An Interview with Ethan A. Goldrich, U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Belarus
Ethan A. Goldrich, a career member of the Foreign Service since 1989, has served as the U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Belarus since July 2012. His previous posts abroad include Libya, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Tunisia, Jerusalem and for a short time Iraq. In the U.S., he has worked as the Director of the State Department Office of Caucasus Affairs and Regional Conflicts and Deputy Director of the Office of United Nations Political Affairs. Early in his career, he served as a Staff Assistant in the Bureau of Near East and South Asian Affairs and as a Civil Servant in the State Department Office of Soviet Union Affairs. Charge d’Affaires Goldrich completed his Bachelor’s Degree at Cornell University in 1988 and completed the Weinberg Fellowship Program and received a Master’s Degree from Princeton University in 2001. He is married with three daughters and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I joined the Foreign Service because I wanted to travel and see lots of different places in the world. I have an interest in government, political science, and international relations, and I think the Foreign Service is a great way to learn about a country in depth because you’re living there for years at a time. You learn about the culture and the people, and depending on what kind of Foreign Service work you’re doing, you learn a lot about the politics and economics. We have specialists who do other kinds of work as well: administrative work, consular work, public diplomacy, and commercial work. In our jobs, we prefer to focus on a specific aspect of the country, but all of us in the Foreign Service are having wonderful experiences getting to know a place and making it our home for a few years.
The Politic: You’ve certainly gotten to know quite a few places in your career — you’ve served all the way from Iraq to Libya to the United Kingdom. In spite of the ever-changing location, are there similar challenges or opportunities you tend to encounter in each of the places you serve abroad?
I think [everywhere] the challenge is to move into a new place, learn how to live in the country that you’re serving in, and learn the details of your job and what issues are going to be important. And then settling in and really making the place your home. Also, for our families, if you bring kids with you, [they] have to adjust to new schools every few years. If you have a spouse, the spouse is often the one who has to figure out how to buy groceries or where to get the car fixed. Every time we move around, that’s a new set of challenges. Eventually, there’s a sense of satisfaction when you realize that when you’re out in the city you can stop feeling like the visitor and more like somebody who actually lives in the place.
The Politic: Is there one experience, event, or even person that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies in Belarus, and how so?
Probably the most important experience was actually arriving here and seeing what the country looked like and was about. I think Belarus is an interesting place. When you read about it from a distance, you see that there are many political challenges and human rights issues that are concerns within our government or the European Union. It’s a very two-dimensional view when you read about a place on paper or on the Internet. Then, when you actually see it and you’re living there, there’s much more context to what’s really happening. When I got here, I was surprised to see that this was in many ways a very Europeanized country, and [it has] a lot of history and natural beauty. People are very nice. There are certainly difficult issues between our government and the Belorussian government, but most things outside of that realm have turned out to be much more interesting and enjoyable than people would expect from what they read.
The Politic: The U.S. Embassy in Minsk often sponsors arts-related events, like performances by a Philadelphia hip-hop company in April or by the band PROJECT Trio in May as some of the most recent examples. How do the arts build upon America’s relations with Belarus?
Arts and culture are a very important tool that we have to reach out to people here. We’re a very small Embassy; we have just five Americans that are working here and then a larger local staff, so we have to find ways that we can reach larger numbers of Belorussians. Culturally, we can reach a much larger audience when we bring musical groups here. We’ve also sponsored a production of “West Side Story” done in Russian, and the Embassy helped pay for the licensing rights. Any way we can reach out to people that might not otherwise come into contact with us and touch them with one of the really attractive things about America, our music or cultural offerings, we are able to give them a sense that our country also is about more than what they see on TV, in a movie, or on the news, or what they hear from their government. The culture and the arts are really helpful for us to get across to the Belorussians all the good things about the United States.
The Politic: In the 2012 Global Leadership Report, about 30 percent of Belorussians disapproved of U.S. leadership and 50 percent of them were uncertain about it. In addition to arts and cultural events, what are the most effective steps that your Embassy has taken and can take in the future to raise those ratings?
Unfortunately, we’re working with a country that doesn’t have a free media. They have a lot of restrictions on freedom of expression, including in the media, and the television is state-run on the main network here. So people are exposed to a very narrow view of the United States through state-sponsored newspapers and the media. We have to look for ways to get more information to them about what the U.S. is all about, and we have a lot of tools to do that.
