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US, Belarus plan to restore ambassadors after 11-year freeze

September 18, 2019

The rapprochement comes as Belarus seeks to ease its isolation in the West and balance its close ties with Russia. The US and Belarus withdrew their ambassadors in 2008.

Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko
Image: imago/Russian Look

The United States and Belarus are planning to exchange ambassadors after an 11-year freeze.

US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday in the Belarusian capital Minsk as the two sides look to patch up relations.

Read more: Belarus strongman Lukashenko marks 25 years in power

"Our meeting today marks an historic juncture in US–Belarus relations," the United States' number three diplomat said. "It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship."

The United States recalled its ambassador to Minsk in 2008 after the former Soviet state ordered a reduction of diplomatic staff at the US Embassy in response to sanctions leveled by Washington against Belarus over its human rights record. Since then, both countries' embassies have been led by chargés d'affaires.

East and west

Often called "Europe's last dictatorship," Belarus has been targeted by Western sanctions over the country's poor human rights record and lack of free elections.

But Lukashenko has sought to build better relations with the United States and European Union as he seeks to manage relations with Russia while easing its isolation in the West.

Washington and the European Union eased sanctions on Minsk in 2016.

Artyom Shraibman wrote last year for the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank that Belarus is increasingly "pursuing a balanced, multivectored foreign policy" that seeks to balance ties between Russia and the West.

Russia and Belarus formed a nominal "union" in 1996 and have close economic and military cooperation, but they continue have disputes over energy prices and import duties.

The 65-year-old Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he has sought to preserve Belarus' sovereignty and independence at a time Russia is pressing for even closer ties between the two sides.

Meanwhile, the United States has sought to reduce Russia's influence over its neighbors. 

Hale said the United States was not asking Belarus "to choose between East and West" and respected the country's desire to "chart its own course."

The US-Belarus rapprochement comes as Russia has increased pressure on Lukashenko to deepen ties between Minsk and Moscow. 

There has also been speculation that Putin may consider reviving the Union State of Russia and Belarus project as a means to extend his presidency. He is currently constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024, but serving as leader of a new, unified Belarusian and Russian state could be a way to skirt that limitation.

Lukashenko has dismissed talk of a unified state. 

cw/se (AFP, AP)

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