Bolton’s visit to Belarus: new stage in Belarus-US relations?

On August 29, the US national security adviser John Bolton paid a visit to Belarus. It became the highest level diplomatic visit of the US government representative to Belarus for many years. Highlighting the importance of human rights and non-proliferation, Bolton also touched upon Belarusian independence and sovereignty while talking to the Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei.

What was Bolton’s visit about?

In the interview to the Current Time, Bolton expressed desire to find common goals and interests for Belarus and the US considering different emerging global threats. Bolton highlighted the importance of human rights issues in Belarus and nonproliferation as the focus of conversation with Lukashenka and Makei. At the same time, the meeting that lasted for more than two hours covered many other topics. As Bolton noted shortly after the meeting, the parties “didn’t resolve any issues” but had a “fascinating conversation”.

Stressing human rights as one of the central topics during his visit to Belarus, Bolton, however, did not meet with any of the representatives possessing an alternative point of view on human rights in Belarus.

29 August 2019. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, phot.

Anticipating the meeting with Bolton, Lukashenka said:

I suggest we have an open and friendly discussion on all our relations issues. They may be unpleasant for Belarus but they need to be identified. I will also openly and frankly present the issues that I believe are necessary for our future cooperation.

As during his trips to Moldova and Ukraine that preceded his visit to Belarus, Bolton expressed the US government’s support for the country’s independence and sovereignty. At the same time, Bolton believes that “what the people of Belarus want really should determine what their relations to Russia are”.

The neutral position of official Minsk on Crimea, peace-keeping intentions of Lukashenka during the Ukrainian conflict as well as warmer relations with the EU have presented Belarus in recent years as the country keen on increasing its cooperation with the West and defending its sovereignty.

Arsen Sivistky

The expert Arsen Sivistky, Centre for the Strategic and Foreign Studies, believes that “while Belarus is ready to defend its sovereignty and independence, the US, in its turn, is ready to work with the official Minsk, even with Aliaksandr Lukashenka”.

After the visit of Bolton to Belarus, Reuters reported that he canceled the meeting in Poland. Belarusian analyst Dzianis Meliantsou believes that Lukashenka might have played a role in Bolton’s cancelled visit to Poland where Bolton supposedly had to sign the agreement on the “Trump” military base in Poland.

Belarus-US relations at a glance

Bill Clinton visiting Minsk (1993)

Belarus-US diplomatic relations have been deteriorating since 1998. More than 100 Belarus officials were banned from entering the US in 1998. It started just a few years after Belarus got its independence from the Soviet Union. The US administration proceeded with personal sanctions following violent repression against peaceful protesters in 2006 and 2010.

The conflict reached its peak in 2008 when Belarus and US recalled their ambassadors following Belarusian governmenr order to cut down the US Embassy staff in Minsk from 35 to 5. Since then the ambassadors have been replaced by the Charge d’affaires.

Lukashenka’s decision to release the majority of political prisoners in 2015 was met by the US with positive approval. Thus, the US lifted the majority of sanctions form Belarusian enterprises, as well as some personal sanctions. At the same time, Lukashenka, Yarmoshyna and some other officials related to mainly human rights violations in Belarus still fall under the personal sanctions of the US. In 2019 the Belarusian MFA announced that there are no more restrictions on the number of US diplomats working in Minsk.

Overall, during the 2018 and 2019 Belarus accepted at least five diplomatic visits from the US. Bolton’s meeting with Lukashenka and Makei looks like an introductory meeting to the new stage of the Belarus-US relations. Although the diplomatic visit of Bolton to Belarus clearly demonstrates the interest of the US to the region’s security, the meaning of Bolton’s meeting in line with the trip to Moldova and Ukraine should not be overestimated.

Andrei Yahorau

Andrei Yahorau, the Centre of European Transformation, comments for Belsat:

It’s too early to talk about normalization of relations. Ambassadors are not working yet, this conflict is not solved. And it’s unclear what the perspectives of the relations are as there are no particular projects of cooperation.

While in Belarus, Bolton also visited the Yama (The Pit) memorial — the site commemorating the Ghetto victims of March 2, 1942. Lukashenka sent greetings to Trump over his victory in the election as well as Belarusian presents to Trump and Melania.

Alesia Rudnik