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Julie Fisher, First U.S. Ambassador To Belarus Since 2008, Awaits Travel To Minsk

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's talk now about the future of U.S. relations with a small country that loomed very large in the news last year - Belarus. You may recall, that country weathered a disputed presidential election, which led to massive street protests, protests that were brutally crushed last summer and fall, which means, for now, strongman Alexander Lukashenko remains in power in Belarus. It's a strategically vital country between Russia and our NATO allies, often called Europe's last dictatorship. And it is into this minefield that the next U.S. ambassador to Minsk is headed. Her name is Julie Fisher, and she's on the line now from the State Department.

Ambassador Fisher, welcome.

JULIE FISHER: Thank you very much. It's a real pleasure to join you today.

KELLY: I want people listening to know you will be the first ambassador to Minsk in 13 years. We've had diplomatic relations, but no ambassador on the ground. When do you fly?

FISHER: It is a particular challenge to think about returning an ambassador to Minsk, given the current situation as you've outlined it. We had spent many years working to rebuild a positive bilateral relationship, which is really - it's difficult in the absence of ambassadors in each other's capitals. This is - this is a challenge. I have been hoping to land in Minsk since the new year. I was confirmed at the end of December by the United States Senate. But at this point, have not yet been able to travel to Minsk. The United States, for our part, we are ready. I have been ready, and we are waiting on the Belarusian side to take the appropriate actions.

KELLY: And what do they need to do? Do you need a visa? How does it work?

FISHER: I need a visa.

KELLY: Yeah.

FISHER: (Laughter). And I do not have that yet. But, you know, for our part, the United States will not simply sit idly while we hope for a visa, but I will engage very directly. I'm going to leave this weekend, and I'm going to travel to Vilnius and to Warsaw, where I will engage directly with those allies you just mentioned who are so concerned, who share our concerns about developments in Belarus.

KELLY: Will you be meeting with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader who says she won the disputed election last year?

FISHER: I absolutely will be meeting with Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya and her team. I would note that Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya - Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya really, you know, has been clear about her role. And it is not necessarily that she defines herself as having won the election - because the fraudulent way in which that election was conducted, we actually don't know what the results were. She - it is widely believed that she would have won the elections had the results been fully and properly counted. She really sees herself as the leader of the democratic forces of Belarus.

KELLY: Let me ask you a couple of pointed questions, which may or may not make it easier for you to get that visa from the Lukashenko regime. You're saying you're going to go meet with Tsikhanouskaya, who is in Lithuania. Again, as we've noted, she says she won the election. Lukashenko disagrees. He declared himself the winner. She's been forced into exile. So I need to ask you, who is the legitimate leader of Belarus?

FISHER: When it comes to Belarus, this is a - this is a complex question. Legitimacy, it seems to me, is something a leader earns. And given the conduct of the elections last August, Alexander Lukashenko does not enjoy the legitimacy that an election would confer. There is no question about this, and it is quite true that Tsikhanouskaya earned a great deal of credibility during that campaign and as many believe those results would have shown. There can be no question that Alexander Lukashenko remains in power and is in control of the government in Belarus. But there is a difference between legitimacy and the exercise of power.

KELLY: So who does the U.S. recognize as the legitimate leader of Belarus? Are you telling me that, at this point, nobody?

FISHER: Well, at this point, you know, there is - the question of legitimacy is not one that we certify by the United States. The fact is we recognize the authorities in Minsk as being in control of the government. We do not recognize that he won the election in August.

KELLY: I mean, there's some just practical issues here. If you're going to Minsk as the U.S. ambassador, the long-standing protocol, that that means you present your credentials to the leader of that country. Will you, when you get this visa, present your credentials to Alexander Lukashenko?

FISHER: It's an important question and one we have spent a great deal of time considering. I'll tell you that from our perspective, in order to consider that presentation of credentials to Lukashenko and, therefore, conferring some amount of both recognition and legitimacy to his role, there must be an acknowledgment of an appropriate role for diplomacy in Belarus.

KELLY: Right. And I'm asking about the credentials because it kind of crystallizes what is this really complicated dilemma. You know, if you present your credentials, you're legitimizing him as the leader of Belarus. If you don't, it's not clear to me how you're going to be able to perform your duties there.

FISHER: So the question, I think, for us is one that we can truly only assess when I am on the ground. What has traditionally been a very pro forma, diplomatic exchange of papers in most countries in most cases is something that, really, I could only assess after being on the ground.

KELLY: You also - part of your job is explaining this region to Americans. So let's take a little bit of a step back because you know this region so well. You've already served in posts in Moscow, in Tbilisi, in Kyiv. Take on the - it's the old question, but the, why should Americans care about Belarus? What is the strategic importance of Belarus to the U.S.?

FISHER: Belarus is at the center of Europe. It is a country of 10 million people with tremendous potential. You referenced the posts that I've served in in the former Soviet Union. I have watched each of these countries and the people of those countries truly struggle with the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here we are 30 years later, and each one of these countries has had its own experience. And each of these experiences creates economic opportunity for the United States. It creates both opportunity and issues to focus on with regards to the security of the United States and that of our allies. And ultimately speaking, this is a country that has traditionally played an absolutely critical role as we think about European security. And as I think about how central Europe's security is to the security and prosperity of the United States, Belarus is an absolutely critical part of that.

KELLY: Julie Fisher - she is headed, as soon as she gets a visa, to Minsk, Belarus, as the first U.S. ambassador there in more than a dozen years.

Ambassador, thank you. Good luck.

FISHER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.