energy transport becomes expensive. For that reason, we will definitely continue this very close economic cooperation with the Russian Federation.

But, at the same time, Belarus seeks to diversify its foreign trade such that we would have one-third with the Russian Federation, one-third with our neighbors and the European Union, and one-third with countries in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. It is not our intention to be dependent on just one country, even if we have excellent relations with that country.

Diplomatic Connections: Belarus has repeatedly been the target of economic sanctions based on alleged human rights violations, international security concerns and financial issues. But, Belarus has also been offered selective relief from those sanctions. What has been the impact of trade sanctions on the economy?

Ambassador Rybakov: Belarus has always tried to have normal relationships with all countries, especially with our neighbors. It has sometimes been difficult to maintain a normal relationship with the European countries because of the policy of economic intimidation, political and economic sanctions, which was imposed by the United States and by the European countries on the Republic of Belarus.

We have sometimes been seen as complicit in the acts of others. Any sanctions, whether political or economic sanctions, represent a political weapon. Full stop. This issue has been over politicized.

More recently events in neighboring countries very close to us have led the United States and the European Union to look at Belarus in a different way.  Sanctions have been completely withdrawn, cancelled or suspended at least.

Diplomatic Connections: Given your position that economic sanctions have been wrongly applied to your country, how do you believe the United Nations should approach questions of human rights violations or violations of international security agreements?

Ambassador Rybakov: There is a special mechanism under the United Nations Human Rights Council structure called “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR). Under this procedure each UN member state’s human rights record is reviewed and scrutinized by the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The last time we underwent that review, in 2015, I was the head of the Belarussian delegation as Deputy Foreign Minister. We heard many questions and received many recommendations. We accepted some of the recommendations, not all; nevertheless, all the questions have been responded to in due course. This is the process. This is the place and the mechanism that should be used to deal with human rights issues.

Diplomatic Connections:  How does Belarus’ experience with economic sanctions impact your country’s foreign policy?

Ambassador Rybakov:  We want to be able to normalize our relations with the rest of the world, especially our European neighbors, to the maximum extent possible.  There is one principle which President Lukashenko has publicly stated many times: Belarus never makes friends with somebody against somebody.

As a position of principle, Belarus always votes against any country specific resolution, here in the United Nations and in other multinational institutions.   We feel that these are the issues that should be resolved either between conflicting parties within a country or between conflicting countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Belarus is a landlocked country. How does that geographic reality impact your country’s economic development?

Ambassador Rybakov:  I have always insisted that we have to call ourselves “land-linked” rather than landlocked. Of course, being landlocked gives you additional headaches and additional problems, but at the same time, it makes you work even more actively to develop your economic relationships with neighboring countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Belarus has actually been quite successful as a landlocked country in terms of economic growth and development. What lessons might Belarus have to share with other landlocked economies?

Ambassador Rybakov:  Provided that a country produces or manufactures products that can be exported, then it becomes possible to use the territory of your country to become a transportation and logistical hub for the surrounding area. Belarus is now, for instance, very actively involved with China because they are developing a New Silk Road that will provide an overland route between China and Europe. Basically our goal is to have as many transportation routes as possible going through Belarus. We are using this opportunity wisely in order to strengthen our country’s economic position.

Diplomatic Connections: It is not well known but in many ways, after Ukraine, Belarus is the country most victimized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. What was the impact of radioactive fallout on your country? How does this continue to impact Belarus today?

Ambassador Rybakov: Most of the radioactive elements from the Chernobyl disaster fell on the territory of Belarus. Officially, close to half of the territory of the Republic of Belarus was contaminated, to different degrees. The accident occurred in 1986, and those were the last years of the Soviet Union so everything was shrouded in secrecy. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus was left on its own.

Our government estimates that the consequences of the Chernobyl accident have cost Belarus roughly $235 billion (USD) over the years, and that is a conservative assessment. We have learned to live with this. We have accumulated very rich scientific knowledge and experience, which we have happily shared with the global scientific community notably with the Japanese following their Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Diplomatic Connections: You have areas of your country that are still quarantined, do you not?

Ambassador Rybakov: There are territories where entrance is officially prohibited. We displaced nearly 140,000 people who were evacuated from their homes and will never be allowed to return. However, several thousand people who were evacuated were allowed to return, if they wished to do so. We still have a sizeable number of people who are living in contaminated areas.