Even though we just have a small number of American staff here, we have very vigorous programs on our public diplomacy side and through U.S. Agency for International Development. All of us would prefer opportunities to connect with Belorussians, but through the Embassy, we’re able to send people to the United States on exchange programs. We can get Belorussian professors teaching at a U.S. university; we can get American professors to come here and teach at Belorussian universities. We have English Language Teaching Assistants here through the Fulbright Program, and we have more senior faculty from America that come here. We send high schoolers to the U.S. on a program for the summer.
We have other ways of reaching out. We also support Belorussian libraries and are able to provide funding and books for a section of English language material that gives people more of a sense of what the U.S. is about. We talked a little bit [about this already], but working with musicians, dancers, or bands reaches out on the cultural side. Sometimes, we’ll form [groups of Belorussians with a similar interest] to send to the U.S. to study a specific subject for three weeks.
We have USAID programs here that are focused on developing civil society. We also work with organizations that work with the disabled here. We work on the trafficking in persons issue. So there are a lot of different ways that we can reach out to Belorussians, through public diplomacy and U.S. Agency for International Development especially.
The Politic: You operate with such a small staff. Belarus markets itself as the last dictatorship, and they decreased the size of the Embassy from 35 diplomats to five after the controversy with the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act. Could you talk about why Belarus views itself as the last dictatorship and how it really feels about that title? And how does your small Embassy staff impact your work?
Our government and the Belorussian government have a difficult relationship, and I think the restrictions on our Embassy came about after we put some sanctions on Belarus in 2006 and 2007. So the 2004 Act you’re referring to is an earlier piece of legislation, and then there were more sanctions in 2006 and 2007, and they led to the Belorussian government retaliating and reducing the size of the staff to five Americans.
I don’t know how they feel about people calling them the last dictatorship in Europe. It’s certainly not a great way for a country to be known. From our perspective, we see that they have human rights problems and democratization problems. We have concerns about how elections are conducted here. Our concerns are shared by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which looks at elections all across Europe and the United States and Canada. The OSCE has concluded that the elections here are not free and fair; there has not been a free and fair election here in a long, long time. The human rights concerns that we have – on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and media freedom – also are what led to the sanctions we imposed.
We’re left with a small American staff, but we have a much larger local staff to help us. I think one thing people don’t necessarily know about how an American embassy works is, around the world, our embassies are not just staffed by Americans, but there’s usually a much larger contingent of people from the host country that work for us. In many ways, they’re the ones that help the Embassy succeed because they carry the institutional memory of what’s gone on in the country and embassy over a much longer period of time than the diplomats who come and go every two to three years as we move onto our next assignments. Our local staff is often here for a whole career.
I think here in Belarus we make very effective use of local staff. They help us sometimes with things that Americans might be doing in a fully-staffed U.S. embassy. [Regarding] a lot of the cultural activities and exchange programs that I was describing, most of the hard work that is done to get those set up is done by local staff. [We stay] in contact with Belorussians who help us understand the society; the local staff often helps make sure that we connect with the right people.
In some ways, when you go from 35 Americans to just five Americans, there are things that you can’t do, so I can’t say we’re doing every single thing that a fully-staffed American embassy once did here. In some ways, that’s too bad, including for our Belorussian hosts, because one of the things we can’t do is fully staff a consular section. We can’t provide visa services the way that we did when we were fully staffed, so Belorussians mostly have to go to U.S. embassies in neighboring countries when they need to visit the U.S. We talk to the government here and often point out that, if they’d allow us to expand a little bit, we’d be able to restore some of the services that people were benefiting from here.
The Politic: In the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, Belarus received a ranking of Tier Two Watch List, so it is at risk of being deemed essentially one of the world’s worst offenders of the U.S. Trafficking and Victims Protection Act. As of right now, how do you think Belarus is going to rank in the 2014 report?
I don’t really want to predict where they’re going to end up. We’ve talked to them about the areas where they can improve to avoid a worse ranking in the report. Belarus actually takes more of an interest in this issue than you might expect. At the U.N., they have played a role in putting together a group of countries interested in trafficking in persons. I think, in a multilateral setting, they’re trying to do some good things on the issue, and it’s more in the bilateral setting that they have problems of their own at home that they haven’t completely addressed.
