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US orders Russia to close San Francisco consulate
Washington (AFP) Aug 31, 2017

Fictional rogue state becomes online sensation in Belarus
Minsk (AFP) Aug 31, 2017 - A separatist republic invented by the Russian and Belarusian militaries to serve as a fictitious foe in upcoming war games has sparked a wave of tongue-in-cheek support online and citizenship applications.

Minsk said the joint Zapad-2017 drills will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region called Veishnoria, supposedly located in western Belarus and backed by neighbouring European nations.

The major exercises, scheduled for September 14-20, have set nerves jangling among NATO members in Eastern Europe, jolted by fears of an increasingly aggressive Russia.

But in Belarus the reaction to the make-believe insurgent region has been more one of gleeful mockery with thousands of locals jokingly applying for citizenship.

The fictional rogue state is in a part of the ex-Soviet country that has many ethnic Poles and is majority-Catholic. In 1994, the region did not support the long-ruling President Alexander Lukashenko in elections.

Belarusians have set up fake accounts for the rebellious state's foreign ministry and created a page on Wikipedia describing it as a nation where one of the main religions is Pastafarianism.

Veishnoria's foreign ministry Twitter account announced it is accepting citizenship applications and some three thousand people have since applied via a separate website.

"Veishnoria is a diplomatic country without Lukashenko, without Russian troops, and which is friends with its western neighbours," according to an "official statement" posted by the fake Twitter account.

The name of the fantasy state is apparently based on Lithuanian name Vaisnoras, or 'hospitable,' according to Belarusian media.

Political analyst Pavel Usov said that the outpouring of interest in the fictional country was down to a yearning among opponents to escape the stifling Soviet-style rule of Lukashenko.

"Veishnoria for Belarusians is the dream of a normal country," he wrote on Facebook.

The Zapad-2017 exercises have rattled the West, with Lithuania claiming that as many as 100,000 troops could attend and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calling for transparency.

Russia has called them "purely defensive" and said only 12,700 soldiers are set to take part.

Relations between Moscow and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and support for a separatist rebellion in the country.

The United States on Thursday ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco and two other installations in two days, a move Moscow greeted with "regret," as relations between the nuclear-armed powers took another dive.

The State Department said the decision was made "in the spirit of parity," after Moscow in July ordered a dramatic reduction of US diplomatic staff in Russia.

At the start of Donald Trump's presidency in January, the Republican leader said he hoped for improved relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

But after the US Congress approved new economic sanctions against Moscow over its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Putin ordered drastic cuts in US staff in retaliation.

Along with the San Francisco consulate, the installations ordered closed were a chancery annex in Washington, where Moscow has a giant embassy complex, and a consular annex in New York.

"The United States has fully implemented the decision by the government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

"We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries," she added, noting that, with the closures ordered, "both countries will remain with three consulates each."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his "regret" over the move after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him to announce the decision. The pair will meet in September in New York.

"Moscow will examine the new measures announced by the Americans in detail after which our reaction will be announced," Lavrov's ministry said.

The consulate itself called the move an "unfriendly step" by US authorities, and said it would hit Russian nationals "hard."

Last year, the consulate issued more than 16,000 visas to US citizens.

A senior US administration official said on condition of anonymity that the decision would not translate into the expulsion of Russian diplomats; those who work in the buildings to be closed can be transferred to other outposts in the US.

- US warning -

In July, Putin said 755 diplomatic staff -- both Russian and American -- would have to stop work by Friday, September 1, although the US State Department has not confirmed the number.

The number of US diplomatic staff will now be capped at 455, the same number that Russia has in the United States.

It is not clear how many of the US-employed staff losing their jobs will be physically leaving the country, or how many are Russian citizens. The RBK news site cited sources saying that at least 600 are Russian.

"We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better," Putin said when he announced the cuts.

"But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it's not for any time soon."

On Thursday, Washington expressed hope that the two sides "can avoid further retaliatory actions... and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries."

But the State Department warned: "The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted."

- Ball 'in Washington's court' -

Washington-based analyst Boris Zilberman, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned the US to be careful "that this cycle does not spin out of control."

"This should be the last move in this cycle," Zilberman said.

Washington had already announced it would suspend issuing all non-immigrant visas in Russia between August 23 and September 1.

Visa operations at US consulates will remain suspended indefinitely.

Thursday's announcement by the State Department came as Russia's new ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, arrived in the US capital to take up his post, Russian news agencies reported.

"Right now we need to calmly examine (this situation). We should act calmly and professionally," Antonov told RIA-Novosti.

"As Lenin said, hysterical impulses are of no use to us."

Antonov's predecessor Sergei Kislyak is one of the figures at the center of the scandal over alleged Russian meddling in the November election in a bid to help tilt the contest in Trump's favor over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"Russia and the United States will only develop effective cooperation if pressure, blackmail and attempts to force one's will on the other party are removed from their dialogue," Antonov said earlier this week.

"The ball in this game is in Washington's court," he told the Kommersant newspaper before Thursday's decision was made public.

Russia says massive Zapad-2017 drills 'purely defensive'
Moscow (AFP) Aug 29, 2017
Russia on Tuesday dismissed Western concerns over its military exercises with Belarus next month, calling them "purely defensive" and not directed against any specific enemy. "The Zapad-2017 exercises have an anti-terrorism focus as well as a purely defensive character," Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said at a press briefing. He slammed international media for "disseminating my ... read more

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