While Belarusians were discussing the integration plan with Russia, top US official David Hale held negotiations with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey on September, 17. As a result, the two countries announced their decision to renew diplomatic representation and raised the issue of sanctions during the talk. Hale also met the pro-democratic civil society representatives and opposition politicians.
David Hale, United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is the highest-ranking US diplomat who has come to Belarus for the past twenty years. Notably, Trump’s former advisor John Bolton visited Belarus on August, 29.
After the talks, the news about reestablishing diplomatic representation made headlines in Belarus. Earlier, the country cut the US Embassy staff to 5 from 35 persons; in 2008, the states recalled their ambassadors. Thus, the return of ambassadors marks the beginning of a new step in Belarus-US relations after eleven years of the lack of the full diplomatic representation.
“This is a great victory. US ambassador finally returns to Belarus. It is a victory of pro-democracy and pro-independence forces. We talked about the return of the ambassador at every meeting, every conference, at every event, as a first step to withdraw from the self-isolation of Belarus,” Franak Vyachorka, a US-based Belarusian media expert, said on Facebook.
Apart from discussing hot-button issues in Belarus-US relations, Lukashenka used an opportunity to highlight his concern about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
“With regard to the problems of Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, in particular, Ukraine, I am absolutely convinced that this conflict cannot be resolved without the participation of the United States,” he said. “The United States could help resolve this conflict.”
In the course the meeting, the US representative referred to the 2004 Belarusian Democracy Act. Among other things, the Act focuses on violations of democratic freedoms and human rights in Belarus. According to Hale, if the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections turn out to be free and fair, the parties might start considering the issue of lifting the sanctions imposed by the United States in 2006.
The restrictions, a response to the crackdown on the demonstrators protesting against election fraud, had been in force up until 2015. When the majority of Belarusian political prisoners was released in 2015, the US lifted some sanctions. However, several high-fliers, including Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Lidziya Yarmoshyna, are still under the sanctions, as well as some Belarusian companies.
On Tuesday, David Hale also met with the representatives of civil society and opposition and reiterated the US commitment to promoting human rights and democratic principles in Belarus.
David Hale’s visit to Minsk in the middle of the negotiations on the integration with Russia, is indicative of the Belarusian authorities’ multi-vector policy. Moreover, he showed the United States’ understanding of Belarus’ actively developing relations with the US and Russia at the same time.
“I would like to reiterate that by normalizing our relationship, we are not asking Belarus to choose between East and West. The United States respects Belarus’ desire to chart its own course and to contribute to peace and stability in the region,” he stressed in the wake of the meeting with the Belarusian leadership.
Some Belarusians are excited about the two US diplomatic visits within a month, others are concerned over the much-talked program of integration with Russia. Since the Russian media outlet Kommersant published what they called the integration program’s details, there has been a wave of critical comments on the political cooperation’s becoming too close. Despite there is still no roadmap of particular integration measures, Belarus and Russia seem to have taken a step towards even stronger political connection.
At the same time, the reestablishment of the diplomatic relations with the US will bring renew many development programs and initiatives aimed at strengthening civil society in Belarus. Given the current improvement, Belarus might succeed in balancing its dependence from Russia.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu