U.S. State Secretary Pays A Rare Visit To Belarus As Ties With Top Ally – Russia – Chill

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 3 February 2020
U.S. State Secretary Pays A Rare Visit To Belarus As Ties With Top Ally – Russia – Chill

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s close ally, visited Belarus, the country once described as Europe’s last dictatorship by the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Pompeo is the highest official who came to Minsk on a visit in more than 25 years and no doubt the move would enrage the Kremlin as it was knowingly or unknowingly designed to signal to Moscow that Minsk has options to seek alternative support from the West both politically and economically.

Welcoming his highest ever U.S. guest in Minsk, President Lukashenko, seemed excited, said he was very glad to meet Pompeo, at least for two reasons. First, you are one of the architects of the modern politics of the U.S.A. “as it is commonly believed here”.

Secondly, it is very good that after various misunderstandings in relations between Belarus and the U.S., completely groundless misunderstandings of previous administrations, you have risked to come to Minsk and see this country. To see what kind of nation it is, what kind of people live here, what kind of dictatorship, what democracy is here, whether it is a lot of it or not much, and so on. Of course, in one day you will not be able to examine all the issues, but you will get acquainted with Belarus tentatively. I want to tell you that it is an absolutely peace-loving country, with peace-loving people. This is induced not only by the mentality of Belarusian people but also the history that Belarusian people survived through

Belarus would welcome a more active U.S. role in the country, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey told a joint briefing with Mike Pompeo in Minsk on 1 February.

"We are interested in having U.S. business here and in more active development of cooperation between various government structures," Makey said, as quoted by state newspaper Belarus Segodnya.

He added that the two countries faced "many common challenges and threats", which they should fight and overcome together, such as fighting terrorism, human and drug trafficking, and ensuring security in the region and in the world.

The Belarus foreign minister believes that Pompeo's visit was of utmost importance and should help a gradual normalisation of the bilateral relations. "The current visit is a clear sign of the intensification of Belarusian-US cooperation," he said, adding that there was political will to develop relations. "This will be aided by the return of the ambassadors to the capitals of the two countries after a 12-year break," Makey added.

He said the sides discussed potential cooperation in the economy, investment and law enforcement. "The parties confirmed their intention to continue dialogue on regional and international security. The parties shared their opinions on the situation in the region and prospects of Belarusian cooperation with Nato," Makey said.

Washington ready to meet Minsk’s need for oil

Pompeo also said that U.S. oil producers are ready to fully supply Belarus with oil at competitive prices, adding that for this some obstacles should be overcome to enable easier access to the Belarusian market.

The secretary of state welcomed Belarus' intentions "to make its own choices". "You should not succumb to any power, you should choose your own priorities and define what is the best for you and our relations," Pompeo said.

Belarus is currently in a row with main ally Russia about oil supplies and Pompeo visited Minsk at a time when the relations between Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko are remaining frosty and tense. The U.S. administration has improved the ties in recent years, as relations between Belarus and Russia soured. The visit comes when the U.S. sanctions, imposed in 2006 amid concerns about the fairness of elections and rights violations, are in place.

Ukraine conflict

In response to a reporter’s question about the U.S. role in a Donbas conflict settlement, Pompeo said that this issue should be resolved by Ukraine and Russia.

For his turn, Makey said that Belarus is willing to do its best "to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine as soon as possible". "We are ready to provide a platform for any meetings and negotiations. We support any formats if they can help resolve the crisis in Ukraine, including with U.S. participation. But for this sincere interest of all the parties involved in the conflict is needed," Makey said.

Top U.S. diplomat meets Belarus rights champs

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a 30-minute meeting with prominent human rights defenders and a language campaigner during his one-day visit to Minsk on 1 February.

Makey added that there were areas of common interest where the U.S. and Belarus could cooperate better despite some disagreements between the countries.

The minister said that the issue of democracy and human rights, which is "sensitive for the U.S.A.", was also discussed in detail. "Belarus may not be a completely perfect country in this regard. But we realise that we need to implement some reforms in certain areas, including the area of improving human rights. We are doing this," he added.

He further added that measures to improve the situation in human rights were discussed with the USA. "It is not a frozen situation. I am sure that we will gradually reach agreement on those positions where we still have disagreements. This will help us to overcome the remaining problematic issues in our relations," the minister said.

The U.S. Secretary of State met Alena Anisim, chairperson of the Frantsisk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society and a former member of the House of Representatives; Ales Byalyatski, chairperson of the Vyasna Human Rights Center; Alyeh Hulak, chairperson of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee; and Syarhey Drazdowski, head of the Office for the Rights of Disabled People.

As Ms. Anisim said, she spoke at the meeting about the importance of promoting the Belarusian language as the foundation of the country’s independence and democratic development. She added that Pompeo said that he had raised the subjects of human rights and independence at his meetings with Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey earlier that day.

Mr. Pompeo is aware of the situation in Belarus and was keen to hear what Belarus' civil society expected from the U.S., said Ms. Anisim. "We noted that we would like the United States to remain committed to the principle of preserving Belarus’ sovereignty and independence," she said. "He confirmed that and said that the U.S. would provide support to civil society."

Hulak told the US secretary of state that it was important to push for stable human rights institutions in Belarus and use dialogue between the two countries on human rights more efficiently. "We said that these issues should be in the spotlight, that the US experience and assistance in the development of such institutions would be useful," he said. "Pompeo noted that he shared the thoughts and that he had discussed that with Lukashenka and Makey."

The jail terms and heavy fines imposed by courts on pro-independence demonstrators were also raised at the meeting. Mr. Hulak reportedly told the U.S. secretary of state that the authorities' tough response to protests against integration with Russia was "difficult to understand".

Byalyatski painted at the meeting a grim picture of Belarus’ human rights situation. "Unfortunately, Lukashenka does not see civil society as a partner even on the issue of independence," he said. "I noted that Lukashenka, on the one hand, said that Belarus would be an independent country and, on the other hand, [the Belarusian government’s] talks with Russia were not open [to the public], non-transparent while pro-independence civil society and political activists were persecuted."

The activists urged Washington to devote more attention to Belarus, according to Bialiacki. "We will see how this will be perceived," he said. "Our message was that Belarus requires more attention in terms of both politics and the development of relations."

Pompeo announced that more staff would be added to the US embassy in Minsk, which would contribute to the intensification of bilateral relations.

Drazdowski reportedly highlighted poor respect for people’s social and economic rights, independent labor unions' problems and the absence of anti-discrimination laws in Belarus.