MINSK -- The United States and Belarus plan to resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus amid mutual growing concern over Russia's foreign-policy adventures.
"It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said on September 17 during a meeting with Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey in Minsk.
The announcement followed Hale's meeting earlier in the day with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for a quarter-century, and comes amid more frequent meetings between Washington and Minsk officials over the past few years. Last month, then-U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton made the first visit by a high-ranking White House official to Belarus in two decades.
The two countries began to reconsider their frosty relationship after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising concerns about Belarus's territorial integrity.
"Lukashanka is probably a bit more nervous about Russia since the seizure of Crimea," Steven Pifer, who held talks in Minsk in the early 2000s when he was then deputy assistant secretary of state, told RFE/RL. "He would like to build some connections to the west just to give himself some balance vis-a-vis Russia."
Russia is Belarus's largest trading partner and props up its smaller neighbor's economy with cheap energy.
Moscow has been seeking to revive two-decade-old plans of a union state between Russia and Belarus that some analysts fear could result in Minsk losing much of its political independence.
The Kremlin has also been pushing to host an air base in Belarus after NATO expanded its presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russia.
Belarus has shown little appetite for either the union or the military base.
The United States "remains committed to a sovereign, independent Belarus with a prosperous future for the next generation," Hale said.
He added that Washington "also welcomes Belarus's increased cooperation on issues of non-proliferation, border security, economic cooperation, and information sharing on matters of shared security."
Washington and Minsk have had poor relations nearly ever since Belarus, a republic of 10 million, won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lukashenka won elections 1994 and has ruled the country in an authoritarian manner ever since, aligning his country with Russia.
The United States and the European Union sanctioned Belarus after Lukashenka cracked down on opponents following the 2006 presidential election that Western observers declared neither fair nor free. Lukashenka won with 84 percent of the vote.
In retaliation for the sanctions, Belarus recalled its ambassador from the United States in 2008. The U.S. ambassador in Minsk left the country shortly afterward.
But the annexation of Crimea jolted both sides to seek ways at breaking the impasse.
The United States reestablished defense attaches with Belarus in 2016 as one of the first steps toward full diplomatic relations, Michael Carpenter, who was a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense at the time, told RFE/RL.
Russia's action represented "a crossing of a red line that was unacceptable and that set a very dangerous precedent for other countries in the former Soviet space," said Carpenter, who is the senior director of the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the same time, the U.S. policy of the past 11 years of refusing to engage with Belarus had "not led to any improvements on the human rights side of the equation," the analyst said.
"By engaging Belarus more deeply -- diplomatically, but also economically, politically and militarily -- we have more leverage to increase the space for civil society," he said.
Lukashenka told Hale he was "pleased" to see that Washington had "finally" turned its attention toward Belarus.
In a veiled swipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian state media, Lukashenka said he disagreed with those that "often accuse" the United States of being the source of the world's problems.
"We clearly understand that it doesn't happen in life that one person is responsible and all others are as pure as snow," the Belarusian leader said, according to the presidential website.
Lukashenka added he would not allow intermediate-range missiles to be deployed in Belarus after the collapse of a landmark arms control treaty between Moscow and Washington for the purposes of "complicating" the situation in Europe.
Belarus Economic Dependence
Belarus can’t stray far from Russia though.
The country is heavily dependent on cheap Russian energy to keep its outdated economy afloat.
Belarusian refiners buy Russian crude at a discount and export the resulting oil products at market prices, earning a substantial profit. Refining accounts for a large share of the Belarusian economy.
Moscow is taking steps to increase the price of crude oil it sells to Belarus as part of a larger overhaul of energy taxation, a move some see as a means for Russia to put greater pressure on its smaller neighbor.
In response, Belarus hired a Washington-based firm to help lobby the White House for an end to sanctions so it could import U.S. crude.
The United States temporarily suspended sanctions against the Belarusian oil industry in 2015 after Minsk permitted election observers into the country. However, the suspension has to be renewed every six months and is set to expire in late October.
Carpenter called the Belarusian move to buy U.S. oil a "PR campaign" designed to send a message to the Kremlin about raising prices.
Belarus, he pointed out, could buy oil from any other exporting country to replace Russian oil.
Nonetheless, the diplomatic opening could result in more U.S. investment in Belarus, especially in the tech sector, and serve the long-term interests of both countries, Carpenter said.
Some Democratic Change?
Hale said that Belarus needed to improve its record on democracy to bring a "further easing" of U.S. sanctions.
Minsk appears to be taking some steps to do so. Lukashenka has also released some political prisoners in the past few years.
A day before Hale's visit, the Belarusian leader said that "genuine opposition parties" should nominate candidates for the parliamentary elections.
Belarus will hold parliamentary elections in November and presidential elections next year.
Lukashenka "was not saying those sorts of things in the late 1990s and 2000s," said Pifer, because Russia wasn't much of a concern to him at the time.
"It is noteworthy that Lukashenka is saying things like that, but of course we have to still test him," the former U.S. diplomat said.