On July 25 the Belarusian militia searched the apartment of the Second Secretary of the Latvian Embassy, Reimo Smits, ostensibly as part of a campaign to uncover the distribution of pornographic materials in the Savetski district of Minsk. The incident sparked a diplomatic scandal that has yet to be resolved. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded an explanation and an apology for the search and sent an investigator to Minsk to ascertain what had occurred. He found nothing that suggested any wrongdoing on the part of the diplomat. How does one explain this event and if it was a provocation on the part of Belarus, what lies behind it?
The official explanation is as follows. The Savetski district has become notorious for the dissemination of “extremely explicit” pornographic materials, and the Belarusian authorities have been concerned that such materials, including tapes and magazines, are finding their way into the hands of young people. The militia was instructed to find the centers of dissemination and detain the traders of the materials, as well as confiscate pornographic products. “Evidence and interrogations” led to an address of a Latvian businessman called “Gleb.” In mid-June, the militia detained a young man in Kulman Street in possession of a pornographic video. The man claimed that he had bought it from another man (“Gleb”) living in the same street.
The Prosecutor’s Office then issued an order to proceed urgently. According to the local housing service agency, the apartment specified by the detained man had been unoccupied since 2005. On July 5, Belarusian citizen “K” visited the apartment. By this time the authorities had hidden cameras in the rooms and “K” and the occupant of the apartment were filmed watching a video and then engaging in copulation. The militia then broke into the apartment and discovered videocassettes and DVDs depicting “sexual orgies — in general homosexual orgies.” When the search was over “Gleb” was asked to show his passport or some other form of ID but complied only after an hour. He was revealed to be the Second Secretary of the Latvian Embassy Reimo Smits. The militia then stopped the search, apologized to the diplomat for the intrusion, and left the premises.
However, the Belarusian explanation lacks consistency. Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau claimed that the incident was about pornographic materials. But after the exposure of the diplomat, Belarusian Television ran the entire incident on national television on July 30-31, having warned viewers beforehand that the program was only for viewing by “very mature and tolerant people.” The issue became less the materials confiscated than the exposure of a foreign official engaged in a homosexual act, in other words a typical Soviet-style exposure familiar in the days of the Cold War. The apology to the diplomat was eclipsed by the public filming and use of his name. The TV program also made reference to the detention of a Czech diplomat, Pavel Krivohlavy, in January 2005 while drinking alcohol with a 17-year old boy and concluded with the comment: “The law is violated by representatives of those countries that like to teach Belarusians democratic values most of all. It occurs in the best traditions of double standards. They teach us and spit on the law.”
The Latvian Foreign Ministry stressed that the search was a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention pertaining to diplomatic behavior. The cassettes confiscated contained six-year old recordings of Belarusian news reports, according to the Latvian investigator. Further, the apartment was registered legally. Smits was well known in Minsk for his cooperation with leaders of the opposition, among which the United Civic Party has condemned his exposure. Homosexuality is legal in Latvia (it is outlawed in Belarus), and what a diplomat does in the privacy of his apartment is his own affair.
However, some qualifications to these remarks have surfaced in the Latvian media. Given the nature of the Belarusian regime and its sensitivity to outside influences and clampdown on its own opposition, was it wise to send an openly gay diplomat to Minsk? Another source wonders why Latvia chose to resolve the issue in terms of its bilateral relations with Belarus rather than referring the issue directly to the EU. Latvia served as the EU presidency’s representative in Belarus until July 1 (representing Austria). The EU response to the incident to date has been muted. Smits left Minsk hastily, causing more glee among Belarus’s official media. Latvia has expelled the First Secretary of the Belarusian Embassy in Riga, Dzmitry Kayushkin, and recalled Ambassador Maira Mora from Minsk on August 2.
Latvia must now await an apology from Belarus that is unlikely to be forthcoming. Belarus in turn managed to divert attention from the trial of the election observers of Partnerstva group and used yet another opportunity to denigrate a foreign diplomat on national television. Its overtly illegal action perhaps exploited some naivety on the part of the Latvian Foreign Ministry, which recently annulled visa fees for Belarusian citizens and has been at the forefront of the movement to bring democracy to Belarus.
(Radio Praha, January 21, 2005; Belarusian Television, July 30 and 31; Belapan, August 1 and 8; Narodnaya volya, August 2; Kommersant, August 4; Belarusy i rynok, August 7; Charter-97, August 8; and BBC Monitoring of Diena, July 31; Riga Neatkariga, August 1 and 2; Telegraf, August 7; Latvijas Avize, August 9)