We have had to deal with huge financial, economic and human problems. We had to resettle people. And, you have to keep in mind that most of the people who had to be evacuated and resettled were from the rural areas. They were evacuated to cities and towns, which meant that we had to provide jobs for those people, train them with the necessary skills and education to perform new jobs, build new schools and deal with huge medical problems – including many types of cancers.

Diplomatic Connections: May we return to the topic of issues surrounding the break-up of the old Soviet Union? Belarus was one of the territories on which nuclear weapons were emplaced and stored. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) stocks were also in place in Belarus. How were these weapons and materials dealt with at the time that the Soviet Union broke apart? What happened to that nuclear arsenal that was not yours but was stored on Belarus territory?

Ambassador Rybakov: Throughout the Cold War, Belarus had huge stockpiles of conventional and nuclear weapons. When Belarus became independent, it declared itself a neutral country and announced that nuclear stockpiles on our territory would be returned to Russia. The last nuclear missiles were withdrawn from Belarus back to Russian territory in October 1996.

Diplomatic Connections: Did independence from the former Soviet Union have an impact on the presence of conventional weapons stockpiled in Belarus?

Ambassador Rybakov: Belarus is also a part of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. That agreement obligated us to destroy huge stockpiles of conventional weaponry: the most advanced tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery systems and military aircraft. That process was very expensive and time consuming. And we did it largely at our own expense.

I think I am correct in saying that the United States was the only country that helped us financially in this task of disarmament.

Diplomatic Connections: Belarus is moving ahead with what must have been a series of difficult decisions to develop nuclear power as a primary means of generating electricity for a modernizing, developing country that has worked very hard to become a middle income economy. What underlies that decision?

Ambassador Rybakov: The memory of Chernobyl is deeply imprinted on people’s minds.  We made this decision to “go nuclear” only after extensive study and years of patiently working with the population to persuade them that nuclear was the best way to move toward reducing our energy dependence and that the reactor facilities could be built and operated safely.

The first reactor is scheduled to go operational in 2019. It is being built by Rosatom, a Russian company, and construction is being financed through loans offered by Russia. It is the same type of reactor that is already being set-up in several countries in the European Union by the same Russian company – Rosatom. They are in discussions to build plants in the Scandinavian countries, in Asia and in the Middle East. This is the most modern, safest and most secure type of reactor being built in the world today.

Diplomatic Connections:  There is always a great deal of talk about Security Council reform at the United Nations, but Belarus has been very involved in pursuing General Assembly reform proposals.  What would be Belarus’ vision of how the General Assembly could be more effective?

Ambassador Rybakov:  Everybody is always talking about the reform of the Security Council, but the Security Council is just fifteen countries – five permanent members and ten non-permanent members – while the General Assembly is the body that is the United Nations, that should be the United Nations because it includes all member states.  In our opinion, this should be the most important body of the United Nations.

The principle of “one country, one vote” which is enshrined in the General Assembly is very important because it is the cornerstone of the United Nations.  Can it be more efficient, more effective?  Yes, of course.  Belarus has made a number of proposals on how to improve the activities of the General Assembly.  We have been introducing new ideas, new concepts.  We will continue to do that, and hopefully we will make progress through small steps.

Our goal is to make the work of the General Assembly more effective, more efficient.  We will definitely continue those efforts.

Diplomatic Connections: A final question. Imagine that you are in the last diplomatic slot of your career and charged with training the new generation of Belarusian diplomats. What lessons would you draw from your experience that you would want these beginners to know from the start of their careers?

Ambassador Rybakov: Any diplomat must be active and interested in life. That means being interested in anything new that comes up, whether it is computers or foreign relations or the economy.

Professional diplomats will definitely be posted in a foreign country. Even as a Third Secretary, it is necessary to know not only your own country but the history and culture of your host country. The task is to try to explain to other people what Belarus really means and what it stands for. The goal is to make it possible for others to see what the world looks like from Belarus’ point of view and to explain the nature of Belarus’ core interests.

Foreign language ability is a must. So, too, is patience. A diplomat must be able to adapt to living in a wide variety of circumstances. To be sure, it is possible to be posted to places like New York, Geneva or London, but there will also be postings in less accommodating places in Africa or Asia. Nevertheless, it is critical to recognize that, in its own way, each posting is as important as the next. Bluntly, around the world diplomats face a whole new range of threats to their safety and health. Yet, being willing to take those risks is vitally important to the conduct of modern diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Rybakov. You have been exceptionally generous with your time. Our conversation has been fascinating, and we value the insights you have offered.

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