What we’re hoping to do is see them increase the number of people that are being prosecuted for trafficking in persons violations, increase the protection services that they’re providing and the ease [with which] the trafficking victim can receive protection services, and reduce the bureaucracy or barriers to receiving services, as well as rescind a 2012 decree restricting the ability of workers to leave jobs in the woodworking industry. I think that they’re capable of addressing the concerns that we had in this year’s report. We shared a copy of the report with them and we highlighted the areas where they could address concerns and avoid moving into another category. We have to see how they do over the course of this year, and hopefully they’ll work to continue to improve the situation and respond to some of the areas that we’ve highlighted to them.
The Politic: [Turning to] not only the relations between Belarus and the U.S. but also between Belarus and Russia — by the end of the 1990s, the two agreed to form the supranational Union State. Does the U.S. believe the existence of a Union State benefits Belarus, and why or why not?
Probably it’s not our place to comment on what arrangements sovereign states make between one another in a regional context. What we’re most focused on is that the people of the given country have a role in their government’s decisions to set their international relations. Here, our underlying concerns about democracy and human rights are probably what’s foremost in our minds. Were the people who made these decisions elected fairly and were decisions accepted in a way that people could express approval or disapproval, they have a mechanism to make known what was important to them. I think we’re very strongly supportive of the sovereignty of Belarus as a country.
In the Europe of today, one of our policy foundations is the importance of the sovereignty of countries — that they’re able to function freely and be at peace with one another, and there aren’t barriers in different parts of Europe as there were in the past. So you can see Belarus is very much in the center of that, given its location. It should enjoy the same rights and situations as any other country. But again, the specifics of what their arrangements are with Europe, or Russia, or Commonwealth of Independent States, or the Union State that you were asking about — those are decisions for the individual states to make. As the United States, we interact with the mechanisms that they conceive.
The Politic: Does the U.S. engage any regional partners in its activities with Belarus? Do you cooperate with better-staffed embassies in other countries? You mentioned the cooperation on visas, for example. Are there any other ways in which you draw on your resources in other countries in order to support your efforts?
I think there are two parts to your question. On one side, there’s the other embassies that are here in Belarus from other countries. We have very close cooperation with the European Union in many ways. We see issues the same way the European Union does, especially on the need for democratization and respect for human rights. So we do have close coordination with them. Unfortunately, Belarus still has political prisoners, and both we and the European Union call for the release of the political prisoners as an important first step to improving the relationships. That’s our closest form of coordination with the other countries represented here in Minsk.
I think on the other side of your question, other U.S. embassies are certainly in a position to help our Embassy. Some services are provided to us by nearby embassies. For example, we have U.S. Agency for International Development located here, but their mission office, the people who are in charge of them, are in the Embassy in Kiev because of the restriction on the numbers of Americans here. We don’t have an American USAID officer here. He sits in the Mission in Kiev and comes and goes as possible. [We] Definitely appreciate the support we get from our fellow embassies in Kiev, Vilnius, Warsaw, and sometimes Moscow. Depending on what kind of function we don’t have here, they’re here to help us as well.
The Politic: Could you comment on how you feel America is represented abroad? Are there any elements of foreign policy that you would want to change?
I’m definitely a big fan of the Foreign Service and how we represent the country abroad. We’re a big piece of it. There are many other U.S. government agencies that are present abroad, and I think they’d do a really good job in specific areas of presenting those aspects of how our government is dealing with another country. Private Americans abroad also play a huge role in helping connect us and present our image to other places.
I think, as an Embassy, we have an opportunity to play a role in the policymaking process in Washington. On the issues that our embassy deals with, I think we have a voice in how policy is being formulated and what the policy is toward Belarus. And then once a policy is formulated, our job is to implement it. One of the conditions that we accept being in the Foreign Service is that we’re a service that’s here to implement the policies of the administration and the President. So it’s not usually a question of what our personal proclivities are on broad swaths of foreign policy. We accept it when administrations change, when different parties are coming in and out, that our job is to help them implement the policies that the American people elected them to implement.
If we feel really strongly that something wrong is going on and we should say something about it, we have mechanisms within our service and within the State Department to express dissent. So if an officer has a very strong feeling that they think we should be going in a different direction, there’s a way to express that without experiencing retaliation. That’s the extent to how I would answer that particular question. Really my role as an American diplomat and a Foreign Service Officer and somebody in charge of an Embassy is to help the people in Belarus understand the policies of our government and to help explain things that are happening in the United States to people here and give them more of a context of why we’re doing something.