STOCKHOLM (AP) — Belarus has ordered Sweden to close its embassy in Minsk by the end of the month, a move that comes only days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's regime forced the Swedish ambassador out of the country.
The dispute is the latest in a series of diplomatic spats between Belarus and Western nations, especially European Union states that have taken steps against the ex-Soviet country and its longtime leader, Lukashenko, over its stifling of human rights.
The move comes days after Belarus expelled Sweden's ambassador to Minsk for allegedly irritating authorities by meeting with the country's opposition and providing a university with books containing material about human rights issues. In turn, Sweden said it would not allow entry for the incoming Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm and by asking two Belarusian diplomats to leave the Nordic country.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on Wednesday tweeted that Lukashenko's "fear of human rights (is) reaching new heights," by deciding to also kick out Sweden's six envoys there. "Lukashenko has now chosen to step up the conflict with Sweden even further," he wrote on his blog. "The purpose is most likely to make it as difficult as possible for the various cooperation programs we have (there) concerning — not the least — civil rights and freedom."
In a separate statement, the Belarusian foreign ministry said it viewed its measures as a "principle of reciprocity" since it had had no other choice but to close its embassy in Stockholm after its senior staff there were asked to leave. "Such circumstances make it impossible for the mission to maintain its normal functions," the statement said.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of "Europe's last dictator."
The expulsion also comes weeks after a pair of Swedish activists were reported to have used a light plane to drop hundreds of teddy bears bearing messages supportive of human rights into Belarusian territory.
Lukashenko fired two generals over the incident. Bildt, however, have said there was no word that the teddy bears were linked to the expulsion.