MINSK -- U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton has called for the United States and Belarus to engage in a dialogue about their common interests, despite “significant issues” in their bilateral relations.
In an interview on August 29 with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Bolton said he had told President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials that “there are significant issues in the bilateral relationship involving human rights and nonproliferation.”
But he said he also thinks that “the geostrategic environment in this part of Europe” and “global threats” should “at least cause us to have a conversation about where Belarus's interests and the interests of the United States coincide.”
“We are going to have to work through these other issues," he added.
Bolton’s brief visit to the Belarusian capital -- the highest-level U.S. government trip to the country in two decades – was part of a regional tour of countries that Moscow sees as part of its traditional sphere of influence. Earlier in the day, Bolton was in Moldova, and before that he spent several days in another former Soviet republic, Ukraine.
Earlier in the day, Lukashenka warmly greeted Bolton, saying that he is looking to open a "new chapter" in relations between Minsk and Washington.
"Since the start of the deterioration of our relations with the United States, we have constantly proposed turning this bad page," he said.
The Belarusian leader, often described as "the last dictator in Europe," added that Bolton's visit would help "create the foundation for future relations" and that he hoped for "frank" discussions on "all issues."
Speaking at a Minsk airport before departing Minsk, Bolton told RFE/RL that his talks with Lukashenka “unexpectedly” lasted more than two hours and covered “a lot of ground,” including human rights.
“We didn't resolve any issues -- certainly, I didn't come into the conversation with the expectation that we would -- but I thought it was a fascinating conversation," he said.
Belarus, which has been under Lukashenka's rule for a quarter of a century, was sanctioned by the United States and the European Union in the wake of a crackdown that followed the 2006 presidential election.
The sanctions prompted Belarus to recall its ambassador from the United States in 2008 and the U.S. ambassador in Minsk left the country shortly afterward.
"I think we are going to talk about the range of sanctions that have been applied to Belarus because of human rights concerns, nonproliferation concerns, and others,” Bolton told RFE/RL.
“And we'll see if we can work our way through those issues. I think it will be an important, difficult conversation, but it's one that's worth having," he said.
Bolton also addressed Belarus’s sovereignty in light of Minsk’s relations with Moscow, saying: "What the people of Belarus want really should determine what their relationship with Russia is."
Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, regional groupings that observers say Moscow uses to bolster its influence in the former Soviet Union and to counter the European Union and NATO.
Moscow has also voiced interest in pursuing a Russia-Belarus Union State, a project that has remained dormant for the past 20 years.
In Minsk, Bolton visited Minsk's Yama (the Pit) memorial where more than 5,000 people from the city's Jewish ghetto who were killed on March 2, 1942.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton visited the Yama memorial, dedicated to the Minsk Ghetto prisoners executed on March 2, 1942. Advisor Bolton paid respects to the victims of the tragedy and those Americans who survived or lost family during the Holocaust in Belarus. pic.twitter.com/ukCQWgJeMU— U.S. Embassy Minsk (@USEmbBy) August 29, 2019
Bolton flew to the Belarusian capital on August 29 after visiting Chisinau, where he met with Moldova’s Moscow-friendly President Igor Dodon and pro-Western Prime Minister Maia Sandu.
During the visit, he voiced support for the government's anti-corruption moves and the “sovereignty and independence” of Moldova, which has a territorial dispute with its Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transdniester.
On August 28 in Kyiv, Bolton praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s “commitment to real reform to benefit the Ukrainian people."
The United States has been a supporter of Ukraine since Russia annexed its Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and started backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.