Normalizing US-Belarus relations: Mike Pompeo due in Minsk

The US State Secretary Mike Pompeo is expected to meet with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February, 1. The upcoming event might be regarded as the highest-level US official’s visit in the last 26 years: as far back as the year of 1994, the then US President Bill Clinton arrived in Minsk.

In the context of public discussions around the country’s independence, oil disputes with Russia, the talks might focus on sovereignty rather than democracy or human rights. However, in light of the current political situation in the US, it is highly likely that the core of Pompeo’s diplomatic tour will be placed on Ukraine.

Is Belarus in focus?

Although the visit appears to be important for the Belarus-US relations, the significance of it should not be overestimated. Many see Pompeo’s trip as an attempt to secure Trump’s position before the Senate trial initiated after the telephone conversation of Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky in the summer of 2019.

On January 30, Pompeo will head to Kyiv, where he is to meet with the Ukrainian leader. On February 1, the US State Secretary will spend a few hours in Minsk and then fly to Kazakhstan. Initially, the diplomatic tour was scheduled for early January, but later it was deferred to a later date due to the situation in the Middle East.

On January 6, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the need for strengthening cooperation over the telephone. Pompeo spoke up for Belarus’ territorial integrity and sovereignty; Makey, in turn, expressed support for the United States in the wake of the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The official statement by the US Embassy reads that the goal of the visit is ‘to underscore the US commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus’ aiming to normalize relations of the countries.

US message to Minsk?

Mike Pompeo is not the first US diplomat to put an emphasis on the issue of sovereignty when communicating with Belarusian officials. In the autumn of 2019, John Bolton and David Hale had the same message to both the Belarusian government and the opposition. If compared to that of the past, the recent development of Belarus-US relations happens to be a very significant step. In 2008, the countries recalled their ambassadors as a result of the growth of tension. Only in 2018, the relationship started to normalize; a number of diplomatic visits being increased.

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

Pompeo’s visit to Belarus will be taking place in the context of the threat to Belarus’ independence and sovereignty since Russia has been pushing for the two countries’ further integration. In December 2019, Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka were about to sign the road maps. However, as they failed to agree on several issues, the documents were not approved. Russia continues to blackmail Belarus saying that closer economic cooperation is possible only in exchange for deeper integration.

Following the oil disputes with Russia, Belarus made steps towards securing alternative oil sources in Norway. Finding alternative energy sources, Belarus can decrease its dependence on Russia in both economic and political firld. During his recent visit to Shklou, Lukashenka not only confirmed the readiness of Belarus to diversify energy sources, but also highlighted a pro-independence position of the current government.

“We have our interests, our state with its people, and we must protect them at any cost,” he said.

The integration talks caused protests in Belarusian cities, the biggest of which was held in Minsk on December, 20. As a result, more than 60 people were fined or detained, the organizer of the anti-integration protest Pavel Sevyarynets was charged twice.

Minsk, 7 December 2019. Photo: Viktor Drachev / TASS / Forum

Despite US commitment to democracy in Belarus reflected in Belarus Democracy Act 2004, the issues of sovereignty, independence, and economic cooperation will probably be on the agenda of the meeting of Pompeo and Lukashenka. Political analyst Artsyom Shraybman believes that the Belarusian leader would likely try to shift the dialogue to Belarus sovereignty threatened by Russia. According to him, the word ‘democracy’ disappears from the statements made by US officials who have lately visited Belarus.

“They all come with the support of prosperous, stable, and independent Belarus,” he said.

At the same time, one should not expect US close cooperation with the Belarusian government as the latter openly violate human rights. Opening to the US would imply that Lukashenka should release pressure on civil society activists and opposition forces. This is a step that the Belarusian president will hardly take.

Although Lukashenka is mindful of potential risks and threats to his power from economic liberalization, he is open to changes in some areas, such as further developing the IT sector, privatising non-strategic state-owned enterprises and increasing trade with EU countries, experts John Lough and Katia Glod said in an article for Chatham House.

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Alesia Rudnik,